Saturday, October 27, 2018

Groundwork for NHC19: Two-Minute Drill

Wrapping up a berth to the 2019 National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) almost a year in advance certainly has its advantages, including fresh perspectives on how part-time contest players can approach the run-up to the $3 million tournament in Las Vegas on Feb. 8-10.

If you lack the time for regular contest-circuit play, it's important to pick and choose spots to experiment with different strategies that can simulate the NHC environment.

Whether your goal at the TI in Las Vegas will be a pie-in-the-sky first-place finish, or a scaled-back expectation of a Top-50 finish -- either an admirable feat vs. top-flight competition and several professional players with multiple entries -- use the next 100 days to experiment.

As it's NFL season, I'll call this one the "Two-Minute Drill."

As a third-time NHC qualifier, I'll focus largely on quick-trigger selections, reinforcing the notion that it's important to be impulsive once in awhile in a handicapping contest. Anyone who has made it to Vegas can attest that the sheer volume of races is overwhelming.

It's impossible to handicap 150 races run over 30 hours across two days. And that's before you potentially reach that final table on Day 3!

With 6-8 tracks and about 75 races a day to select from over Days 1 and 2 of the NHC, you'd have to be an insomniac, speed-reader and/or bring an army of associates to absorb the nuances of each race.

Admittedly, I don't use subscription services, so if you've got third-party research or data that you think improves your analysis and provides an edge, by all means stick with your approach. 

Keep in mind, however, that those services won't improve your reaction times or be able to rush to the contest terminal at times to make a split-second heads or tails decision that's needed with four races about to go off all at once. 

Information overload can lead to selection paralysis, a key to avoid.

I tend to handicap more from experience and on feel, and stick to a handful of angles -- front-end speed in maiden races (especially with two-year-olds) and playing top-circuit (e.g. NYRA) shippers to largely home-bred fields at Woodbine -- that help me to make decisions when time is short.

The October 13 live-money contest at Monmouth Park provided such a venue, featuring $15 win, place and/or show minimums and action from Belmont, Keeneland and Woodbine. 

At times, races went off simultaneously, and knowing that I had to miss the last 10-12 to take my son to see Gorillaz in Brooklyn, I kept to the first 7-8 races at each track and stuck to my key angles, with moderate real-money success and what would have been a decent start in an NHC notional $2 win-place format. 

Two-Minute Drill: Oct. 13, 2018 NHC Qualifier at Monmouth
Now, live-money contests are a completely different animal than mythical $2 win-place events such as the NHC, but the takeaways were positive. 
  • Two winners, including 11-1 (3-point overlay) Goldtown in non-winners of two at Woodbine, where David Moran took a horse that had faced tougher at Belmont and Gulfstream right to the lead and held off short-priced favorite Silent Respect, a stakes-placed runner who'd never raced outside of Canada. MTO-entry Magnetron was the other in the third at Belmont; paid $8.50.
  • Five top-two finishes out of 13 races. 
    • Two of them were killers (both 7-to-1), including a neck loss for Yorktown in the Nearctic and a three-quarter-length late defeat for Fear No Evil in the Floral Park Stakes at Belmont. (The third was a loss by a head for Curlin's Honor in the Ontario Derby.)
From a real-money-contest perspective those three tough beats cost me $641 of potential win money that would have put my bankroll at $792 ($641+$151.50) based on the last two bets in the above spreadsheet -- ultimately good enough for tenth-place. Surely it sucked to miss on those.

Yet in an NHC contest format, with a little luck (e.g. those three horses win instead of finishing second) I'd have picked up another $43.60, which when added would bumped up my notional bankroll to $100.70 -- a solid one-day score with about five more plays to go (assuming an 18-race format).

A few points from this experience that I hope you'll find useful for NHC:
  • Accept the fact that not all of your selections will be perfect and based on analytics.
    • After 10-15 minutes of viewing the past performances, I didn't have a great feel for the Nearctic, other than Yorkton was extremely playable at almost 3x his morning line and as the main (and perhaps lone) speed in a race where Lady Alexandra was grossly over-bet to 3-to-2 favoritism (from 5-to-1). He almost got there (even with jockey Jesse Campbell seemingly dropping the whip in the stretch); Alexandra finished 9th of 11.
  • Avoid tracks where you lack feel and stick with those you know.
    • As much as I revere Keeneland Race Course and key races there were what helped me in April to qualify for the NHC, I've found the fall meet totally vexing. Wins in my first two Monmouth contest plays padded my bankroll, but equally funded me to fish in races 3 and 4 at Keeneland -- ones where I lacked the discipline to sit out as I should have done. I have plenty of time to correct those types of poor decisions.
    • Oaklawn Park and Golden Gate are two such tracks I anticipate will be on the NHC wagering menu and ones I'll likely avoid outside of the mandatory contest races.
  • Seek value in short rather than enormous fields.
    • Simple logic suggests it's a lot easier to find a playable overlay in a 6- rather than 12-horse field when you can only play one horse in the NHC format. The Ontario Derby (Woodbine, Race 3) is a great example.
    • IMHO, it was a coin-flip between Curlin's Honor and Lookin to Strike, sent off at a respective 5-to-1 and 4-to-1. The two long-shots (9-to-1 and 38-to-1) were unplayable, and I thought 3-to-2 Mr. Ritz was over-bet. My pal RedRockOrBust went the same way, and after the fact we were both disappointed by the outcome but satisfied with our selection of Curlin's Honor. The horse was dead game but just didn't have enough. 
    • On the other end of the spectrum, my $15 win play on 14-to-1 City Siege in the 7th at Keeneland was extremely ill-advised and in retrospect a clear gamble or search for "action" in a field featuring several first-time starters. I'll look to avoid these sorts of plays at the NHC.
In sum, the $250 entry-fee Oct. 13 cost my $100 entry fee as I recouped my $150 bankroll and decided to avoid going "all-in" and accept that it was OK to have some fun with friends on an autumn Saturday and walk away with some money while gaining valuable experience ahead of the NHC.

Yeah, I'd have loved walking away with another $800 or so of additional winnings and prize money, but them's the breaks, and I picked up some valuable experience to take with me to Vegas in February.

Friday, August 24, 2018

No Wonder, Gadot's Gonna Win the Travers

A lot of people -- well, 2 or 3 -- have asked who I think will win the Midsummer Derby, officially the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, so I'll treat this like the Haskell and break it down in hopes of helping you cash some winning tickets on Saturday.

It's going to be a filly, in my opinion, as Wonder Gadot is completely capable of beating the 10 male foes slated to got the mile-and-a-quarter at Saratoga. Post time is schedule for 5:44 p.m. ET. 

Since April, I've formed an opinion that, outside of Justify, the best three-year-old horses are the top two fillies -- Monomoy Girl, winner of four straight Grade 1 races, and Wonder Gadot, who's listed at a 5-to-1 morning line. 

NJ Horseplayer's 2018 Travers
Selection: Wonder Gadot
She's the third betting choice behind 2-to-1 favorite and 2018 Haskell winner Good Magic, and trainer Chad Brown's other entrant, Gronkowski, who ran a very game off-the-pace second behind Triple Crown winner Justify in the Belmont Stakes, after missing the earlier races with an injury. 

For the minimal amount of money I'll invest in the race, she's my selection to win the Travers and will be alone in the top spot of my trifecta and possible superfecta plays, as I see this as an otherwise formful outcome where the Chad Brown runners hit the board, and we'll hope to land a higher-priced horse in the 3rd and 4th spots to juice up the payouts.

Here's a small synopsis on each runner, followed by how I'll play the race.
  1. Trigger Warning, 30-to-1: Finished 3rd in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby in June and 2nd in the Indiana Derby a month later, but nowhere near the caliber of his foes. Pass.
  2. Wonder Gadot, 5-to-1: Too much is made of the filly vs. the boys thing here, as she walloped 15 males in the C$1 million Queens Plate at Woodbine (Toronto) and crushed the field last month in a nondescript stakes race at Fort Erie in Canada. She's 2 of her last 6 and about a length-and-a-half away from six straight wins, including a tough beat in the Kentucky Oaks where she was bumped in the lane and lost to Monomoy Girl. Earlier in her 3-year-old campaign, she lost to Eskimo Kisses, who won the Grade 1 Alabama last week at Saratoga in stylish fashion. My view is that she can run all day and is tactical, so jockey Irad Ortiz has a number of options, though ideally I'd like to see her somewhat forwardly placed to save ground at this distance. Using her as a strong single atop all wagers -- 2018 Travers winner.
  3. Gronkowski, 4-to-1: A serious late turn of foot in the Belmont Stakes, where he finished second to Justify in a race where closer-types typically don't do well, will attract a lot of bettors on Saturday, and I think he could go off closer to 3-to-1 or 7-to-2. Jose Ortiz was Gronk's rider in the Belmont, but shifts to the favorite Good Magic, giving Joel Rosario the chance to get on a potential threat who can make up ground late. I anticipate Gronk will hit the board and finish from 2nd to 4th
  4. Bravazo, 12-to-1: I was bullish about Bravazo in the Haskell Invitational in July and think he's an extremely competitive sort, but a cut below the possible winners. A solid "use" to finish 3rd or 4th, but that's the ceiling.
  5. Vino Rosso, 10-to-1: On paper, his third-place finish in the Jim Dandy on July 28 indicates he came on like gangbusters late, but in watching that race a few times I think he was too disinterested early, and the huge late surge was more a product of the other leaders wilting. I'll use him 3rd and 4th on my trifecta and superfecta tickets, but last out he was unable to beat a horse (Tenfold) who drifted out severely in the stretch yet somehow still won that race. He was way more experienced and fit than Gronkowski in the Belmont and was a cut below there, and seems to be here as well.
  6. Meistermind, 30-to-1: Pick your price here. Want 100-to-1? Sure, you can have it. Seems silly to me to enter a horse who only has a maiden win. I guess the owners at China Horse Club are here to say they were in the race, while lamenting that their stud, Justify, is retired from racing. Complete pass.
  7. King Zachary, 15-to-1: I suppose one could make a pedigree (Curlin) case here, and this one seems to relish distance, but I'm reserving use to 3rd and 4th on my tickets. He's going to be just off the early front-runners, and can step forward and perhaps hit the board.
  8. Mendelssohn, 12-to-1: To me, he's a complete toss. A $3 million horse with some gaudy wins in the UAE in early 2018, I didn't like his effort at all in the Grade 3 Dwyer on July 7, and will avoid using him. Pass.
  9. Good Magic, 2-to-1: I was a little rough on him in my Haskell analysis and paid for it as a result, as he trounced the field. I think he'll be forwardly placed and in the mix toward the end, but will stick to my guns in proclaiming that the best two fillies are the best two three-year-old horses on the track, and so I'll use Good Magic 2nd through 4th.
  10. Tenfold, 8-to-1: I think his bad drift-out in the Jim Dandy will prove to be a sign of a still somewhat green horse, or one who simply wilted at a mile-and-one-eighth and may struggle with the added distance in the Travers. I'm in the latter camp, figuring he'll finish 4th at best.
  11. Catholic Boy, 8-to-1: This will be a "wise guy" horse for a lot of analysts on TV, having shown a lot of recent success in turf races, including the Grade 1 Belmont Derby in July. His front-end running style of late suggests jockey Javier Castellano could find himself out front for a good portion of the race, but for my money the dirt just isn't his surface. I'll pass.

Prospective Wagers

  • $1 Trifecta: 2 with 3, 9 with 3-6, 9 = $8
  • 10-Cent Superfecta: 2 with 3, 9 with 3-6, 9 with 3-8, 10 = $4
  • Would play Wonder Gadot as a win wager at anything above 4-to-1

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The 2018 Haskell Is Not-So-Good Magic

Enthusiasm about the 2018 Haskell Invitational is in short supply for the NJ Horseplayer camp.

By some accounts, Monmouth Park was working to get Triple Crown champion Justify to Oceanport for this year's $1 million Grade 1 showcase. Yet the horse's ailments were such that he's been retired from racing and will go to stud.

That leaves Good Magic as Sunday's headliner, where the winner gets not only a handsome payday but also an entry into the 2018 running of the Breeders' Cup Classic Championship in November.

NJ Horseplayer states a case for
Lone Sailor to win the 2018 Haskell
The two-year-old champion in 2017, Good Magic -- a $1 million 2016 Keeneland September sale purchase and trained by Chad Brown -- is the 6-to-5 morning-line favorite, and deservedly so against a field that's middling at best.

Since teaming up with New York-based jockey Jose Ortiz, Good Magic won the aforementioned Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Grade 2 Bluegrass Stakes in April, after which he ran a game second to Justify in the Kentucky Derby. 

Beyond that is where I have some concerns, and explain why I'm looking elsewhere for a winner.

Perhaps against better judgement, my selection to win the 2018 Haskell Invitational is Lone Sailor, and I'm going to play him above Bravazo, Core Beliefs and Good Magic in "exotic" wagers -- exacta, trifecta and superfecta. 

The other three entrants -- Navy Commander, Roaming Union and Golden Brown are entirely unplayable, in my opinion, making it hard to find "value" in the race.

However, after a brief rundown on each horse, I'll provide some ideas for how to put your bankroll to work, as a few people have asked for suggestions on this race. Personally, I'll have a hard time pulling the trigger on a win bet on horses that will pay $6-$10 at best, though on a scale of one to 10 my conviction in Lone Sailor is probably a four or five. 

With that said, here's the field for the 2018 Haskell Invitational.

#1, Lone Sailor (5-1): I typically wouldn't scoff at a horse that'll pay about $12 to win on a $2 mutuel, but there are two sides to this horse's equation. Handicappers probably will either love or hate this one, and rightly so. Lone Sailor has banked almost $500,000 already, all while winning only once in 11 tries, beating eight others by 11 lengths at Saratoga last September in his second-ever start. 

A 2-year-old win at Saratoga is usually encouraging, but in nine races since he's finished second four times -- by margins of a nose, neck, head and a length-and-a-quarter. There's a lot of close but no cigar with this runner. The Ohio Derby, a Grade 3 race (two cuts below the Haskell), is a shining example, where he took the lead late in the stretch and somehow still lost. 

Pace will be key in the Haskell, however, and will be to Lone Sailor's advantage, and is therefore my selection to win the 2018 Haskell. The way I see the race shaking out, Lone Sailor's going to be wrangled back to last out of the gate by Joe Bravo, who'll try to save ground and energy to make a late charge when all of the early runners begin to fade and fall back to the pack. Past performances suggest that Lone Sailor's best running occurs when there's pace in the race. If you don't watch much racing, listen for the quarter-mile times that track announcer Frank Mirahmadi gives out as the race proceeds. Anything around 23 seconds for the first quarter mile and 46-47 seconds for the half would be favorable for Lone Sailor. A slower pace would be a detriment, IMHO, especially if a freshened and likely superior Good Magic gets toward the front in a slow time.

#2, Navy Commander (12-1): I just don't see it. Two races back, this Robert Reid trainee won an extremely low-level race at PARX when the jockey on a horse about to pass him fell off the horse in the late-stretch when bumped hard. Navy Commander came back the next time to win the $100,000 Long Branch Stakes on July 7 at Monmouth, but that's worlds from facing a Justify. Jockey Angel Arroyo's going to place this one forwardly, but I can't see him being in the thick of things for anything beyond three-quarters of a mile. Pass. 

#3, Roaming Union (10-1): I respect Monmouth Park's top trainer, Kelly Breen, a great deal, but for my money this horse is also in over his head. Roaming Union blew an enormous lead in the stretch in his Haskell prep -- the $100,000 Pegasus Stakes, which might explain why Albin Jiminez gets the mount on Sunday. Maybe he finds the lead for about a half a mile, but there are just to many flat performances in his past to consider at the Grade 1 level. Pass. 

#4, Core Beliefs (4-1): I probably watch the California circuit more than others, and Peter Eurton's a solid trainer who doesn't seem to ship his horses out of state a ton. So it's either a really bullish signal that he's got an up-and-coming three-year-old; or is being opportunistic, figuring you don't need to be Justify to beat this field and get a Grade 1 victory. 

I considered making him my top pick, but didn't for a reason -- jockey change. Whereas Lone Sailor picks up a veteran who knows the Monmouth Park oval like the back of his hand, Eurton's using Flavien Prat on Core Beliefs. I love Prat, perhaps THE finest turf jockey in North America. Yet I have some questions here, as to me it's a major change switching away from a rider who carried Core Beliefs to a win in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby last month. Let's be clear, too, that the field in that one wasn't very good. I think Core Beliefs tracks Roaming Union halfway around the track, inherits the lead from Roaming Union, but then gets passed later in the stretch by Lone Sailor and/or the next horse I'm about to discuss. Second place is the ceiling.

#5, Bravazo (3-1) is the lone horse in the field who ran in all three Triple Crown races, which comes as no surprise as wily Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas never shies from a challenge. His gangbusters late-stretch run to finish second to Justify in the Preakness proved his ability, and earlier in 2018 he won the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes in Louisiana. Yet he's thrown in clunkers -- a badly beaten (and perhaps tired) sixth in the Belmont, eighth beaten by 21 lengths in the Louisiana Derby, and tenth beaten 12 lengths in the Kentucky Juvenile in late 2017. It's just hard to figure this one, and I think the morning line is too low. For my money, Core Beliefs is a better value at 4-1 by comparison, though it wouldn't entirely surprise me if Bravazo wins. Jockey Luis Saez continues to mature, and I think he's one of the better ones in the U.S. with horses toward the lead. The "race within the race" worth watching will be whether Saez or Prat aboard Core Beliefs is just off the front-runner (Roaming Union or Golden Brown). If Saez is sitting second just off the lead coming into the homestretch, then look out. A lackluster start would be his undoing, which is why, for my money, I'll use him exclusively second through fourth in wagering. 

#6, Good Magic (6-5): I'm sorta playing with fire going against the Kentucky Derby runner-up, and perhaps he was just gassed late in the Preakness, but I'll boldly predict that this horse has seen his better days as a three-year-old. Good Magic had every opportunity and the perfect setup to beat Justify in a slowly run Preakness but wilted when looked in the eye and was passed late by Bravazo and Tenfold. Now, you can say that Tenfold's win in Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga validates Good Magic by way of company lines, but that horse staggered to the wire and won as a disinterested Vino Rosso decided to not run hard until the last 200 yards. Would I be surprised if Good Magic wins on Sunday? Absolutely not. But I think he's vulnerable and will go off closer to 4-to-5 odds. I'm using him third and fourth on my tickets and is the one you need to beat if you want to make any half-decent money betting this race as a single. 

#7, Golden Brown (15-1): This guy's the longest shot in the field for a reason, with speed figures well below the major contenders and his best running in a lower-level turf stakes win at Delaware Park just two weeks ago and against NJ-bred competition. Pass.

Wagering Strategy

I'm not going to break the bank for the Haskell (probably $40-$50), nor do I have overly creative strategies. The tickets presented below may go beyond readers' price points, but remember that the base wager on an exacta is $1, and even lower (50 cents) for trifectas. It's 10 cents for the superfecta (picking the four top finishers in order), so you can scale back the denominations of mine and still be involved in the action at a low cost.  I'll use Lone Sailor at the top of exacta and trifecta tickets and figure to make a decent profit if it's not Good Magic's day. 

$10 Exacta: 1-5 (Lone Sailor over Bravazo) = $10
  • You can bet this as a $1 "exacta box" for a $2 outlay
  • You'd win half the posted $2 payout if the order of finish is 1-5 or 5-1. 
$5 Exacta: 5-1 (Bravazo over Lone Sailor) = $5
  • A bit of a hedge in the event that Lone Sailor again gets "second-itis"
$5 Trifecta: 1 over 4, 5 over 4, 5, 6 = $20
  • You can bet this as a $1 trifecta for a $2 outlay
  • For $18, you can also play this as a $1 "trifecta key box" using 1, 4, 5 and 6; you'd win if any of these three finish first, second and third. Ask a teller if it's available as a 50-cent base wager, in which case it's only a $9 outlay. 
$2 Trifecta: 4, 5 over 1 over 4, 5, 6 = $8
  • Another hedge if Lone Sailor is the runner-up

$1 Superfecta: 1 over 4, 5 over 4, 5, 6 over 4, 5, 6 = $4

Friday, July 27, 2018

CHRB Needs to DQ the Stewards

Still fuming that the winner of Sunday's Wicker Stakes at Del Mar drifted out about 7-8 paths into my onrushing horse in the stretch and cost him -- and me, the horseplayer -- the win and several dollars, I wanted to delve a bit into the disqualification issue at California's thoroughbred race tracks, namely to gain a better understanding of the process both in- and after-race.

Perhaps my research isn't the most scientific or journalistic, but for a general lack of time to conduct exhaustive research and interviews, I focused on a small sample of races since late-2017 where I recalled key disqualifications or non-DQs.

The findings are eye-opening and support my argument that the California Horse Racing Board needs to more-closely examine the highly inconsistent decisions of its referees and how they impact all parties, including paying customers, and a sport that's already rife with integrity questions. 

Most of us who support the sport recognize the risk that supposedly neutral observers -- state-licensed "race stewards" --  could make rulings we disagree with, largely in races involving claims of foul by jockeys, or in cases of "inquiry," where the stewards on their own will review a race where there's potential fouling and one horse compromised another's chances for placement. 

I'd never really questioned the integrity of the stewards or the decision-making process of these arbiters (the sport's rooted in gambling, so...), giving the benefit of the doubt that it's a difficult job that requires much training, licensing and rules interpretation and can cost the customer a lot of money.

Yet, the deeper I dig, the more I question the motives of the stewards and, for that matter, whether they're qualified to make racing DQ decisions, or better equipped to hand out soft-serve ice cream at your local DQ -- Dairy Queen.   

The ensuing samples show curious cases of clear jockey favoritism, horses not being summarily DQ'd for drifting out several paths into other horses' lanes, and of a rider being suspended for 3 days for an incident that never came up as an objection or stewards' inquiry after the race.

Feel free to comment, but overall there's a substantial case to be made about the competency of California's thoroughbred racing stewards.  

Sunday, July 22 -- Del Mar, Wicker Stakes

The Case: Dangerous riding, drifting and interference by the winner. 

Evidence: It's clear from the video, particularly the head-on view that the three stewards reviewed ("inquiry") for a good 6-7 minutes, that the horse that crossed the finish line first impeded another. 

Double Touch, #13, takes the lead in the stretch but drifts halfway out into the middle of the track, herds 3-4 other horses toward the grandstand, and bumps and potentially intimidates Bombard, #14 before the wire. Double Touch wins the photo finish, but a stewards' inquiry is declared. Surprisingly, Bombard's jockey and/or trainer didn't lodge an objection against Double Touch jockey Gary Stevens for failing to maintain his line and creating interference in the stretch.

Stewards Decision: No blood, no foul.

Outcomes: Bettors who had Double Touch cashed big on a 25-to-1 bomber, while mine and several others' win wagers on 8-to-1 Bombard were kaput. Minutes from this week's stewards meeting (page 7) make zero reference to a fine or reprimand vs. Stevens for riding dangerously, and had the audacity to say that Bombard drifted out too, which I'd argue was jockey Flavian Prat recognizing that Stevens' was rolling at him at almost 40 MPH. Sort of like being in Lane 5 of a sprint but moving to the right a little when you see Usain Bolt invading your space from all the way over in Lane 1. Common sense says to move the hell out of the way to avoid getting steamrolled.

NJ Horseplayer take: Based on the ire of several people on Twitter who either bet or just watched the race, Double Touch should have been disqualified and placed second. I complete agree. I should have been cashing winning wagers, as well as higher up the leaderboard of the Del Mar Online Contest instead of being in 180th-place out of 4,162 contestants as of this writing. 

Saturday, July 21 -- Del Mar Race 9

The Case: Jockey gets a seemingly egregious suspension from riding for, in essence, failing to ride his horse in a straight line.

Interesting, since...isn't that what Stevens did in the Wicker a day later?

Evidence: Below, watch #9, Truck Salesman, a 2-year-old making his first-ever start. Jockey Kyle Frye gets a clean lead and maintains TS's line until the stretch, where after a left-hand tap of the whip the colt tires a bit and comes into the path of fourth-place finisher Synthesis. The top three finishers were unaffected. 

Steward's Decision: Not Applicable, since there was no claim of foul by another rider vs. Frye or an inquiry into the stretch run that would merit an action such as a DQ.

Outcome: A look at the official race chart from Equibase makes zero mention of any sort of shenanigans in the stretch by Truck Salesman. Yet, in "Ruling #002" by the stewards from July 22, Frye was suspended 3 racing days for "failure to maintain a straight course in the stretch and causing interference. This constitutes a violation of California Horse Racing Board Rule #1699 (Riding Rules-Careless Riding)."

NJHorseplayer Take: Perhaps the jockey had prior warnings for similar race riding that substantiate severe 3-day penalty, but from afar the infraction seems minuscule vs. Stevens' Wicker. The cynic in me wonders whether the steward here wanted to teach the 26-year-old Frey a lesson, whereas they took no action on a Hall of Fame jockey riding for a trainer on the cusp of his first stakes win.

Sunday, May 6 -- Santa Anita Park Race 8

The Case: Winning horse ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith fails to maintain its lane, carries 2-3 of his opponents into the middle of the track during the stretch, then drifts back in before crossing the wire first.

The Background: I couldn't find a direct link of the video to post here, but it's available on Cal and author John Cherwa gives a great account of the incident in the May 10 Los Angeles Times, including some excellent feedback from racing experts and stewards' rulings.

Steward's Decision: Our old friend -- Rule #1699 -- rears its head. The stewards made no change to the race-order finish, leaving prohibitive favorite Achira as the winner, while Geovanni Franco (who lodged a claim of foul vs. Smith...rightfully so) and runner-up Helen Hillary and that horse's connections and backers drew the short straw. But, hey, according to the stewards subsequent meeting minutes (pg. 7-8), Smith had to go back and attend a "film review" on May 10.

Outcome: Bettors who backed Helen Hillary may be angry to learn that Smith wasn't disqualified for his actions aboard Achira on May 6, but on May 10 was handed a four-day suspension (May 17-20) for, ahem, "failure to maintain a straight course and causing interference in the stretch."

NJHorseplayer Take: The ruling sounds harsh on the surface, but in hindsight is feckless, considering that Smith's suspension in California happened to be for a period when the steward knew full well that he'd be riding Justify in the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. I'm not saying that Smith should have been locked up or anything, but the CHRB is starting to look more clownish by the minute, and horseplayers who lost hard-earned money betting the victims of the race interference get zero solace in learning a few days later about a suspension, when on May 6 the stewards made a horrendous decision and bent the rules or had zero understanding of how to apply them. 

Saturday, March 10 -- Santa Anita Park, San Felipe Stakes 

I won't belabor this or the next example, but watch the replay, and read Cherwa's take in the LA Times. Smith comes out on the short end this time when DQ'd aboard apparent winner #4 McKinzie for "aggressive bumping" in the stretch, after #1 Bolt d'Oro (awarded the win by virtue of disqualification) clearly slams into him turning into the homestretch. I didn't bet this race, but watching it live and after several replay views would have made no change. Clearly the steward disagreed, first changing the order of finish, then suspending Smith three days for the incident. Read the quote from trainer Bob Baffert in the Cherwa story, pretty interesting.

Saturday, December 9, 2017 -- Los Alamitos Futurity

Another involving McKinzie. This time a suspect disqualification of a winner with obvious momentum and who looked sharper than the others, and the stewards' curious explanation. I was unable to find any follow-up investigation by the CHRB, but figure there wasn't one, since it's Los Alamitos and the officials probably wanted to move their meeting around then along to get out quicker and do their Christmas shopping.

Again, feel free to draw your own conclusions. However, as horseplayers, you'll agree that it's hard enough when you put in your work and find winners, then have it all blown up by inconsistent stewards incapable of fairly applying the rules and avoiding controversy. From the videos and other citations above, CHRB stewards are all over the map in their race-day and follow-up determinations. The state's governing body needs do something about it, namely to restore faith that horseplayers -- the core customer -- will get consistent and fair treatment on DQ rulings.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fun, Free Contest for 2 NHC Seats

Summer officially arrived almost a month ago, but for most horseplayers the best part of it begins this week with the start of the boutique race meetings in Saratoga, NY and Del Mar, CA.

I've already got dates on my calendar to hit the Spa -- less than a four-hour drive from the NJ Horseplayer headquarters -- and haven't been to Del Mar yet, though it's a bucket-list item and a place near and dear to my heart.

That's because I qualified for my first National Horseplayers (nee Handicapping) Championship -- "the NHC" -- via this contest four seasons ago.

The 2018 edition kicks off this Wednesday, July 18. Register here.

The premise is simple -- parlay a $100 mythical per day into the one of the two biggest bankrolls by contest's end on Sept. 3 and win a berth to NHC#19 in Las Vegas in February 2019.

Tour membership is not required for the top prizes, so if you've considered trying a handicapping tournament and are not an NHC Tour member, Del Mar provides a great opportunity; if nothing else than to sharpen your skills or to kick the tires.

Sounds easy, right?

It's anything but, considering you'll go against a few thousand folks, from the novice who'll play names, favorite numbers, etc., to the extremely the players who'll only play horses at gigantic odds in hopes of winning with a few.

As the second-place finisher in 2014, and as discussed in the post-contest recap linked here, the key of course is to identify winners, but also "value." A few words to the wise:

  • Avoid playing horses at odds of less than 5-to-2. The reward for putting $100 (again, mythical dollars) on a runner who's 8-to-5 isn't worth the risk. You can't win this kind of contest playing favorites. You'd have to hit 40-50% of your wagers to have a chance in such a format. If you're in love with a short-priced favorite, just sit out the race that day; you only need to make 20 "wagers" over the contest to qualify for prizes.
  • Find the overlays. In my 2014 contest, Meinertzhageni was 8-to-1 on the morning line and completely ignored by the bettors, but a logical horse who'd press the pace and showed speed in the past. The horse went off at 29-to-1 and won easily, vaulting me to the top of the leaderboard. 
    • If you have time to wait until close to post time to make your daily play, absolutely monitor the live tote and take into consideration horses that the odds-maker thinks has a shot but is dead on the board.
  • $100 Win Wagers ONLY. Again referring to my 2014 link spreadsheet, there's not a lot of value in playing place and show wagers in this format. There are simply too many players, and with no real money on the line, contestants will predominantly go "all in" with win plays. I recommend doing the same, and will take that approach myself this season.
    • The only wagers allowed, by the way, are win, place and/or show, and to count as a "qualifying" play, you must use the full $100 daily bankroll.
  • Sign up and enjoy! Again, zero cost to enter, and Del Mar provides free past performances for your use to make educated decisions on some great races where the turf meets the surf. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

2018 Belmont Pick: Blended Citizen

It's hard to knock the champ, and Justify's special, but there are too many parallels to the 2014 Belmont Stakes to ignore, and partly behind my selection of Blended Citizen to win the 2018 edition.

In the third leg of the Triple Crown four years ago, California Chrome -- like Justify -- was drawn to the inside; Justify will break on Saturday from the rail in a field of 10 and is the 4-to-5 favorite. 

Much as I think an inward draw was detrimental to Chrome, I think it could make Justify work harder if jockey Mike Smith decides to gun to the front to ensure a trouble-free trip and put the three 30-to-1 front-runners' hopes to bed -- Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope and Noble Indy.

Just like in the 2014 Belmont, a horse whose connections bypassed the rigorous first two legs of the Triple Crown series appears to be a threat. 

This time around it's 15-1 Blended Citizen.

Four years ago, Tonalist was a lightly raced horse who entered the Belmont Stakes off a win in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, which is the week after the Kentucky Derby and differs in that it's run at just one turn. 

The Peter Pan's also shorter at a mile and one-eighth, but to me it's a useful race in handicapping who can upset Justify and serves as a viable prep race on the same exact track, perhaps supporting the "horse for course" notion.

If it's not Blended Citizen, I see a slight chance of Vino Rosso winning, but otherwise think it'll be Justify securing the second Triple Crown for trainer Bob Baffert in four years, which would be remarkable.

For my money it's a three-horse race, and so my analysis and selections below are with that in mind.

Belmont Stakes Field

  1. Justify (4-5): This guy's a stud. Well, in a year or so he'll technically be a really valuable stud on the farm, but for now he's heads above the competition. I'm not buying into the naysayers who've knocked his wins as being slow by historical standards. Justify is one of the few to essentially win the Kentucky Derby wire-to-wire, and he did enough on a tiring track to secure the Preakness. The only question is whether he's simply just too gassed late to win again for the third time in five weeks and on the lead for a mile-and-a-half. I'm using him in the win and place positions on my tickets but think he might get collared late.
  2. Free Drop Billy (30-1): Three extremely fast workouts coming into the Belmont tell me he's going to gun for the lead with Justify, but I think he's inferior by comparison at longer distances and sense he'll be a credible 6-7 furlong horse when all's said and done. Pass.
  3. Bravazo (8-1): Candidly I'm not sure what to make of him. I regret excluding him from my Preakness exacta and trifecta wagers, but will only use in the 3rd and 4th spots in my trifecta and superfecta tickets as I think he'll be forwardly placed -- usually a favorable tactic in the Belmont -- and stick around but not have enough late to win.
  4. Hofburg (9-2): I'm only using him 3rd or 4th at best in my bets, perhaps against my better judgment, as I endorsed him to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby and he'll be the "wise-guy" selection among the TV "experts" on Saturday. Yet, the horse named Mississippi that he beat by a wide margin in finishing second in the Florida Derby in late-March flopped in a stakes last weekend. As a son of Tapit, Hofburg should relish the distance, but I'm just not buying as a win-place candidate.
  5. Restoring Hope (30-1): An early runner who's in well over his head. Pass.
  6. Gronkowski (12-1): I'm a Jets fan. Enough said. Pass. (Seriously, though, hard to endorse a horse who's doing a lot of things for the first time -- trying a dirt track, running in the U.S., stretching out beyond his 1-mile limit thus far.)
  7. Tenfold (12-1): Almost got second in the Preakness, but I want to see this son of Curlin do more than beat claimers, which has been his ceiling to this point. Using 3rd-4th.
  8. Vino Rosso (8-1): His efforts in the Wood Memorial and Sam F. Davis in the prep races make him a viable candidate to improve off a tough 9th-place trip in the Kentucky Derby. Two good works for top trainer Todd Pletcher make him very useful, and I wouldn't talk anyone off betting him as a winner, though Vino's not my cup of tea. Well, wine. Using 2nd-3rd.
  9. Noble Indy (30-1): Early pace presence who, in my view, could wear Justify down just enough to help a horse like Blended Citizen but won't find the winner's circle himself. Will flatten out after about a mile. Pass.
  10. Blended Citizen (15-1): I've already heard several competent public handicappers say this one's race times aren't on the level of Justify's, yet he's got wins on all three surfaces -- grass, synthetic and dirt -- including one over this track, and is a grinder. The replay of the Peter Pan provides some clues on what we might expect, and is a credit to California-based trainer Doug O'Neill's ability to prep his horses. Until that race, Blended Citizen showed zero early speed from the gate and mostly settled toward the rear. Now, that style tends to be more conducive to success on grass and synthetic tracks, but not necessarily in the Belmont, where most winners generally are forwardly placed, as the track's very tiring. To me, Blended Citizen showed that he's capable of at least staying within 3-4 lengths of the leaders, and replays on his prior race reveal that he's got a tireless late kick. A pair of victories two grades below the Belmont Stakes certainly don't make him a world-beater, but he can get it done. The NJ Horseplayer selection to win the 2018 Belmont.

Probable Wagers

As I've bypassed the third leg of the Filly Triple Crown, I'm going slightly above my $100 bankroll, with $40 of Pick 4 and 5 wagers and about $70-$75 specifically on the Belmont. If you want to use my picks as a benchmark, clearly you can decrease the base-wager values on a smaller budget.

My success or lack thereof hinges squarely on Justify and Blended Citizen finishing one two, and I've got some backup coverage in the event that Vino Rosso runs second.
  • Race 11: $10 Win-Place 10 = $20
  • Race 11: $20 Exacta 10-1
  • Race 11: $5 Exacta 1-10
  • Race 11: $1 Trifecta: 1, 10 with 1, 8, 10 with 3, 4, 7, 8, 10 = $12
  • Race 11: $1 Superfecta
    • 1 with 10 with 8 with 3, 4, 7 = $3
    • 1 with 8 with 10 with 3, 4, 7 = $3
    • 10 with 1 with 8 with 3, 4, 7 = $3
    • 10 with 8 with 1 with 3, 4, 7 = $3
    • 10 with 8 with 3, 4, 7 with 1, 3, 4, 7 = $4
  • Race 7: $1 Pick 3: 1 with 3, 6, 7 with 1, 3, 9 = $9
    • Not going heavy here; fields too deep, though I like Madison's Luna a lot at 8-1 in Race 7, the Woody Stephens Stakes, and will single to start the sequence. 
  • Race 8: 50-cent Pick 4's
    • 7 with 1, 3, 9 with 1 with 1, 10 = $3
    • 6, 7 with 1, 3, 9, 10 with 1, 8 with 1 = $8
    • 3, 7 with 1, 3, 4, 9 with 1, 2 with 10 = $8
  • Race 8: $3 Daily Double 7 with 3, 9 = $6
  • Race 8: $1 Daily Double 3, 6 with 3, 9 = $4
  • Race 9: $4 Daily Double 3, 9 with 1 = $8
  • Race 9: $1 Daily Double 4, 10 with 1 = $2
  • Race 9: $2 Exacta Box 3-9 = $4
  • Race 9: $1 Exacta Key Box 9 with 1, 4, 10 = $6
  • Race 9, the Met Mile: 20-1 Warrior's Club

Saturday, May 19, 2018

2018 Preakness Pick: Justify

Brushing the egg off my face after Goodonehoney flopped in the Black Eyed Susan on Friday and cost $50, "finding value" is the key to a Preakness Stakes where muddy conditions and a so-so field are all that stands between Justify having a shot at the Triple Crown.

A lot of people love to knock the champ.

"The Kentucky Derby was too grueling."

"Horse hasn't had a published workout since."

"He'll be too tired in the stretch and be gassed."

I'm not buying it.

Justify will win the 2018 Preakness.

Question is, how can I profit meaningfully in a race where the winner is going to pay 40-50 cents on the dollar?

The key, to me, is taking a stand against second-choice Good Magic, listed at 5-2 but will take a lot of late action and may go off at closer to 2-1. At 6:48 p.m. ET, we're going to find the bettors looking at this as a two-horse race. I have a different opinion.

Here's why Good Magic will finish "out of the money" and others will juice up the payouts on the exacta, trifecta and superfecta lines.

I've often lamented wagering or playing in handicapping contests against "the Chad Brown horse." They win about 30% of the time.

For those who don't follow the sport much, Brown is one of the world's top trainers. He had a reputation for being a wizard with turf horses, but you may recall that his horse, Cloud Computing, won the 2017 Preakness at 11-1. He's excellent at spotting his horses where they can win, and not one to tax his stable to take punchers' chances, as I see it.

So, one could argue that Brown simply thinks he's got the better horse than Bob Baffert's Justify.

Yet, Brown's announcement that Good Magic will bypass the Belmont Stakes in three weeks makes me questioning the horse's entry at all in the Preakness.

I suppose there's two sides of the coin -- heads says the connections feel they've got a fresh enough horse who can upset the apple cart and give his all in the Preakness, or tails says jockey Jose Ortiz is going to be under strict instructions to let Good Magic settle into the race mid-pack and hit the gas if the horse has energy, or tap the brakes so as to avoid injuring a $2 million winner who will shoot for more-lucrative riches in the Breeders Cup and, after that, the breeding shed.

Tails is the call. 

My projections and Preakness-specific plays to follow are influenced by the "race shape," or how the field of eight will stack up going into the back stretch. Sporting Chance holds the key. If he's on the lead and Justify stalks, we'll be in great shape. If he stumbles, well, back to the office on Monday morning to keep earning a living wage, so to speak.

The Field

  1. Quip (12-1): Third choice on the morning line at a high number tells us what the odds-maker thinks about the field. You'll hear a lot of the "wise guys" pick this one, citing that the horse is rested, has early speed and a great shot to sit just behind Justify and win in "ground-saving" (skimming the rail) fashion. Can he do those? Sure. Is he good enough to factor late? Not in my opinion. I give very little credence to winners of the Tampa Bay Derby, which is a Kentucky Derby prep race in early March at a track that's a cut below the prominent winter-circuit course on the other side of Florida -- Gulfstream Park. Todd Pletcher, who trains a ton of talented horses for wealthy connections, often goes that route. It's an easy way to pick up Derby points and be in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Quip's win at Tampa was against a weak field, and he faced tougher in the Arkansas Derby on April 14 and ran the same style of race but folded in the stretch to finish a non-threatening fourth. For my money, he's not quick enough to take the Preakness field wire-to-wire and could end up pinned along the rail and running at one pace. I'll use him 4th in the superfecta.
  2. Lone Sailor (15-1): This one should be the third choice. He's getting Irad Ortiz for the first time and ran a much better race than his eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby lets on. I've watched his trip in that race vs. #8 Bravazo's several times and merely think Lone Sailor got the worst of it, hemmed in along the rail and stymied when trying to shift out later on to make a run at the leaders. Granted, he's got only one win in nine lifetime starts (that was on a sloppy track, by the way), but if Justify and Good Magic begin to fade, I think we're going to see this one gobbling up ground late. Lone Sailor is my second choice and is key to all tickets.
  3. Sporting Chance (30-1): I have a soft spot for this D. Wayne Lucas trainee and believe that, by season's end, he'll be an extremely prominent factor as a 7-furlong sprinter toward the Breeders Cup. This one didn't make the Kentucky Derby but ran in the undercard that afternoon, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile. To me, and this is a significant point, the replay shows two things: Sporting Chance was keen, and absolutely hated getting mud kicked in his face. You can clearly see him turning his head several times, which to me indicates he was uncomfortable. If you look at how fast the early tempo was in the Pat Day (45 and two-fifths second for a half mile), Sporting Chance makes a lot of sense as the pace-setter this afternoon and one who might not be able to "get the distance" but carousel home to a fading third or fourth.
  4. Diamond King (30-1): The connections scratched out of the same Pat Day Mile and opted for this spot, so one could argue that the fresher Diamond King is a better play than Sporting Chance at the same odds, but I disagree. His two stakes wins were of far lesser caliber, and his prior race (Federico Tedesco Stakes at Laurel Park) doesn't match up here. Pass.
  5. Good Magic (3-1): I'll have double the egg on my face with this weekend's calls and concede that I was way wrong in taking a stand against once he wins, but only one Kentucky Derby runner-up has won the Preakness in the last 25 years, and the logic of entering here and already stating that he'll skip the Belmont, to me, is a bad sign. The horse took the off conditions in the Kentucky Derby, but I think the plan here is to sit fourth or fifth off the speed, try to save ground, and make one big run. We saw that he's clearly not as fast from the gate as Justify, though I guess if it's just "not Justify's day," Good Magic can win solely by class against weaker company. Betting wise, I'm outside the $100+ exacta budget and don't think it's worth playing a Justify-Good Magic combo that others will endorse. I'm using him strictly third and fourth on my tickets.
  6. Tenfold (20-1): I totally disagree with the morning line and think he should be the second-longest shot on the board. I respect trainer Steve Asmussen but think they're overshooting here with a son of super-sire (and former Preakness winner) Curlin after a fading fifth-place effort (vs. nine) in the Arkansas Derby where the jockey had to go to the whip far from home. Pass.
  7. Justify (1-2): Again, probably not a win-bet proposition, but if he goes off at the morning line, it could be the easiest 50% return on investment you get within a two-minute span. He's simply the class of the field who can get the lead and has already won twice on sloppy to muddy tracks, including in California, which is rare. Top selection. How about that for going out on a limb...said the guy who's always in search of playable long-shots. It's rare I like a favorite this month, and maybe it's buyer beware, but easily the class here.
  8. Bravazo (20-1): I backed him a bit in the Kentucky Derby and he ran a respectable sixth but never threatened. I thought he could hit the board two weeks ago and almost did, but he simply got a much cleaner trip than Lone Sailor, so his result looks better. He's probably not fast enough to be in the top two, but I'll use him third and fourth. With the wider post just outside of Justify, you might see jockey Luis Saez try and sit just off the champ's flank and hope to have some gas left for a shocking upset. I'm not concerned about fatigue, since trainer Lucas is a little older-school and never seems too worried about wheeling his horses back quickly. But I just think he's an "underneath" horse. Rounding out the trifecta and superfecta is the ceiling.

Probably Wagers

Later on I might cobble together a Pick 5 ticket going into this race, so check back this afternoon if you'd like. But, to me, the key to a successful wagering day hinges on Justify winning, Good Magic finishing no better than third, and either Lone Sailor or Sporting Chance finishing second.

I'm investing $54 in the race, but you can cut back on denominations and my "backup" tickets and probably still have some fun with $20-$25.

Good luck to those confiding in my selections.
  • $10 exacta 7-2 (Justify-Lone Sailor)
  • $4 exacta 7-3 (Justify-Sporting Chance)
  • $5 trifecta 7 with 2 with 3, 5 = $10
  • $2 trifecta 7 with 2 with 8 = $2
  • $1 superfecta 7 with 2, 3 with 2, 3, 5, 8 with 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 = $18
  • Backup selections, in case Justify fades to second
  • $1 trifecta 2 with 7 with 3, 5, 8 = $3
  • $1 trifecta 3 with 7 with 2, 5, 8 = $3
  • $1 trifecta 2, 3 with 2, 3 with 7 = $2
  • $1 exacta box 2-3 = $2
  • If Justify flops, then it's no dice for me. 

Pick 5 (Races 9-13) Tickets: Updated 2 p.m. ET

  • $1 Pick 5: 4, 8 with 2, 7 with 7 with 8 with 7 = $4
  • 50-cent Pick 5: 4 with 2, 4, 5, 7 with 1, 3, 7 with 2, 8 with 2, 7 = $24
  • 50-cent Pick 5: 8 with 2, 4, 5, 7 with 7 with 8 with 2, 5, 7 = $6

Thursday, May 17, 2018

2018 Black Eyed Susan Pick: Goodonehoney

Although it pays just a quarter of the purse of the Kentucky Oaks and is a grade below, I still treat the second leg of the "Filly Triple Crown" -- the Black Eyed Susan -- as a major stakes and will allocate a $50 bankroll, similar to two weeks ago, when turning that amount into a $400 day.

The field is much softer here, in my opinion, with a handful of three-year-olds who've put together some strong performances, albeit greatly inconsistent. There's only one filly with a graded stakes victory (#3, Coach Rocks, 7-to-2), while a few others have won lower-echelon stakes.

The inclement weather throws a wrench into my prospects to play multi-race exotics involving the Black Eyed Susan, shouldn't favor one horse over another. Recent form will hold much larger sway, as I see it, and so I'll build my wagering budget solely around this race and one runner in particular.

Goodonehoney is my selection.

This girl's opponents have a lot more experience, but seem of lesser quality than the Kentucky Oaks, and Goodonehoney's last race was the most visually impressive. She won on debut on March 24 at three-quarters of a mile in nearby Laurel Park before transitioning on April 21 to a mile-and-a-sixteenth and jumping up vs. stakes company, where she won stylishly.

What I liked most in watching the replay was how Goodonehoney responded in the stretch and appeared to accelerate and can switch leads, before finishing the race in a relatively snappy time for the closing eighth of a mile. To me, it looked like she had lots left in the tank and will have no problems getting the added distance on Friday at a mile-and-an-eighth.

Let's take a look at each of the 10 runners in the field before breaking down my wagers.

Field for the 2018 Black Eyed Susan 

  1. Tell Your Mama (20-1): She's 0-for-10 lifetime and looks one-paced. It's hard to endorse a maiden vs. stakes company, even when drawing a top jockey like Javier Castellano. Pass.
  2. Midnight Disguise (SCRATCHED): Disappointed she's out of the race, as several things turn me off here and I thought she'd take other people's money. 
  3. Coach Rocks (7-2): The morning-line favorite, and only graded-stakes winner, got a decent trip in the Oaks, save for some bumping at the head of the stretch. She very well could inherit the lead and save lots of ground along the rail, but visually I didn't like what I saw two weeks ago and find no published works since then. Maybe 4th if not too tired.
  4. Red Ruby (5-1): Sorta short odds for a horse whose trainer is 0-for-28 in graded stakes. She seemed to struggle in the Grade 3 Honeybee at Oaklawn in March. Maybe two months off and a hustling rider help, but another one, to me, whose ceiling is 4th.
  5. Mihrab (30-1): Call me crazy, but this long-shot from trainer Graham Motion is a legit contender. I thought about making her my top selection, but she's one who prefers to close from out of the clouds. One that I'd definitely keep my eye on later in the season with more experience, though speed ability's a question. Projecting she'll run 2nd or 3rd
  6. C.S. Incharge (15-1): I'll use her in my trifecta just to be safe but am concerned that she's a bit distance limited. If she's toward the lead early, maybe she hangs on late for minor awards, but her effort in the Ashland in April was a huge negative. Ceiling is 3rd or 4th.
  7. Goodonehoney (5-1): As the lone Maryland-bred, bettors may gravitate toward the hometown hero, but she's still a solid win proposition even if 7-2/4-1. I'm not familiar with the connections other than they're close to me near Monmouth Park, and sometimes think the local jockeys are at a disadvantage when the top national riders invade. Yet she completely dusted the 8 horse, Indy Union, by seven lengths a month ago and looks serious on video. Plus she's shown an ability to win on the lead or off the pace. Will win, finish second at worst.
  8. Indy Union (10-1): I considered her more seriously based on a few things on paper, but after watching the Weber City Miss hated how green she looked in her sixth lifetime start moving into the stretch. Second off a layoff may augur well, but I'm targeting 3rd or 4th at best.
  9. Sara Street (4-1): This one was my top selection in the Gazelle at Aqueduct on April 7 and lost that one by a half length and was gutsy. She'll be on the lead and carry the distance, but I just think Goodonehoney's a bit better, and if the pace is really hot she'll get passed by Mihrab and potentially others. Definitely useful in the 2nd, 3rd or 4th position in exotics.
  10. Stakes On a Plane (20-1): Also comes out of the Weber City but at one point got some eight lengths ahead of Indy Union and yet was passed by her at the finish. Local jockey Sheldon Russell will presumably let the outside speed clear, tuck in at the rail and hope to get a dream trip around Pimlico and that his horse likes thick mud kicked in her face. Pass.

Probably Wagers on $50 Bankroll

  • $10 Win 7 = $10
  • $5 Exacta Key Box: 7 with 5, 9 = $20
  • $1 Trifecta: 7 with 5, 9 with 3-6, 8, 9 = $10
  • $6 Black Eyed Susan-Preakness Daily Double: 7 with 7 = $6
  • $2 Black Eyed Susan-Preakness Daily Double 5 with 7 = $2
    • Using Justify as a strong single in the Preakness Stakes leg of the double.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Sad Over Broken Public Handicapper-NHC Ties

As I write, enjoying my coffee after an excessively long workweek and about to get in some errands before this afternoon's live contest at Monmouth Park, it's with some sadness that I lack the motivation as I normally would to decipher this week's four races for the Public Handicapper Challenge.

I've played it for about the past decade, and will continue to, and even served as an editor for a short while. You can't imagine how honored I felt a few contests back when site founder Scott Carson invited me to be one of the six elite to provide my insights on big national races each week. I had a blast doing it, especially as a one-time sports writer who gave up that career track in order to actually have off on evenings, Saturdays and Sundays.

The friend who introduced me to the circuit around '07-'08, Terry Flanagan, often says it's the purest form of handicapping skill out there, and I tend to agree.

There's no hedging. You can't buy multiple entries for yourself, your spouse and three pet poodles in a bid to stack the deck. Picks must be locked in at least an hour before post time.

One-time fill-in editor's laments
diminished allure of 2018 contest
You must pick winners, and at times choose between that 3-to-5 shot you love -- and whether the $1.20 notional profit is enough reward for your risk in a six-month tournament -- or forgo that selection for a horse that's going to pay closer to $30 if you think the gigantic favorite can misfire.

And there's no turning back once your pick's locked in.

Yet there's a major difference this season.

The winner (and I forget, but it might have been two at one point) will not get a berth to the National Handicapping Horseplayers Championship (NHC).

Some critics love to bash the actual value of an NHC berth, arguing that the takeout is too high and NTRA is using it more to fund other ventures such as political lobbying and salaries.

Say what you want about the NHC structure, but the allure to me is having to win your way into the tournament in order to have a shot -- sorta like grinding it out over a 162-game MLB or 18-month NHL schedule (who else thinks hockey season is eternal?) to get a chance to win the title.

That being said, this year's prize for the best "public handicapper" is a berth to the 2019 Horseplayer World Series (HPWS), held at the Orleans in Las Vegas in late March and a tournament where anyone can walk in off the street and pay $1,500 to enter.

Is a free HPWS berth worth kicking to the curb?

Certainly not, especially when the Public Handicapper's entry fee is $0. Plus it's a good venue for those of us who don't want to plunk down parimutuels all the time to assess our skills or work on our handicapping game.

There's something on the line...even when there's physically nothing on the line.

It's also a potential way to attract new players, where the industry should turn its focus.

So, what has happened? A thicker alphabet soup.

Well, the Daily Racing Forum now seems to own Public Handicapper, and has cannibalized the tournament circuit even more with the rollout of something called "The World Championship of Handicapping."

WCH's premise of a zero-takeout $1 million contest is likely a better venue for those who've argued that NHC's roughly 30% fee is egregious and cheapens the allure of that tournament, but's a tournament anyone can enter.

WCH is a higher $5,000 price point than HPWS, but same deal for me in that you don't earn your way into the event.

Without belaboring the issue, the sad part is that DRF isn't even using Public Handicapper to give away a direct entry to its own event.

Unless I'm missing the connection, I'm not sure HPWS ties into WCH at all.

Then again the alphabet soup that the handicapping-tournament circuit has become since I got involved is enough to make one's head spin.

It's a big enough reason why as a part-time player with limited disposable hours I'll likely remain focused on the NHC.

I don't have the time to try and qualify for what's shaping up to be dozens of major national tournament. Therefore I primarily focus on one.

And, in a subtle way, DRF minimized the value of Public Handicapper participation by negating the one-time benefit of PH as a scoring event for the NHC Tour standings.

That being said, the two-three free hours I've got this morning will be better spent picking up flowers and necessary ingredients for tomorrow's Mother's Day dinner.

Friday, May 4, 2018

2018 Kentucky Derby Pick: Bolt d'Oro

On the heels of turning $50 into $400 with successful win and primary trifecta wagers in the Kentucky Oaks (and live to three runners in the Oaks-Derby daily double), one would think that my confidence is sky high going into the Derby, but the Run for the Roses is the proverbial crapshoot.

There's not another North American where you'll find 20 horses in the starting gate, plus I don't think I've hit a Derby winner since Street Sense in 2007.

Since then, I'd have had more success finding water in the Sahara Desert than in the Derby.

Yet it's no fun to be on the sidelines, and so I'll take another shot at two-minute glory.

Bolt d'Oro is my selection.

In a field this large, you're halfway home if your horse(s) can survive the first 100-200 yards and avoid getting slammed or cut off in the run into the first turn. Successful horses tend to accomplish that first, then get close enough to the pace without overheating or drawing off too soon.

And there's no more savvy a Derby jockey in the field than Victor Espinoza, who knows a thing or two about winning at Churchill Downs -- on California Chrome and American Pharoah in case you forgot.

Espinoza climbs aboard Bolt for the first time, which could be construed as a negative, yet I see it as an enormous plus for a horse that's quick enough from the gate to establish a two- to three-wide spot off of race favorite Justify's flank. From there, it's all a matter of whether Bolt's talented enough to close the deal and fend off the challengers.

For my money, his 8-to-1 morning line and late-Friday "live" odds of 9-to-1 signal that, as a win proposition, we're sitting on about a $20 winner per $2 wager.

Justify and Hofburg are my key "underneath" horses.

It's hard to knock a 3-to-1 horse like Justify, who boasts far greater "speed figures" than most of the field, yet he's also only had three lifetime starts and needed to win the Santa Anita Derby in early April to earn the points to qualify for the Derby.

I played him in a handicapping contest that afternoon, and his win in that race locked up my berth in the 2019 National Horseplayers Championship.

Yet there are chinks in the armor, the main ones being that primary contender Bolt d'Oro already qualified for the Kentucky Derby and was using the Santa Anita race as a tune-up and experimented with sitting back further behind the leader. I'm merely speculating, but it looked to me like Bolt just needed the experience, while the rest of what was a bad field let Justify have his way and made him look stellar.

Don't get me wrong, I do think he's a great horse, but front-runners typically don't win wire-to-wire at the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance; and so I think he hits the board, but underneath the winner.

Hofburg, meanwhile, is intriguing. You'll get every bit of his 20-to-1 morning line, but his first time against other winners -- the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31 -- was certainly good enough to put him in the mix at Churchill Downs.

Here's a little on where I stand with each horse and likely Derby-specific wagers I'll be making on my annual $100 bankroll.

The Field 

  1. Firenze Fire (50-1): I learned my lesson backing the great Lookin at Lucky in 2010 from the rail and he practically got run into it before finishing a game fifth. That was on a really talented horse, and I wouldn't put this one in the same category. Pass.
  2. Free Drop Billy (30-1): Post-comprised as well, but I thought his 3rd-place finish in the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 7 offers signs here that he can follow the speed-ball Promises Fulfilled out of the gate, avert disaster and ride the rail and maybe hit the board. I'm using him to round out my exacta and trifecta tickets. Probably 3rd at best, but maybe 2nd with a totally clean trip around the inside rail
  3. Promises Fulfilled (30-1): Will be up front with Justify for about a half mile at most then fade. Complete pass.
  4. Flameaway (30-1): Outran Free Drop Billy in the Bluegrass, but is doomed if Promises Fulfilled gets a better break from the gate. Need-the-lead type. Speed, fade. Pass.
  5. Audible (8-1): I know that horses off the Florida circuit have done well here, and you're getting the best of Todd Pletcher's four, but I can't get past his post position. The five hole should be opportune, but in this case I think he has way too many early-speed horses to each side who could compromise his chances. Concerned he'll be far back and have a lot of ground to make up, I'm using him strictly for 2nd and 3rd.
  6. Good Magic (12-1): Not sure why the two-year-old Breeders Cup champ got such a high morning-line, but I think he's in the same boat as Audible, though I think he'll sit closer to the pace. Same deal, using underneath in 2nd and 3rd.
  7. Justify (3-1): Much as we saw with the over-hyped Oaks favorite Midnight Bisou, I've got questions about such low odds for a horse with only three lifetime starts on one track. This guy seems to run with great ease, but let's see him hold the speed at 10 furlongs and deal with 19 others breathing down his neck. Can win, and will use as one of three Derby keys. I just see him finishing third at best.
  8. Lone Sailor (50-1): 0-for-7 since winning last September at Saratoga in a sprint. Won't get the distance. Closer with not huge late kick. Pass.
  9. Hofburg (20-1): If trying to cash a big win ticket, this is the play. Last I checked he was 23-to-1 in the live odds, but that's misguided. His second-place run in the Florida Derby was checkered a bit by a suspect ride by the other Ortiz brother (Jose), who settled early toward the rear, made a visually impressive run in the backstretch and then, perhaps on heels of others, pulled back a bit and lost all momentum before re-rallying to finish three lengths behind Audible. He's a live long-shot that I'm using in the win spot on exacta and trifecta tickets. 
  10. My Boy Jack (30-1): Deep closer who, if he hits the board, will do so from 10-15 length back. Somewhat useful for third or fourth.
  11. Bolt d'Oro (8-1): Battle-tested horse who's making his third start off a layoff and gets a great post where he can factor if positioned off Justify's flank in to the first turn and backstretch. The critics may pan his efforts, but he was all guts in the San Felipe in early March and further back from a wide post last November in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. winner.
  12. Enticed (30-1): One-paced stalker and I've learned my lesson putting stock in horses who look good coming out of the New York winter circuit. Pass.
  13. Bravazo (50-1): On paper many will say "no chance." Yet I'm using him underneath on all tickets. The pluses are a Grade 2 victory (Risen Star Stakes), a real grinder's approach and a jockey-trainer combo that has won recently at big odds (Warrior's Club at 23-to-1 in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland on April 7). Write off this D. Wayne Lukas horse all you want, and maybe he runs as poorly as he did in the Louisiana Derby, but I think he's going to hang around the leaders for awhile and you may hear his name called late. Maybe not to win, but certainly to finish in the top four. 
  14. Mendelssohn (5-1): Crushed the field in the UAE Derby in Dubai in late March, but runner-up Rayya's complete flop in the Kentucky Oaks is less than flattering for the second-choice based on morning-line odds. Now, he did win the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf in November on U.S. soil (grass, technically) but I think he's going to be over-bet and lack value. I'll play defense and use him in the 3rd spot in the trifecta, but not a lot of confidence.
  15. Instilled Regard (50-1): No speed, not a great stalker. Pass.
  16. Magnum Moon (6-1): Will take money off back-to-back graded stakes scores, but he has shown little versatility beyond a front-end tactic and, if he gets the lead, will need to work extremely hard to get it before fading. Pass.
  17. Solomini (30-1): One-paced horse who's a cut below. Pass.
  18. Vino Rosso (12-1): See Enticed. Has three wins, but on the weak Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs circuit, a formula for Pletcher to satisfy owners who want to run in the Derby. I'm not buying, especially from far outside. Pass.
  19. Noble Indy (30-1): Similar to Magnum Moon in tactics -- needs to get to the front -- and not nearly as good a horse as a Big Brown who won from way outside. Pass.
  20. Combatant (50-1): Broke maiden at Churchill last October. Is 0-for-5 since and never threatened to win those. What changes today? Pass.

Probably Wagers on $100 Bankroll

  • $10 Win 11 = $10
  • $5 Exacta Key Box: 11 with 7, 9 = $20
  • $1 Exacta Key Box: 11 with 2, 5, 6, 10, 13 = $10
  • $1 Exacta Key Box: 9 with 2, 5-7, 10, 13 = $12
  • $1 Exacta Key Box: 7 with 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13 = $12
  • $1 Trifecta: 11 with 7, 9 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 = $12
  • 50-cent Trifecta: 7, 9 with 11 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 = $6
  • 50-cent Trifecta: 7, 9 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 with 10, 11 = $11
  • 50-cent Pick 3, Races 10-12: 5 with 6, 7 with 2, 5-7, 9, 11, 13 = $7

Saturday Morning Additions, Thoughts on Undercard/Pick 5 Sequence

If you're going over to Monmouth Park for the live racing or to bet the Churchill Downs simulcast, here's a few ideas for the Kentucky Derby undercard. 

Race 8, Churchill Downs Stakes
  • #7, Limousine Liberal (4-1) almost won the Commonwealth at Keeneland off a 5-money layoff and loves the Churchill surface and distance, and can win on a wet track. I'm keying him in small daily double and Pick 3 tickets and estimate he nabs 9-5 Imperial Hint (#3) late.
Race 9, American Turf Stakes
  • #14, Admiralty Pier (12-1) is my top selection, and perhaps strongest opinion today. Also racing second off a 4-plus-month layoff and should find himself in a good stalking position off the primary early speed, #1 Speed Franco. There's a lot of big-time turf trainers with runners who can win here, but AP showed promise as a two-year-old and can score at a price. I'm wagering on this one to win, boxing with Speed Franco in an exacta, and using as top of 50-cent trifecta ticket over 1, 3, 6 and 10.
Race 10, Pat Day Mile
  • #5, Mississippi (10-1) is a one-turn horse who tried his hand and finished a fading third vs. Derby contestants Audible and Hofburg in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31. I love the cutback in distance and draw for a horse who'll press the pace. I'd be surprised to get the 10-to-1 morning line but am using solely in Pick 3 wagers. I've got some "backup" 50-cent Pick 3 tickets using the 1, 7 and 8 in this race as well.
Race 11, Turf Classic
  • #6, Arklow (12-1) gets the edge over #7, Synchrony (5-1) for me. I'm going "light" on this race, considering the complexity of the field and presence of 5-to-2 Beach Patrol (#10), who's the class of the field but hasn't run since the Breeders Cup in early November. The two I've sided with have two 2018 races under their belt and are formidable enough to upset. I'm boxing them together in a $2 exacta and will key them over the 1, 2 and 10 in $1 exacta.
Good luck to everyone this afternoon!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

2018 Kentucky Oaks Pick: Monomoy Girl

I'll get back into handicapping-contest themes next week, particularly the Public Handicapper's end to its ties with the NHC, but in keeping with tradition will use my next few posts to assess the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.

My Derby selections will be up by Friday.

The Oaks tends to get short shrift, set off a little after 6 p.m. ET when the average sports fan is slogging through the afternoon rush. But if you're around the television on Friday afternoon or at a pub enjoying happy hour, the coverage starts on NBCSN at 5 o'clock.

Monomoy Girl is my selection to win the Oaks and certainly worth watching, particularly against second-choice Midnight Bisou, shipping in from the California circuit.

Monomoy Girl, NJ Horseplayer's
2018 Kentucky Oaks selection,
wins the Ashland on April 7
I'm generally not a "chalk" player, but in my opinion it's a two-horse race, though we'll try to cash in on a $50 bankroll, hoping to roll trifecta and superfecta winnings into Saturday's Derby card.

First a little bit about on the Oaks field of 14:
  1. Sassy Sienna, 15-1: A closer/stalker type who can pass fading horses at the longer mile-and-an-eighth distance. Comes off a win in Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn, where the pace was blistering and she beat out another of today's runners (Wonder Gadot), basically by sitting closer to the front-runner. Ceiling is 3rd or 4th.
  2. Coach Rocks, 12-1: Won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 31 after breaking the maiden in her prior, but I'm concerned about getting squeezed by the horse just to her outside who's a burner and may leave Coach Rocks in the dust early on. Think she'll have too much ground to make up vs. better horses, but could hit the board; 3th-4th candidate.
  3. Classy Act, 15-1: The pacesetter. She'll carve out fast fractions before fading before the stretch run, similar to her two Grade 2 tries at Fair Grounds this spring. Using 4th in the superfecta.
  4. Chocolate Martini, 12-1: I know I should put much more stock in a horse coming off a Grade 2 score, but I'm having a hard time supporting a horse that a solid trainer (Bret Calhoun) ran in three straight low-level claiming races. Current trainer Tom Amoss has her in sharp form, backed by two bullet workouts in April, but to me something's fishy. Pass.
  5. Wonder Gadot, 20-1: She has hit the board in 8-of-9 tries, including three wins, though the last was back in December at Aqueduct as a two-year-old. This Mark Casse trainee has burned a lot of bettors' money, winless in her last four at odds averaging 2-to-1. With a 20-to-1 morning line I sense that many will have enough and she'll go off even higher, but she's very useful on exotic wagers. If nothing else, she'll get a garden trip as a stalker just off the primary speed horse (#3) and seems to work hard. I'm using her 3rd and 4th on the trifecta, and also 2nd for the super.
  6. Kelly's Humor, 30-1: Passing entirely, which I may regret considering top rider Irad Ortiz is aboard, but zero confidence in this one.
  7. Rayya, 12-1: She finished second in the UAE Derby to one of the Kentucky Derby wiseguy horses, Mendelssohn, but I'm inclined to pass on a horse that I think's going to take too much money. You could argue that a second-place showing for this filly vs. boys in the UAE gives her an edge vs. her own gender again, but there are too many things she's trying for the first time here -- new trainer, first-time Lasix, first-time racing in North America. Pass.
  8. Heavenhasmynikki, 50-1: Will contest pace early for about 6 furlongs then fade. Pass.
  9. Take Charge Paula, 15-1: Seen enough speed and fade from this one to know she's a sprinter and not a router. She had every opportunity to put Coach Rocks away in the Gulfstream Park Oaks and couldn't with the lead in the stretch. Will use 3rd and 4th at most.
  10. Midnight Bisou, 5-2: The aforementioned California invader will take a lot of money off well-timed closing effort in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, but I'm using her solely underneath in my wagers, as I think she's best as a closer and will need everything to go her way in order to run down the field late and win. Can she win? Certainly. Yet California-based trainer Bill Spawr is 0-for-14 with shippers (he generally keeps to the state) and just two of those finished in the money. For my money, percentages are too low as a win proposition, but use her under.
  11. My Miss Lilly, 10-1: Local rider Joe Bravo again gets the mount after riding Lilly to a win in the Grade 2 Gazelle at Aqueduct last month. But the field in that one was middling. I had second-place finisher Sara Street as a handicapping-contest pick in that race, and she almost won at 5-to-1; but both had to work hard to put home a 20-to-1 shot that day in a six-horse field. I'm using her solely on the superfecta ticket, fourth at best.
  12. Patrona Margarita, 30-1: She completed a small trifecta ticket for me in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month, but finished third almost by default. I think she regressed over her last two. Pass.
  13. Eskimo Kisses, 15-1: I was impressed by the ground she gobbled up late in the Ashland, but even trying hard she was never going to catch Monomoy Girl in that race. I'm using her on the trifecta and superfecta tickets, primarily as a closer who can pick up a share late.
  14. Monomoy Girl, 2-1: For my money, she's heads above the field. I was at Keeneland and saw her Ashland performance in person; was a thing of beauty, as she secured the lead from the rail and never looked back. Looked like a paid workout. Visually, it was one of the most stunning performances I've ever seen, and I think her outside post isn't a concern. Two races back she came from seven lengths off the pace to win the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds in February, and she even looked a bit green in the stretch in her fifth lifetime start. Tactically, I think Florent Geroux just needs a clean break from the widest post and can settle third or fourth off the leader and mow 'em down in the stretch. She's also capable as a front-runner, making her super versatile. I'm using her as a single on my tickets to win the 2018 Kentucky Oaks. 

Kentucky Oaks Wagers

Consistent with the $50 bankroll I've kept in year's past, my plays:
  • $10 Win 14, *if Monomoy Girl goes off at least 2-to-1
  • $2 Trifecta: 14 with 5, 10 with 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 = $20
  • $0.50 Trifecta: 5, 10 with 14 with 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 = $5
  • $0.50 Trifecta: 5, 10 with 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 with 14 = $5
  • $6 Oaks-Derby Double: 14 with 11 (Bolt D'Oro) = $6
  • $2 Oaks-Derby Double: 14 with 9 (Hofburg), 13 (Bravazo) = $4
  • *Superfecta (cannot bet in 10-cent denominations via 4NJBets, hence scratching out this one) : 14 with 5, 10, 13 with 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 with 1-3, 5, 9, 11, 13