Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PARX Re-Emerges On Contest Circuit

The year was 2008 -- the last time a live thoroughbred horse racing venue in the City of Brotherly Love hosted a handicapping tournament.

Photo by Eric Kalet
Back then, the place was called Philadelphia Park.

Under its fresher brand today, Parx Racing and Casino this Saturday, March 28, will host its first handicapping contest in seven years.

Registration for this $100, zero-takeout event runs now through 12:15 p.m. on track and from one of Parx's five "Turf Clubs" across the region.

Saturday's contest is not an NHC, Horse Player World Series or Breeders Cup Betting Challenge qualifier, but strictly offers cash and other prizes.

"The hope is that we can build interest in these contests again and get back to the sort of contest that has the higher entry fee necessary to cover the costs of the NHC entry," emailed Beth Coale, Phonebet manager for Parx Racing.

"Right now," continued Coale, "we are taking all the entry fees and awarding them back as cash prizes, which should appeal to our local players."

Future NHC Venue Hope...

When I first started blogging 4-5 years ago about my weekend pursuit of a National Handicapping Championship (NHC) berth, on-track handicapping contests were few and far between, outside of a handful of spots through my local track (Monmouth Park) and a few each at area NYRA tracks.

Until the emergence of online qualifying sites such as and recent surge in on-track qualifying tournaments at Monmouth (now offering nearly 30 NHC "seats," up from 4-6 just a few years back), it seemed as if Jersey-based NHC Tour members had far fewer shots than others at the $2 million-plus NHC held each January in Las Vegas.

However, and despite our inability in New Jersey to qualify for several ADW-sponsored NHC seats via and, Garden Staters have a seemingly bigger menu of "drive-able" contest venues.  All are not NHC qualifying contests mind you, but the list includes the Borgata in Atlantic City, Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and, now, Parx Racing and Casino.

...And Business Booster To Parx

In my opinion, the handicapping contest circuit is a clear pocket of strength in the thoroughbred racing industry and one that is grossly underplayed by the media.

January's NHC paid more than $2.6 million of prizes, while contests such as the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge have been highlighted on television shows such as Horseplayers.  

There are others less publicized within the industry but well known in NHC Tour circles, such as the Sept. 26-27 Big One at Laurel Park in Maryland, which anticipates paying nearly $400,000 of cash and prizes.

Less than 60 miles from my Jersey Shore-area perch, Parx's recognition of the value of on-track handicapping tournaments is appealing on two fronts:

  • potential NHC venue down the road in a highly populated region
  • a means for Parx to promote live racing at its own track, which (based on Dairy Racing Form data) attracted just 3%-8% of total daily handle from March 17-24.

"I like the idea of promoting interest in our live product," emailed Coale, when asked whether incorporating outside tracks as Monmouth Park does with its Simulcast Series Challenges was considered.

"Our horse population has been well rested by this brutal winter and we're ready to put on some very competitive race cards," said Coale.

Even without live racing, however, handicapping contests increase business for simulcast facilities, including Monmouth Park, where a source was "safe in saying" to me that Monmouth's handle on contest days is about 25% higher than the simulcast handle when there is not a contest taking place on track.

Parx Contest Details

Saturday's total racing menu is robust and features 2014 Pennsylvania Derby contestant and Horse of the Year California Chrome in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the morning, and a key Triple Crown prep, the Florida Derby, in the late afternoon.  These headline races sandwich what appears to be a very playable 9-race live program at Parx, which kicks off at 12:55 p.m. ET.

Participants in Saturday's $100 buy-in tournament ($60 bankroll and $40 toward the zero-takeout prize pool) must play at least 7 of Parx's races, with minimum $2 win, place and/or show wagering required and the option to bet multiple horses per race.

Parx anticipates attracting 200 entries across its six venues, which would provide a $8,000 prize pool where the winner gets 50% and a 46" Smart TV and Parx pays down to the Top 5.  All players receive a $10 food and beverage credit and should contact Beth Coale at 215-639-9000 (extension 4215) or for further details.

In the event that my wife and kids follow through on their threat for afternoon theater and dinner, making it down to the Philly suburbs to test the waters this Saturday could be in my cards. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Beat By The Hot Hand

Sunday's finale at Gulfstream Park (Race 12) leaves me speculating that I was probably a length away from an enormous payday in Simulcast Series Challenge #3 hosted by Monmouth Park, while at the same time appreciating the recent hot streak of jockey Luis Saez.

Courtesy of Shared iDiz
First, for anyone who has never played in the SSC, it's a $100 "live bankroll" contest where the goal is to accrue a Top 20 bankroll using win, place and/or show wagers only and qualify for the SSC Invitational this April, where the top two will qualify for the 2016 National Handicapping Championship. 

It's an extremely challenging series.

Players must wager at least 10 races (Gulfstream, Tampa and Aqueduct) and at least $10 per race.

Deciding which races to play and when to make plays (and how much) is probably the biggest challenge, with more than 30 races to handicap.

The element of bankroll management is unlike online contests typically based on notional $2 win-place wagers.

Decent Performance

I was 3-for-10 about two-thirds of the way through the contest, running my bankroll to $209 with a 5-to-2 winner at Tampa in Race 5 (Horn Buckle), a winning show bet into a bridge-jumper pool in Race 6 from Aqueduct (Arbitrator), and a $10 win-place score on 12-to-1 Demander in Race 8 from Gulfstream.

As I had met the 10-race requisite to qualify for prize money and a potential seat in the SSC Invitational, technically I could have sat on $209 (in hindsight) to finish within the Top 20 (the 20th-place finisher only ended with $165) and advance to April 25, but at that time on Sunday 20th place was around $250, and based on SSC#1 and SSC#2 figured I needed to finish with at least a $300 bankroll.

Plus, a nearly $11,000 first-place prize was at stake, so it was back to work.

In assessing the outcomes of eight subsequent bets, one could argue I was a little too loose with my bankroll and instead should have made one big play on a shorter-priced horse (say, $100 win-place on a favorite).  

However, I did not have a "sure thing" on my radar and instead stuck to my plan to seek inefficiencies on the tote board.  My $30 of wagers on 6-to-1 and 29-to-1 horses that ran very competitively (finished second of 5 and fourth of 10, respectively) would have really increased my bankroll and secured a Top 20.

Plus, my selections in those spots were based on valid handicapping and not "stabs" at long-shots as players of online "notional bankroll" contests often contend, so I have no regrets. 

Those outcomes probably are moot, however, as the final race proved to be an absolute killer.

It's Luis Saez's World

The jockey theme came up quite a bit for me and in discussion with my counterparts on Sunday.

In my first contest play of the day, I passed on 9-to-1 winner Factory of Faith in Race 4 from Tampa for lack of conviction in rider Keiber Coa, one of the least efficient turf riders in the Tampa colony with just two wins and five top-3 finishes in 30 mounts thus far at the meeting.  

A few tables down, however, Public Handicapper contest founder and SSC regular Scott Carson handsomely profited from such conviction, scoring a $19.80 win mutuel (times 5) and mentioning to me afterward that he had no concerns about Coa, who won in prior mounts for trainer Derek Ryan.  

I continue to ponder Scott's point.

I had the statistics in front of me on when Coa teams up with Ryan, but as a part-time player I watch few tracks daily and generally rely less on favorable jockey-trainer angles and instead prefer pace and a horse's form.  The rare times I select a horse based on jockey-trainer, it is often based on anecdoctal observation of a singular prior race, and so the sample is typically too small for me to incorporate when handicapping.

Fast forward to Race 8 at Gulfstream, where Luis Saez had already won two races on the afternoon (including a 13-to-1 winner in Race 6) and was on Demander, a first-time claim for trainer George Weaver, who had sent nearly 400 runners to the gate since the start of 2014 but only 8 first-time starters off a claim.  

I saw Saez as a favorable angle, but not the lone reason to play Demander, who was claimed by Weaver out of a $50,000 conditional (non-winners of 2 lifetime) and making his 10th lifetime start. 

Rather, I liked instead that not only a above-average trainer who rarely claims horses saw enough in Demander to enter him at a higher perceived level ($25,000 optional non-winners 1x), but that the horse broke his maiden in his lone try on the Gulfstream dirt course and was cutting back to seven furlongs from a mile-plus on turf.  

Demander drew off to win by more than two lengths.

As I clapped jubilantly, a congratulatory Scott came over to discuss the race and I shared my angles, otherwise noting how Saez seemed to be riding.

I did not have the data to back it, but last night, in looking back at races over the last week, Saez won at a 22% clip (10 of 45 mounts) from March 11-17 and had close calls on a few other long-shots, validating my comment two days earlier.  

Unfortunately, for me, one of those happened to be Sunday's contest out-race.

About a Length Shy of a ~$13,000 Payday

In previewing Sunday's card, I intended to avoid Gulfstream Race 12, since 5 of the 14 runners were first-time starters and the samples were small on the other runners.

However, I could not confidently find a horse to bet big or "all in" for races 10 or 11 from Gulfstream in hopes of winning the contest or reaching the Top 20.

Gambler's Ghost had some appeal in Gulfstream Race 11, but was up against a monster in Rock Fall, a Todd Pletcher burner with gaudy sprint figures and the class of the race.  Rock Fall, however, hovered 3-to-5 for the most part and drifted up to even money, which I felt was too short off a 9-to-5 morning line.

My horse took no money off an 8-to-1 morning line but had two 6-furlong wins on dirt (both off a layoff, similar to Sunday's condition), and I speculated could outgun Rock Fall and get confident on the lead.

Rock Fall simply outclassed the field, however, setting me back $40. 

Nearly $70, however, is plenty of bankroll in the SSC contest format, so I dug into the Race 12 past performances.

Well, there was not much to go by, but I immediately crossed off four runners I thought had no shot.

Still, that left another 10 horses to consider.  Yikes!  

A thought did cross my mind to skip handicapping and simply play the "hot jockey" angle, since none of the horses had notable race histories on which to handicap, but the logical side of me thought the horse with Luis Saez, Ascot Girl, looked sub-par on paper -- mediocre workouts, a notable but 2% trainer at the meeting (Michael Matz) and first-time starter breaking from a tough outside post at two turns on turf.  

Oh, and opening odds of 30-to-1 off a 20-to-1 morning line. 

I looked further outside to another long-shot, 20-to-1 Sonoma d'Oro, who in my view had far more attractive attributes and could contend with three lukewarm co-favorites -- a February start that was not too inspiring but gave an experience edge to others, attractive pedigree, two strong turf workouts following the horse's sprint debut on dirt, and an above-average turf jockey, Julien Leparoux.

After the fact, I learned secondhand that veteran clocker Bruno De Julio rated Sonoma d'Oro's aforementioned workouts 4 of 5 stars, noting strength against a "very nice workmate" in one and "worked super" and "beautiful move" in the other.

When the race went off, Sonoma d'Oro was nearly 35-to-1, but I was "all in" with $44 to win and $25 to place, figuring the workouts suggested the horse was sharp, would like the turf (based on pedigree), and had enough time from a tough outside post to get toward the lead into the first turn and stalk to victory.

I'll let you watch the replay to see what happened, but in short, Sonoma d'Oro had every chance to win despite two minor steadies around the course before falling just short in stretch traffic to the onrushing (and 48-to-1) Ascot Girl...with, you guessed it, Luis Saez aboard.

Hindsight's Always 20/20

The silence on the restaurant level at Monmouth Park was deafening of the 50 or so players around me.

Unless someone was devoid of emotion, no one had Ascot Girl .  The final standings suggest that maybe one player (Carlos Delvalle) bet $20 to win on the horse, which paid $99.30 for a $2 bet.

I would posit, too, that I'd have been maybe the only player invested in Sonoma d'Oro.

Needless to say, I was deflated to see Sonoma d'Oro run so valiantly but come up a mere length-and-a-quarter from victory and three-quarters shy of second place, which at 12.5 times the place payout probably would have been enough alone to secure a Top 20 finish.

Missing out on a $1,500 payout at 22 times roughly a $68 win prospective place potentially $11,000 of prize money is a bitter pill to swallow, but I am a firm believer that one race does not make a contest and I could have been a better bankroll manager and more-confident better earlier in the sequence.

The smarter play would have been to invest, say, 50 bucks or my remaining $61 bankroll at the time on Demander, where I had several good angles for playing the horse.  A confident "all in" on Demander would have yielded a $823.50 score, good enough not only for Top 5 overall but hefty prize money as well.

I got gun-shy, not wanting to crap out with plenty of racing to go and remembering SSC#2, where I bet strongly on a horse that did not factor at all.

So is the difficulty of the live-money format, which at times is the direction I think the organizers should go with the NHC, since handicapping is not merely picking the most winners, but rather maximizing profits.

Going for the score was my goal on Sunday (since I am unavailable to play in SSC#4 on April 11 and therefore out of the running for the SSC Invitational), but perhaps I went the wrong way about it.

Another lesson learned for future play, and that lesson is not to simply make bets on the hot jockey.