Monday, February 28, 2011

Random thoughts on Aqueduct, NHC

The least bit scientific, but some numbers support my contention that there have to be better cards than at Aqueduct for Monmouth Park's Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) winter events.  Results of SSC #2 are not published, but the average win payout for the 10 races on Aqueduct's card was a meager $7.70.  Chalk-player delight, but not my taste, so I'm sort of glad I was unavailable to compete this week. Meanwhile, 11-race cards at Gulfstream and Tampa yielded average win payouts of $12.30 and $13, respectively, while the Gulfstream finale winner paid $19.60 and the last two winners at Tampa paid $28.60 and $12, making for some late contest theater.

I know that handicapping is handicapping, whether one prefers to play 1-to-9 shots or 99-1 shots, but Aqueduct, in my opinion, offers few compelling plays in a simulcast contest format.  Perhaps an anomaly, but 8 of the 10 Aqueduct winners paid $7.20 or less.

Meanwhile, the payouts for the 10-race February play-in for 9 NHC seats on would suggest that there were probably few late movers in a contest that started with 39% of peak profit potential paid out in the first two races (Action Andy in the 5th from Tampa, $32.80 W/P, and Beckham Bend in the 5th from GP, $32 W/P) while 5 of the next 7 races ran closely to form.  In all, picking the winner of each of the 10 races would have yielded $167 for mythical $2W/P wagers.

The next NHCQ event, the first of three upcoming Sunday play-ins for the March 27 championship, is scheduled for March 6; 300 spots are available at $100 per entry, up to two entries per player.  The top 30 from each play-in advance to a 90-player championship for 9 NHC seats.  And I'll throw in my two cents on this tournament too...organizers should limit entries to 1 per person until 24 hours before the contest, or something to that effect.  I understand the need to fill 300 seats to guarantee maximum headcount, but it'd be nice to give players more of a chance to enter than first-come, first-served.  I have often seen a number of contestants with two entries.

P.S.  I disagree a bit with Mike Watchmaker's blog on Soldat on after Saturday's Fountain of Youth and consider him easily one of the top contenders on the Derby Trail.  The horse easily won, and To Honor and Serve's connections' comments before the race (that they were using the race more as a prep than as something to win) were a huge red flag, in my view.  I know the Kentucky Derby is the brass ring, and races like the Fountain are "preps," but as the occasional bettor I am irritated by apologist mentality of commentators and connections in such spots.  Enter the race to win, or spend more time in training until the horse is absolutely ready to run in as big an event as a $400k Grade 2.  Or run a lesser stakes or allowance.  Perhaps indirect, but I think it's a slight to the horse that actually prepped well and won, and unfair to discredit the connections (Soldat, in this case) for properly preparing their horse.

Friday, February 25, 2011

3 Gulfstream stakes highlight PH card

Unless I can find a proxy for Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge at Monmouth Park, I'll unfortunately be on the "real-money contest" sidelines until the March 19 event, which now seems like a million years away.  I have four hours of nonstop hoops coaching, then family events tomorrow, so unless I find an SSC proxy, I'll focus Saturday on the three Public Handicapper races (where I'm 1-for-10 in '11) from Gulfstream.  Take my projections with a grain of salt, though I broke an 0-for-February skid yesterday evening in the Santa Anita free online handicapping challenge.

Mending Hearts (10-to-1 M/L) draws the rail in the Grade 2 Davona Dale and is my pick in her first against winners and stakes competition.  The maiden-breaking score on January 7 from the 10 post, plus my view that the Forward Gal Stakes was not all that impressive a benchmark (9-to-1 winner Pomeroy's Pistol received only an 84 Beyer for the 7f sprint in 1:22.89), gives me confidence that the inside draw will help Mending Hearts.  Plus, the horse closed well in its two prior tries, which I view favorably in a field that has some early lick.  Otherwise, Oh Carole looks like she can step forward, but I'm a little concerned by Julian Leparoux's move to the outside horse and M/L favorite Dancinginherdreams, whom I caution could get boxed out early by speedier horses to her inside (Pomeroy's Pistol and Roxy Gap, the latter of whom was pointed toward the 2010 Breeders Cup and I gave deep consideration at 6-to-1 and appears versatile, but has been beset by health woes and a sporadic work tab since three straight wins as a two-year-old at Woodbine).  The January 5 effort in the Grade 3 Old Hat, and the three-week break in the work tab, give me pause as well that this horse might not be fully fit.  So, for I'm going 1-4-9.

Leave of Absence (12-to-1 M/L) can improve and is my lukewarm choice to score in the Grade 2 Hutcheson.  There is a TON of early speed in this 7-furlong event in the 9th at Gulfstream, but my knock against some of the classier types in the 9-horse field is that many scored in 5-horse events that did not match the pace I anticipate here.  Plus, I think Leave of Absence's problems in the last two races have been at the gate, so the addition of blinkers might improve his focus.  All but Leave of Absence will be eager to set the pace, so I'm hoping for sub-22/sub-45 second splits and an extreme meltdown down the stretch.  Leave's second-place effort in the $100k Spectacular Bid on Jan. 8 at Gulfstream, where with no room to pass on the rail jockey Rajiv Maragh shifted the horse to about the 5-hole in the stretch, gives me some confidence that the 3-year-old colt can close the field and sit closer to the early pace.  Shortening up from a mile can't hurt either.  My selections for are 7-3-8.

Finally, I am not normally a chalk player, but I am enamored with Soldat (2-to-1 M/L) in the Fountain of Youth stakes, going 9 furlongs on the dirt and especially with the rail draw into the quick first turn.  Soldat ran a close second in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf to Pluck, who is my top early choice for the Kentucky Derby.  I'm not a huge believer in Gourmet Dinner, who faded at the end of the Holy Bull and benefited from great fortune to win at 20-to-1 in the Delta Downs Jackpot.  Hitting again on the 5-horse field angle noted above, I want to see 8-to-5 favorite To Honor and Serve beat more than a small field before considering endorsing this one.  Otherwise, Bowman's Causeway was in the money in two Gulfstream shots, so maybe I'd throw him underneath: 1-7-5.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Good first effort for Night School; worth checking out

One of my 10-cent observations about the thoroughbred industry and the NHC is a lack of mainstream publicity (a good thing if the industry wants to continue to fly under the radar, rather than creating a World Poker Tour-style venue replete with regular TV appearances) and sporadic formal horseplayer education.  Addressing the latter, the first of 40 "Night School" fan education series last night was a nice springboard to interest new players about the game while helping experienced players at the same time.

and evidently 2,200 others sat through last night's 90-minute web chat at Horse Player Now, and it was worthwhile.  Obviously, the effort took a lot of coordination, so kudos to the site for running relatively without glitches.  The forum was pretty broad-based and served as a test-run for more-specific topics about the industry and handicapping, as evidenced by next Monday night's focus on Handicapping For Class.  The forum, much like last night's, is scheduled to run from 8:30-10 p.m. ET.

The only recommendation I have is to reduce the number of panelists; last night, there were five top-notch experts, including Jill Byrne of Churchill Downs and Jim Miller of Hawthorne Park, but I sensed that each was constrained a bit in the amount of commentary they could provide and all might be better served with fewer experts at once and more of a focus on a select guest for the particular discussion.  Nonetheless, it was a wonderful endeavor that I intend to attend on a weekly basis.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Night School" fan education forum a great idea

The NTRA's "Night School" interactive fan education forum kicks off tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET, offered free to any racing fan "who wants to learn more about the game."  The event, which can be viewed from the websites of any of a number of NTRA-member race tracks, is geared for both novice and more-advanced horse players.  In  my view, this is an excellent opportunity for handicap hobbyists like me, and to introduce new fans to the sport who can engage in the intellectual challenge of deciphering past performances to find winners at the track.

Separately, the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita was won impressively by The Factor, but to me the runner-up, Sway Away, showed clear signs of wanting to stretch out and is on my Derby watch list.  Sway Away began very slowly but gave every indication of more than a 7-furlong sprinter.  That said, The Factor is an extremely impressive sprinter, and it will be interesting to see where the connections next point this horse.  My choice in yesterday's San Vicente, Sinai, finished a well-beaten 5th and seemed to fight Rafael Bejarano in the stretch.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday's San Vicente at Santa Anita worth watching

OK, so I'm zero for February in the Del Mar free online winter contest, but will be keeping an eye on Sinai (8-to-1) in the Grade 2 San Vicente 7f dirt stakes worth $150k.  The field was reduced to 7 with scratches of the two biggest prices on the morning line, but there are lots of intriguing angles and tons of speed.

The Factor (8-to-5 M/L) was visually impressive in an 8-length maiden-breaking score on December 26 at Santa Anita, but the other horses in the field look a bit more seasoned, all having run in some level of stakes race leading to today's contest.  The Factor, Premier Pegasus and City Cool all show 21-second first-quarter foot but should be stalked by Sway Away and Sinai.

In my view, Sinai is a great value at 8-to-1 with the Bejarano-Baffert connection and was steadied at the 3/8 pole in the San Pedro on January 17 and then cut off near the wire along the rail to finish a game 3rd to Indian Winter.  From watching the video, Sinai still managed to reclaim some ground after being steadied and, with a clean trip, can stalk and beat the field in the San Vicente.  We'll see.

So much for Justin Phillip

Briefly recapping Saturday's futility, I was dead wrong about Justin Phillip in the Risen Star (got bumped a bit at the start by long shot Action Ready and never really participated) and the series of changes (i.e. rider change for the injured Eibar Coa and removal of blinkers) for Mucho Macho Man, who was very impressive in outracing Santiva to the finish.  On the other hand, I wasn't that far off on Rogue Romance, and Machen looked decent but did not justify the short price off a 6-to-1 M/L.

Meanwhile, does anyone else have that jockey who always wins when you shy away but loses when you show support?  For me, it's Joe Bravo.  Sleepless Knight was absolutely full of run in the Fair Grounds Handicap and should have won, and for some reason all riders let Rosie Napravnik and Workin for Hops crawl on the lead in 26.3, 53.2 and 1:18.3.  Sleepless Knight got a great ground-saving trip, but was compromised down the stretch when Hops tired and appeared to drift in toward the rail, prompting a 5-wide move that, in my view, proved the difference between victory and 32-to-1 shot Expansion scoring the win (and probably ruining many short-price players' day at the contest).  In hindsight, the pace could not have proven more perfect for Expansion, especially if you go back and look at the horse's win in the 2009 Grade 2 Red Smith and close 3rd in the 2010 Grade 1 ManOWar.  Meanwhile, Shau Bridgmohan did me no favors in my contest, failing to rate Joinem close enough to the lead to have the momentum to close against snail-like fractions.  Ah, the joy of handicapping!

By the way, I received an email that the online qualifying site for the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge is now open.  Please feel free to share feedback if you have participated in last year's event.  As only a casual contest player, it is hard for me to commit the time to events outside of the occasional NHC qualifiers, but it does seem like a great proposition for a $100 entry fee.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Interesting sequence in Fair Grounds 8-9-10

My focus today is the 3-race sequence comprising 3 of the 4 contest races on; the other is the Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream, where I am blindly going with Stately Victor (from my DRF Watch List) at 12-to-1 in an 11-furlong turf race versus some wily veterans such as Al Khali and and Prince Will I Am.  My extensive handicapping, hopefully, will yield better than an 0-for-3 finish at FG, but here goes nothing...

Three scratches in the 8th, the Grade 2 Mineshaft (8.5f on the dirt) shrinks the field down to six runners and has me leaning toward Mission Impazible at a 3-to-1 M/L off a decent place finish on January 23 at Gulfstream. I am more than willing to toss the Kentucky Derby effort and simply think this is the classiest horse in the field; plus, I'm banking on bettors favoring Apart (trainer Al Stall is 7-for-15 in graded stakes) and Demarcation (leading jockey).  In my view, Midnight Mischief is worth tossing, and Le Grand Cru is only occasionally very fast and could get hooked up in a duel with Z Humor.  Not a great betting race in and of itself, but were I putting a Pick 3 ticket together it would be a thrifty $8 play (3,4 w/ 4,5,7,8 w/ 9).

Narrowing down two longer angles in the 9th, the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap (9f on turf), I landed on Joinem (10-to-1 M/L) over 8-to-1 M/L Sleepless Knight.  It was difficult to put aside my Monmouth bias, considering that Joe Bravo is riding Sleepless Knight for Kelly Breen, but the DRF past performance notes suggest that Joinem had a difficult trip in his last effort (a Grade 3 event at 8.5f) but still finished a game 3rd versus Gran Estreno and Dubious Miss, two other runners in today's field (at M/Ls of 5-to-1 and 8-to-1, respectively).  Dubious Miss gets a good post draw, and Corey Lanerie and Paul McGee are winning at a 25% clip in 16 Fair Grounds races this year, but I anticipate will lock horns with Workin for Hops (9-to-2 M/L) and could tire in the long Fair Grounds stretch. I was willing to throw out the two outside horses, as well as favored (3-to-1) Loup Breton (off since July) and Telling (a one-trick closer who connects every so often...once when I didn't have him), and like the recent efforts of my two selections.

In the Grade 2 Risen Star at 8.5f on dirt, I love Justin Phillip at 8-1 M/L.  The LeComte is a throwaway and the horse obviously did not like wearing blinkers, so with the equipment change today, plus the Beyer progression prior to the LeComte would suggest this horse can handle the distance (see the $50k optional claimer on Jan. 1) and is versatile (won at 6f in 2nd maiden special weight event at Belmont on Sept. 18) enough to either score from the lead or stalking the pace.  A game 3rd-place finish to Brethren and El Grayling is nothing to scoff at either.  I am leaning away from the three morning-line favorites for very specific reasons.  Rogue Romance (3-to-1) concerns me a bit even with the rail draw and a bit of Fool's Gold with the long-distance 3rd-place finish in the Breeders Cup Juvenile; I'm just concerned with the track notes with this horse's penchant for running 4w-6w in three of its four races.  There is too much noise surrounding Mucho Macho Man (4-to-1), considering the rider change and blinkers off, for me to consider, and 9-to-2 Decisive Moment looks like a good bullring-type runner off the recent Delta Downs score in which half the field were cut off in the final turn by a horse (Aces N Kings) who broke down and veered out in front of the strong closers.  I simply like Justin Phillip at a price.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Eibar Coa fractures C-4 vertebra reports that Eibar Coa fractured the C-4 vertebra in his neck in a spill at Gulfstream. My thoughts and prayers are with Eibar and his family as he reportedly undergoes surgery this evening.

Dabbling in some Kentucky Derby fantasy contests

Keeping my real powder dry until perhaps Simulcast Series Challenge 2 at Monmouth Park next Saturday, for some giggles I entered two online Kentucky Derby fantasy contests - the 2011 Run for the Roses and the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Starters.  There is nothing really scientific, in my view, about these types of contests, but it is a good way for me to keep track of some horses of interest ahead of the Derby on May 7.

One "under-the-radar" horse I've got in both contests is Rustler Hustler, whose last race (G1 Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood back in December) is a total throwout; RH finished 6th on the synthetic in a monsoon-like rainstorm.  Otherwise, I'm a huge fan of Soldat and Pluck, though the latter was not an available selection for my 10-horse stable in the Run for the Roses contest.  No loss there.

Meanwhile, registration is open for the NHC Tour Free Online Challenge on Sunday, March 6.  The first of these free online challenges drew some 1,500 contestants, if I recall, though I'm sure headcount will be a lot higher with more people presumably forking over the $45 annual NHC membership. Four sets will be up for grabs, though winning these is akin to throwing darts to pick successful stocks.

Interesting reading, too, on Alex Waldrop's NTRA blog.  Last week, he pointed to a great piece, dispelling the myth that racing is in demise.  And tying into the aforementioned Kentucky Derby theme, check out this week's blog from Mr. Waldrop.  By the way, I would be curious if anyone is a fan of the Derby futures wagers.  I understand the concept, but isn't it hard enough to get the horse in one piece to Churchill Downs (see Tapizar) without plucking some cash down on it?

Tomorrow I'll post some selections on the Fair Grounds races that comprise 3 of the 4 in this week's Public Handicapper, plus perhaps lament about how bad my selections have been in the Santa Anita online contest.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts on Tackleberry; More NHC dates posted

Just a quick thought from this past Saturday, when my Gulfstream handicapping (outside of my DRF "Watch Horse" Furthest Land scoring for me at 5-to-2) was about that Tackleberry!

In a case of paralysis by over-analysis, I let Sunshine Millions Classic winner Tackleberry pass at a very attractive 5-to-1, concerned that the horse might bounce after his 100-plus Beyer in the SMC.  Sure enough it didn't happen, and the guy sitting next to me at the Monmouth Park pub and I sat dumbfounded that a) the horse was 5-to-1 (off a 3-to-1 M/L) and b) neither of us had the common sense to play Tackleberry, who scored an easy victory!  Along the way to a hopeful spot in the NHC, I'm learning - much as, fortunately, did no happen to me with my Furthest Land wager- that over-analysis is oftentimes costly. Schadenfreude to readers, perhaps, but anyone else been in that spot?  Feel free to share your pain.

Meanwhile, noticing some interesting new venues for NHC qualifying tournaments along the likes of Foxwoods Resort Casino and harness track Northville Downs (wherever that is...relax, it's in Michigan), NJ Horseplayer checked with a contact at Monmouth Park about the emergence of new contest spots.

Curious about the apparent imbalance of NHC seats given to certain tracks (i.e. Surfside Race Palace giving out 5 NHC seats in 1 weekend for a $300 contest fee, versus just 2 seats for a $600 buy-in at Hawthorne in mid-April), I was informed that, in light of the expanded field of 500 NHC contestants (versus roughly 300 in years past), so long as the venue forks over the fee to host an NHC event, they can do so.  In prior years, I've been told the site had to be an NTRA member to offer an NHC seat.  So book those tickets to Northville, MI for the March 27 event!  There's a seat up for grabs!

Interested, too, about the contest venue's cost to procure NHC seats, I learned that Monmouth Park, as an NTRA member, pays $10k for 3 spots (not including flights and hotel), and (for you NJ players like me) that MP will offer somewhere between 6-9 spots to this year's championship, though the details are not fully set in stone.  I thought the joint-tournament with Woodbine (Toronto) players in 2010 was a lot of fun, and a tough challenge considering the combination of handicapping dirt races at Monmouth and synthetics at Woodbine (and grass at both), and would enjoy participating in that format again, though personally I was less crazy about the joint contest including Canterbury and Emerald Downs, where the fields were thin and less than stellar.  Anyway, NTRA has updated its contest calendar through April, and included some dates in June.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gulfstream card loaded for Saturday

Well, yesterday's call on Court Hero proved ridiculously bad and the horse went off around 70-1 and finished 8th or 9th, but we move forward today with an excellent card from Gulfstream.

Coffee Boy is the most lightly raced of the 8-horse GP Sprint Championship at 7 furlongs on the turf, but I'm expecting a fast early pace and cannot look past the Grade 2 win for my selection back in July 2010.  Again, I am not a big proponent of long-layoff angles, but anticipate Soaring Empire being unattractive at even money and Tackleberry (3-to-1 M/L) taking money off the impressive Sunshine Millions Classic score.  So I'm projecting 3-8-5 for my selections on the Public Handicapper, again looking for some prices.

I also went with Comma to the Top in the Robert B. Lewis from Santa Anita.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't encourage my sparse readership to run to the windows, but will share my Gulfstream Park Pick 6 ticket and will likely play at a 50-cent or $1 increment with a 32x multiplier; the sequence starts in Race 6 and reflects for scratches as of noon ET: 6,9 with 1,4,7, 14, with 6,12, with 2, 3, with 3 with 2.

Good luck with your wagers this weekend!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Burned myself yesterday; intriguing bomber in SA6

The inability in Thursday's contest play to pull the trigger on my A.C. Avila angle in yesterday's 7th at Santa Anita cost me dearly (only notionally, fortunately), as Lieve (see yesterday's post) won at 13-to-1 and paid $28.60 to win; my selection, Averoo, ran into trouble again with a blocked trip to finish 4th.  Based on Averoo's last few races, I'm putting that one in the Lookin At Lucky (pre-Preakness) column of horses that for some reason cannot avoid trouble and deserves a leery eye next time out.

For Friday's contest race (6), a $25k claimer at 6.5 furlongs on dirt, I landed on 30-to-1 Court Hero.  Perhaps insane, but I have several reasons, notably the connections and that the horses I anticipate the public will bet down (i.e., Lichtenstein and Ribald) drew outside (11 and 12), while the inside speed, Obsess (a Patrick Valenzuela-ridden horse that will close below the 6-to-1 M/L), shows a tendency to fade near the wire.  Three Pointer is an interesting closer type, but too many too-little-too-late runs lessen the appeal.  Meanwhile, there also are a handful of horses like Lukimbi, Hiatus and Eddie Set Go that have run against far better fields, but those were in 2008 and 2009 and these horses are off very long layoffs.

There are several pluses for Court Hero, in my view.  This is jockey Ramon Guce's only schedule mount on the Santa Anita card, and I'm no expert in quarter horses, but the trainer (Charles Bloomquist) looks like one of the all-time winners among quarter horses, and Guce's dominance of the Los Alamitos thoroughbred circuit (29% wins in 50-plus mounts) can translate to this field of claimers.  I watched the replay of the 3rd from Santa Anita on January 13, 2011 for some clues.  Court Hero started poorly off the rail, but made respectable middle and late moves to finish 6th of 7, beaten less than 3 lengths - but only a quarter length behind 5th-place runner Obsess and a half length behind 4th-place finisher Three Pointer, who are respectively 6-to-1 and 8-to-1 on the morning line for this race.  Boxed in during the stretch, Guce swung the horse wide, and though Court Hero finished 6th, he still made up ground in the final 300 yards.

Second off a layoff against the same condition with non-winners of 2 lifetime, and for the reasons stated prior, I making a mythical $50W/$50S wager on Court Hero as my Friday contest play

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Watching today's 7th from Santa Anita

This $62.5k optional claimer at 1 mile on the turf has an extremely intriguing 8-horse field for the 705p (ET) scheduled post and is today's race in the Del Mar contest.  Looking to end an 8-race losing streak in the Del Mar contest (ouch!), I landed on #3, Averoo, at an 8-to-1 M/L with a mythical $100W selection and argue that this 6-year-old gelding trained by John Sadler and ridden by Joel Rosario (55% in-the-money) can rebound off a dull 6f sprint on Dec. 5 at Hollywood. I like the added distance here and tactical speed.

Perhaps this is the drawback of watching video, but what drew me to this one was a game second-place effort in the $55k Riot in Paris on Nov. 5, 2010 at Hollywood, where after being squeezed badly at the start and settling further back than the past performances indicate, the horse finished behind Blue Chagall, who was pinned on the rail for much of this past Saturday's $100k Thunder Road at Santa Anita before making a bid to close 5th.

In my view, there is little early speed in today's 7th (maybe the rail horse Irrefutable, but no one that will break off a sub-23 second opening quarter), so I anticipate Averoo will get a nice stalking trip and can close versus this field, which has 4 good horses entered who have not run since June 2010.  I am not savvy enough yet as a handicapper to decipher whether "freshness" of, say, Bogie (Ire), the #7, or the 10 horse Who's Up, who have beaten tougher company in turf mile stakes and are 3-to-1 and 10-to-1 M/L, respectively, will prove beneficial for these particular runners; I'm tossing the others - Times Gone By and Jairzihno.

Otherwise, as one of my long-shot angles, I always keep tabs on A.C. Avila turf runners from Brazil, and he has Corey Nakatani (a 28% winner in 47 starts for the Santa Anita meeting) on the #6, Lieve, but in this case I will pass on the 6-to-1 M/L, a bit turned off by the horse's unproductive last two efforts (beaten 5th and 9th by a combined 14.5 lengths, but to the likes of Fluke, Caracortado and Amazombie).

Separately, I am really looking forward to Saturday's card at Gulfstream and the appearance in race 4 (a $100k optional claimer on turf at 1 mile) of Furthest Land, who produced huge exacta and Pick 3 scores on 2009 Breeders Cup day for me with a 21-1 victory in the BC Dirt Mile.  Contrary to my SA7 apprehensions above about deciphering the pros and cons of long layoffs, I'm more than willing at a 5-to-1 M/L to forgive Furthest Land's 2010 campaign, which included some lackluster performances, but in two Grade 2 events (the San Pasqual and San Antonio at Santa Anita, which I'd attribute to my BC bounce theory) and the Grade 1 Dubai World Cup.  The race at Churchill (and the horse's 2 turf tried at CD show he clearly does not like the Churchill turf) three months after Dubai is a throwaway, considering the rigorous schedule predating that event and that Furthest Land probably needed some freshening.  I'll get more into that race, and some of the others from Gulfstream's Saturday card, at some point tomorrow after work.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Props to Brad Thomas

Obviously this is my New Jersey bias coming through, but I came upon this column from Rich Eng of the Las Vegas Review-Journal the other day when doing some reading on the industry, calling Monmouth Park's Brad Thomas the "best simulcast analyst in American racing."  More recently, and slanting toward a broader industry perspective, Eng offered some compelling thoughts on the takeouts at Santa Anita vs. Gulfstream.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

63rd out of 300 in NHC Qualifier

Another close-but-no-cigar for NJ Horseplayer in today's first of three (NHCQ) play-ins for February's shot at 9 NHC seats in the 2012 Vegas championship.

The death knell, as I noted to myself the moment the horses crossed the wire, proved to be my pick of 9-to-1 Cano Code over 12-to-1 Rafe in the 10th at Tampa Bay Downs; Rafe ended up scoring $33.40 for a notional $2W/P wager and would have been enough to put me in 10th place.  Damn.  Otherwise, I have no major regrets and ended up hitting one winner (7-to-1 Giant Oak in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream) and two well-identified runners-up (7-to-1 Twojohnsandajack in the 6th at Gulfstream and 11-to-1 Queen Mariles in the 7th at Santa Anita).  In the end, my three hits were worth a notional $40.80, good enough to again get me in the top 100, which is basically worth pocket lint in these contests.  Still, I topped many top-notch handicappers and am gaining confidence with the last two weekends' efforts.

My convictions proved flawed in a few cases.  One of my top choices, Lieutenant Dan in the 9th at Tampa ran on too late to finish 5th at 18-to-1 in a race that saw 2-to-1 favorite Capt. Candyman Can edge 99-to-1 bomber Legal Move (even though NHCQ caps the place payouts at $22, I'm not sure anyone made the call on this nag anyway, so no damage done).  My other Tampa selection never lifted a hoof.

The pace scenario for the first of four Gulfstream races on the card proved worthy and Julien Leparoux gave Twojohnsandajack a nice rail trip to avoid a huge pack of stalkers as I had handicapped, but simply did not have enough versus 6-to-5 favorite and Pletcher-trained Queen'splatekitten, an impressive 3-year-old.  The Grade 3 Suwannee River at Gulfstream went pretty much to form as well and my 18-to-1 choice Miss Blakely was game but not enough in the stretch and finished fifth.  I was nowhere close in the 8th, a 7-furlong maiden special weight event, before hitting the Donn (coincidentally, I picked the Donn finishers 1-2-3 on Public Handicapper, which paid $148.50 on a $1 trifecta).

The last three races of the contest - 5, 7 and 8 and Santa Anita (aside: I have NO clue why anyone would bet real money on California race 1, a 36-to-1 shot won and the exacta was a mere $114...that's weak) - provided some excitement.  Indiara, an 18-to-1 pick in the 5th in a 6.5-furlong downhill turf contest, simply did not show up.  Brice Blanc is one of my turf favorites at Santa Anita, but his horse ran like garbage, lugging home last.  Still, it was another chalky winner at "The Great Race Place" in that race in Separate Forest, so it did not prove a fatal selection.

My original selection in the 7th at Santa Anita was Samba School (Ire), who was 8-1 on the morning line but went off at 7-2 (there were three scratches that race), so in 103rd place out of 300 in the NHCQ and looking for a bigger score with two picks remaining in the contest, I switched to 10.8-to-1 Queen Mariles, who was coming off a 6-month layoff (typically not an angle that I prefer, though I didn't like any of the other available long shots) but dropping in class.  Sure as can be, Queen Mariles ran to the lead in a blistering 43.4 and 1:06.78 but was caught by Samba School (Ire), but the switch only cost me $3.20 - not a decisive tally.

In the NHCQ contest finale, and about $17-$18 out of the requisite Top 30 to reach the 90-contestant play-in on February 26 for 9 NHC seats, I went away from original choice Blue Chagall (Fr), who was hovering around an insufficient 8-1 right before post time, and went instead to Meteore at 15-to-1, who ultimately finished fourth, only 1.5 lengths behind winner Fluke.  Much like Queen Mariles in the prior contest race, I had a game long shot that pressed the pace only to slip at the finish, though he held second until a few hundred yards out, nearly giving me a coronary.

I would highly recommend the NHCQ contests to anyone lucky enough to have access to TVG and/or HRTV and can watch and play along at home.  The $100 entry fee is nominal, and contestants have a 1-in-10 chance of advancing each round (i.e top 30 of 300, then top 9 of 90).  The format also has a bit of a live-money contest feel, in that players have right up to post time to make or change selections, and the $42-$22 W/P caps are a deterrent to players compelled to make 10 bomber selections and hoping to get lucky with one.  My only criticism (as if anyone from NHCQ is aware of the NJ Handicapper) is that Santa Anita's cards are vastly overrated - only 2 of the 10 winners on the entire card paid more than $10, making for ho-hum contest play.  Personally speaking, the quality of fields may not be comparable to Santa Anita, but I would rather have more lower-echelon but deeper-fielded races from Tampa in play.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

February Contest Schedule updated on

Maybe not a surprise to most, but this month's contest slate includes three NHC Qualify events and a bunch of ExpressBet qualifiers, plus an NHC Tour Free Online Challenge on Sunday, February 27.

I am happy that the tournament organizers have put the free contest on Sunday, since the NHC Qualify play-in for 9 NHC seats is set for Saturday, February 26.  I hope to make it to the Feb. 26 play-in (via this Saturday's first of three qualifying events...but I have not made it yet in 3-4 tries), as well as to Monmouth Park on the 26th for the track's second of three Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) events.

Today's Play: For Del Mar's "Play For Fun" contest for Santa Anita, I first landed on #2 Preferred Mandate (6-1 M/L) in a $30k maiden claimer going 5.5 furlongs on dirt, based on a switch from an apprentice to Victor Espinoza, the horse's experience at the $50k level and in a $54k Cal-bred special weight, and the addition of blinkers.  However, after watching video of Preferred Mandate (the horse seemed to really flatten after a half mile in both of its prior starts), I am putting a mythical $100W on second-time starter #5 My Pal Val (10-1 M/L), who finished 3rd in his debut at a $30k 5.5-furlong sprint. I am generally not that observant about this sort of thing, but from the replay of My Pal Val's debut on January 15, it looked like David Flores (who is aboard again today) set this one a little too far back at the start, and after making up 8 lengths on the leaders in the blink of an eye, switched the horse's lead, much to its disadvantage (watch the video, but it looked like the horse stalled at that moment).  I suspect Flores can put MPV more toward the front-runners (Preferred Mandate, Cat In The Forest and Captain Shawn D) and make a big run in the stretch, and am not deterred by a few class-droppers in this field.  I'm hopeful to rebound from minus-$1,125 (mostly on 23 mythical $100W plays), but am about a combined head in three races from being well to the plus side, so I still feel confident in my handicapping.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interesting DRF pieces on the NHC Tour

From afar it appeared the $1 million National Handicapping Championship ended last Saturday in Las Vegas with a tense finish, capped off by champion John Doyle winning on the final contest race and a massive faux pas when (ouch!) runner-up Ron Geary was prematurely told that he had won the $500,000 top prize. (A $150,000 second-prize isn't a bad two day's work, but still...)

Meanwhile, NTRA President Alex Waldrop posted compelling thoughts, and my only response would be that the NTRA, in conjunction with the participating contest race tracks, more heavily promote the contest structure.  I was drawn into the contest world by a longtime friend and handicapper that I respect, and at this point the contest is a primary reason I attend the track.

In my view, NHC organizers would best serve the Championship, the industry and horseplayers by aligning with a major television partner to at least air a) a preview show leading up to the event and b) a high-production television program to run either on ESPN, Fox Sports or TVG, the latter of which would serve as the best conduit, though in far fewer households than a mainstream network.  Indeed, there are a lot of interviews from the NHC at the Daily Racing Form.  If somehow the organizers could meld such interviews along with race video, follow-ups with the contest players on their handicapping logic for said races and so forth, more people will be drawn to the NHC.  Plus, the infusion of a TVG could serve the NHC by hosting live preview and contest-day shows from the Red Rock.  The event, much like the racing industry itself in my humble opinion, needs to remove itself from the shadows and reinvigorate interest in the Sport of Kings as an exciting entertainment venue.