Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Unsung Stars At Monmouth Park: Q&A with Racing Ambassador Liaison @MonmouthParkKid

The buzz surrounding Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's potential entry to the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Sunday, August 2 has kept Monmouth Park in the racing headlines since the horse's dominant victory in the Belmont Stakes.

Reserved seats to the Haskell are already sold out (fortunately I bought mine last week), and it's safe to say the Haskell would break attendance records if Pharoah is entered, giving our home track much-needed stimulus and a glimpse at an all-time 3-year-old champion.

Although Saratoga remains in play according to Wednesday's Albany Times-Union, Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert has saddled a record-high 7 Haskell winners and owner Ahmed Zayat lives in New Jersey and has expressed interest in running his horse at Monmouth Park.

Whether or not American Pharoah is Haskell bound, throughout the 2015 racing season there are a handful of individuals sharing their love for thoroughbred racing on select weekends (and, unofficially, by appointment) with Monmouth Park's visitors.

Monmouth Park's "Racing Ambassadors"

In its second year, the Ambassador program is a grassroots campaign of volunteers tasked with cultivating new thoroughbred racing fans.

I worked the grounds on Food Truck Saturday and during the Irish Festival, providing patrons interested in learning more about the sport an insider's view of the racing product, from watching horses get saddled and mounted in the paddock, to watching and discussing the race from the Winner's Circle, to instructing folks how to read a racing program and place wagers.

Being an Ambassador is my way of giving back for a few days a season to the sport that gives me much enjoyment, not to mention a great way to engage new fans and get people to recognize all of the effort that goes into the product and why a beautiful place like Monmouth Park is special.

Meet Mike Tacak

This year, the program is spearheaded by fellow racing enthusiast Mike Tacak, a 28-year-old architectural designer and project manager from Bridgewater, NJ, who stepped forward as liaison to track management at a time where the program was in limbo.  Mike goes the extra mile to give fans a great experience, even making it to Monmouth one afternoon where his car was rear-ended on the Garden State Parkway en route to his ambassador stint one Saturday.

Mike and the other ambassadors I have worked with (all younger and very well-informed, and including Brian Lecke and Kevin O'Keefe) are integral in introducing the younger generation to an industry that desperately needs it.

I caught up with Mike (@MonmouthParkKid) for his thoughts on the program and invite anyone planning a day at Monmouth Park to look for any Racing Ambassador in a Navy-collared, logo golf shift to learn more (or contact us in advance; info below), but especially a legend for giving out a $497 winner to some customers.  Read on.

NJ Horseplayer: How long have you been a horseplayer and when did you first get into the sport?

Mike Tacak:  I've been into horse racing since I was 14.  I lived 5 minutes away from Monmouth, but the funny thing is the first track I ever went to was Penn National.  My friend Marky and his father Big Rich used to get fireworks in Grantville (PA).  One year I went with them, and Big Rich is a longtime horseplayer, so he asked if we wanted to go watch the races.  I was so down to go.  Big Rich is my mentor.  He got me in the game and helped me out.  He even cashed a 19-1 future on American Pharoah. 

NJ Horseplayer: What is your most memorable on-track moment (e.g. best winning bet)? 

Volunteer Making a Difference
Mike Tacak, Monmouth Park's
Lead "Racing Ambassador"
Mike Tacak:  2013.  I played a $16 Pick 5 that went 1 x 1 x 4 x 4 x 2.  Got my two singles home and was live (going into the final leg) to $3,000 or $15,000.  Still remember to this day, I had the 3 and 6 (in the finale).  The 6 was the bigger price and they turn for home; neither in the top three, so I'm thinking I'm done. Then the 3 comes flying up to take the lead, and out of nowhere the 6 nails him on the wire.  It was a turf race with (Jose) Lezcano up and nailing (Joe) Bravo at the wire and it paid $15,000 and some change.

NJHorseplayer: How about your worst beat?

Mike Tacak:  My worst ever came at Santa Anita.  I'm alive in the Pick 4 and all are paying commas.  ("Commas" is parlance for a $1,000-plus win.)  I tossed the fave and went 5 deep in an 8-horse field.  Turning for home, I'm golden; the top 4 were my picks.  Then the fave comes storming home.  Well, my horse came out and won but got taken down (by racing stewards) in an inquiry.  If my horse stayed up it would have been an $8,500 ticket.  (Winners got $2,000 to the favorite). 

NJHorseplayer: What compelled you to join Monmouth Park's Racing Ambassador program?

Mike Tacak: I saw a Tweet last year and was like, "hell, that would be fun," especially since I took part in (fan education site) Horse Player Now chats for a few years and would like to attract younger people to the track.  So far the program has been good, but it can be better.  

NJHorseplayer: Any new Ambassador program initiatives in particular that you're hoping to roll out this year?

Mike Tacak:  Mr. (Brian) Skirka (Monmouth's marketing manager) gave me a chance (to run it), and this year I have a lot in store, starting with (us) getting on the live feed and also the TVG feed.  Also, I'm hoping to use a white-board to let people know what we are betting and suggested plays for all types of budgets.  I've got a few other things in the works too.  Stay tuned, and if you do attend (Monmouth) live, look out for one of the Ambassadors and we will be sure to make your time memorable and profitable.   

NJHorseplayer: Profitable?

Mike Tacak:  I've given out a bunch of winners so far, including a $497 dime super (superfecta, where bettors need to select the top 4 runners in order of finish) to a group of "newbies" about 20 years old.  All 5 of them hit.

The ticket was cheap, $3.60.  (After the race) they say "c'mon, Mike, did we win?" Then one girl goes "I think we won." Then she says, "I wonder how much...$10, $20?"  I said they had to wait until the payouts but promised it will be a nice amount, especially with a 9-1 (winner) on top of the super.

Then the prices flash...$497.  They all looked at me and say, "are you serious?!,"  with all 5 of them holding winning tickets.  I take (the one girl) over to the (automated betting) machine.  She drops it in and presses "finish," then looks at me and says a few words I can't say here, while the other 4 jump up and down like they won Mega Millions. Meanwhile, I didn't play the ticket, LOL.

NJ Horseplayer: And the story doesn't end there, does it?

Mike Tacak: Now, they message me on Facebook and always ask if I'm going and (which horses) I like and "can I help them."  Well, here's the best part.  The very next weekend they message me and say they're bringing a few friends.  I get (to Monmouth Park) in the picnic area where they sit and there's about 20 of them, so I hosted a little handicapping seminar.  Now here's the kicker.  The pressure is on since I won them a decent amount of money (the prior weekend) and, well, I lose one race and then lose again.  As I had other things to do, I wrote down my selections (for them) the rest of the day.  All of a sudden this girl comes running up and tries to give me $100 and I'm, like, "no, you keep it, what's this for?"  She says "you just gave us a $200 winner (trifecta) in the 6th race and we all played it."  So I go back to where they were and they are all pumped reading the program and asking questions.  Now I get a message every weekend about my picks and got a bunch of younger 20-something guys and girls hooked.

NJ Horseplayer: And there's more...

Mike Tacak: Last weekend I'm at the Meadowlands and all of a sudden someone taps me on the shoulder and it was one of the girls (from Monmouth).  I was surprised, so I hung out with them all night and helped them with harness racing too.  It is definitely one of the best racing moments as an Ambassador.

NJ Horseplayer: What is the value to Monmouth, or the industry itself, of volunteers pitching in to promote the sport?

Mike Tacak: The value to Monmouth is tremendous.  (The Racing Ambassadors) get nothing but great reviews and comments, and volunteering doesn't hurt (Monmouth Park's) pockets at all and the program is very, very valuable.

NJ Horseplayer: Your dedication's admirable, Mike.  You even fulfilled your commitment after a little fender-bender on the Parkway en route to the Food Truck Festival, yes?

Mike Tacak:  Yeah, I got rear-ended by someone texting (while driving).  I could have just called it a day and gone home, but I had a commitment to go to Monmouth Park for the Ambassador program, hosting a few VIPs in the owner's box.  I was contemplating going home but I couldn't.  I already made a promise to them that I would be there.  Maybe it's just my passion and love for the sport, but nothing can keep me away.

NJ Horseplayer: How has the fan feedback been toward the Racing Ambassador Program? 

Mike Tacak:  Amazing, honestly.  Nothing but rave reviews.  I also built some friendships with a lot of people, some in their 20's all the way up to their 60's.  For example, there is an older lady and husband that go (to Monmouth).  He didn't care to give a listen, but she makes (picking winners) a competition between them. 

Her favorite bet is the 3-horse exacta box.  So, just recently, her husband comes over and asks what I'm teaching her and "can you teach me the same?"  So, obviously, she has been doing a lot better then him.  It's really cool how everyone has their own preference.  Some just want me to pick bets for them, but when that happens I turn the table on them and keep nudging them to pick a horse or 2 and I'll give them 1 and play a exacta or trifecta box.  Some like to bet to win, but I've noticed a lot of newbies like the trifecta.

NJ Horseplayer: What can Monmouth Park do to advance your vision of the Ambassador program?

Mike Tacak:  My vision is someday to be on payroll, LOL.  But I'd like it to really take off and have us their every live racing day.  I'd like to be more visible and have a nice tent out front with a TV and lounge area.  I'd like for Monmouth to believe in us and our value and give us some more things to promote.  I'd like to hold handicapping seminars during a live race.  We have a lot to offer, but we get shut down by the track a lot.  I would like to go on the live feed between every race and promote it...also have a newbie come on the live feed and give a pick out and tell the track how good the ambassador program actually is.  I have many ideas and I'll tell you one thing...I'm gonna put them in action.  I'll fund out of my own pocket.  I just believe this program is really valuable and the track is only using us at 50% and there is a whole lot more we can do.  Getting a home base is key so that (visitors) actually know where to go if they need help, but keep an eye out for us Ambassadors and we will help you out and make your visit to the Shore's Greatest Stretch a memorable one and you will be wanting to come back daily for live racing. 

NJ Horseplayer: Thanks, Mike, and keep up the great work!

Mike Tacak:  Thanks for the interest in me and what I do for the program.  If anyone has questions/comments/concerns, please email me at and I will be glad to help you out.  Once again, thanks, and have a great day and good luck wagering! 


More 4-1-1 on Mike Tacak:

  • Twitter handle: @MonmouthParkKid
  • Favorite Track(s): Monmouth Park, Meadowlands, Saratoga
  • Favorite Wager(s): Pick 4, Pick 5, $0.10 superfecta, trifecta key (1 horse on top of 3)
  • Another Memorable Score:  $3,280 ($328 x 10) payout for a 50-cent Pick 4 ticket from Hollywood Park. "I had just won about $40 on a 10-cent superfecta at the old Meadowlands and put what I won into the Pick 4 at Hollywood.  So I keep looking at the past performances and get a good, strong opinion and went 2 x 1 x 2 x 2 for a 50-cent (base) play and punched it 5 times, and then 5 more times.  All I remember was (jockey, now-retired) Garrett Gomez winning by daylight to cash my Pick 4."
  • Specialty as a Racing Ambassador:  "Teaching them how to read the program and how to break it down easier, and trying to come up with very cheap plays than can (produce) a decent amount of money.  No one wants to bet $2 to win $5.80.  As I stated earlier, I helped a group win $497 and then again about $200.  Also a bunch of smaller wins in the $30-$60 range.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Company You Keep

Just about everyone has given their two cents on American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes.

The "experts" have already spent three weeks dissecting Pharoah's past efforts, pedigree and chances, but the one thing I have yet to find is an analysis of the company that Saturday's 8 horses have kept in the lead-up to a mile and a half on "the Big Sandy" and how that could play into handicapping, and so I delved a little deeper to conclude that, yes, American Pharoah will become the first Triple Crown winner in nearly 40 years.

Readers will note, based on my front-page heading, that I generally look for long-shot value.

Pharoah beat better
I just do not see it in the 2015 Belmont Stakes.

One can talk about pace, track conditions and so forth until blue in the face, but in the end my position is that Pharoah is simply the highest-quality horse in the field that, perhaps, is simply not that great a quality by historical standards.  Only time will tell.

That said, I will keep in all likelihood to small-ante multi-race "exotics" and perhaps a straight trifecta or exacta, in addition to using Pharoah as my pick in Saturday's NHC qualifying tournament at

In my breakdown, I took a look at each runner's "company lines" for each 3-year-old race in 2015, attempting to evaluate the strength of Saturday's field with the "next out" performances of horses in common races earlier this year.  It may seem unscientific, but in trying to find some "underneath" horses for exacta, trifecta and superfecta, I needed to ascertain whether 20-1 Keen Ice (#7), for instance, is a better play than 12-1 Madefromlucky (#3), which I believe to be the case.

Rather than give picks as a public handicapper would, I will give my 1-8 rating of the field:
  • #5, American Pharoah (3-5): I toss the so-so "speed figures" and focus instead on the ease with which he has won 6 of his last 7 races, noting too that the late rally in the Kentucky Derby proved Pharoah can stalk a bit and deal with slow fractions.  I anticipate him sitting second into the final turn and outlasting the others to the wire.  If he gets beat, it'll be late...and brutal.
  • #6, Frosted (5-1): I thought about him again for tomorrow after Kentucky Derby win and exacta bets atop Pharoah (and Carpe Diem), but I think he's distant second-best in the Belmont who gets a strong-handed rider who could coax Frosted enough to get a share.  The Wood field that Frosted beat was sub-par, with only 1 horse entered next-out (Tiz Shea D was 4th in the Grade 2 Peter Pan); but Frosted in the Derby improved over 3 horses who beat him in the Fountain of Youth: Itsaknockout, Upstart and Frammento, so I give a slight edge.
  • #7, Keen Ice (20-1): I generally ignore Kent Desormeaux horses on dirt, since I think his patience is not conducive to closer-type horses, but Ice's 7th-place Derby finish was sneaky good and he exits a Holy Bull Stakes in January at Gulfstream where 3 of the 9 runners won stakes races (Upstart - Florida Derby, Frosted - Wood Memorial, Bluegrass Singer - PARX Derby) and Frammento participated.  Ice's 3rd- and 4th-place finishes in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby were against International Star, a legit one who scratched from the Derby.
  • #4, Frammento (30-1): This is where I think the field gets really bad.  I'll give a pass for all of the bumping he took in the Kentucky Derby and figure he'll maybe sit midpack, perhaps holding on for a piece of the purse.  I just think he's a cut below the top 3, but the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes at least had four other Derby runners and a fifth horse, Classy Class, who came back to win an allowance next out and is in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens on Saturday.
  • #8, Materiality (6-1): I am not as enamored with his Derby effort as others and anticipate he will be the rabbit for the rest before fading into the stretch.  In line with what I have seen others write, I think Pletcher picks easy spots, as borne out in Materiality's company lines.  In Materiality's 3 wins, only 2 horses boast wins since -- at the optional claiming ranks.
  • #3, Madefromlucky (12-1): In my opinion, he would have lost the Peter Pan if not for a poor ride from Shaun Bridgmohan on runner-up Conquest Curlinate.  Two wins against only 4 other horses, including a $75,000 optional claimer at Gulfstream, have me passing on this one.
  • #1, Mubtaahij (10-1): The gaudy $1.5 million of lifetime winnings is inflated by big-money stakes in Dubai, and the Derby effort was nothing to write home about.  I might have given this one a break, having shipped from Dubai just 6 weeks prior to the Derby and perhaps jet-lagged, but Mubtaahij beat up on a South American horse (Ajwad) in his prior two, while the other rival (Maftool) finished 14th in his next out in a Grade 1 in Longchamp.  Pass.
  • #2, Tale of Verve (15-1): Maybe Gary Stevens pulls off a shocker as he did in the Preakness two years ago, but for my money, Tale of Verve's second-place in the Preakness (7-plus lengths behind Pharoah) was smoke and mirrors.  Verve passed a bunch of tiring Derby horses in mud and still has yet to win outside the maiden level.  Two fast works do not obscure the fact that the five horses Verve beat in his maiden breaker are 0-for-30 lifetime.  Pass.
If anyone wants the full spreadsheet of each horse's company lines for 2015, please include your email address in the comment field and I'll have no problem sharing. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Handicapping Contests Drive Business

Monmouth Park has yet to publish its usual press release with official results of Saturday's National Handicapping Championship (NHC) qualifier, but according to the NHC Tour leaderboard page, I finished 21st out of 219 to pick up 578 more Tour Points to land around 200th in the standings.

There's a lot of tournament season to go, but finishing in the Top 150 come season's end would advance my goal to reach a second-straight NHC at Treasure Island come January 2016.

That quest continues this Saturday, with my hard-earned entry in the NHC qualifier; a win would be nice, but building up more Tour Points is becoming a realistic option to advancing to the NHC in Las Vegas, even as a part-time player.

Last week I discussed the NHC Tour points topic and got some interesting feedback.

To recap, I argued that the 2015 NHC Players' Committee needs for next season to reassess its valuation of multi-round on-track handicapping tournaments, specifically Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park.

Data from this past Saturday's contest at Monmouth only underscores my thesis and at the same time validates the parimutuel value to U.S. racetracks of hosting on-track handicapping contests.

The SSC is a $200 buy-in ($100 bankroll and $100 takeout-free prize pool) with 4 rounds of "pre-qualifiers" where the Top 20 finishers in each advance to an "invitational" for two spots to Vegas.

In a break from past years, however, the Players Committee ruled this year that NHC Tour Points would only be awarded to contestants based on the number of SSC Invitational qualifiers (80), rather than a total of entries through the four pre-qualifier rounds (more than 800).

This is a significant difference that could deter NHC Tour members from playing the SSC series.

I, for one, would forgo the SSC again under today's Tour Points structure and budget my money toward online contests with more-favorable NHC Tour points allocations.

I maintain, as written last week, that a) competitors in the 2015 SSC Invitational got stiffed, b) Monmouth needs to leverage its on-track contest circuit lead (30 NHC seats of 600 awarded; most in the country) to endorse change to the benefit of its contest customers, and c) the NTRA should be on board with this logic, since the NHC Tour points allocation devalues the SSC and could hurt Monmouth Park's winter simulcast business through reduced parimutuel pools.

At this past Saturday's NHC qualifier, which awarded NHC spots to the Top 5 finishers, contestants funded an initial $100 bankroll and another $200 each into the prize pool.

As the contest bankroll is "live," contest players bet real money into the pools at Monmouth, Belmont and Pimlico.

A quick look at the data proves interesting.

According to Daily Racing Form, there were 8,055 in attendance at Monmouth Park on Saturday, with $553,095 bet into the mutuel pool on track of a $3.97 million total, or about 14% of the total (on par with a 14.7% average the last 7 live racing days inflated, specifically, by Sunday's Food Truck Festival -- 22%; Saturday's and Monday's got little bump.

The average of wagers per person, however, this past Saturday was $68.66 -- 30% above the 7-day average and a whopping 66% better than the 3-day Food Truck Festival average, and indicative of the value of core customers betting on the actual races/core track product.

Delving deeper, my initial $100 bankroll -- after "churning" back some winning bets into other races -- produced $261 of total bets across the three contests tracks, including $170 into races at Monmouth Park (and a brutal loss at the wire by Loverbil in the Reilly Stakes for my $40 win wager that compromised my hopes of winning the contest). 

That's nearly 150% above the average customer.

Let's assume that every contest player on track loses his/her initial $100 bankroll without a single winner.  That's nearly $22,000 of wagers (including $11,000 specifically into Monmouth Park's races; contest rules require that players make at least five wagers of at least $10 each on races at Monmouth, or $50 per player); that's nearly 2% of the on-track mutuel pool alone. 

Each $50 increase per contest player on bets into Monmouth's on-track product yields another percentage-point gain in terms of total mutuel pool contribution; so, if 219 players, on average, win a few wagers and "churn" $200-$300 back into Monmouth, they'd comprise nearly 4%-6% of the day's on-track mutuel pool, or nearly 4x the average customer before any cash wagers they may also make outside the contest competition on races at Monmouth.

Keep in mind, too, that contest players are not the casual customer, who might "cash out" after hitting, say, a $200 wager on a race and head home.  They're also inflating the win, place and show pools (the only races available for Monmouth Park's contests)

By virtue of the NHC contest player's goal to secure a seat in Vegas, he or she needs to continue betting until the contest's conclusion in order to build top bankroll, so the proposition to the host track is very appealing (i.e., likelihood that the majority of each contestant's money will be kept by the host through losing wagers) when factoring the "churn" element.

Fortunately, not sold on going "all in" on a particular horse in the contest finale with my entire $137.90 bankroll at that time, I wagered $60 and held onto $77.90 to backdoor into 578 NHC Tour points, and so Saturday's game effort (including 28-1 winner Padre Graz in Race 9 from Monmouth, which kept me alive in the contest) was not a complete loss.

What would be a complete loss is if, approaching next season, the NHC Players Committee and NTRA continue to devalue a unique multi-round on-track contest such as the SSC, which funnels real money into the coffers of tracks but gets short shrift by today's NHC Tour Points system.

A far richer analysis of this angle would only validate this point, in my opinion, and one the relevant parties might want to investigate more deeply.