Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Feeling like Trump

After a few months of experimenting, I decided to fire 4NJBets.com and see little reason to continue an account with the state-operated ADW for NJ residents, considering the lack of value-add as a contest player and the accessibility of video replays pretty much anywhere on the Web (the impetus for me subscribing).

Synonymous with "You're Fired",
the demise of the USFL, AC casinos
and a slick coiffure
There was part of me that hoped the membership, started a few months ago and opened by the account staff alacrity of a fleet snail, would produce more than a venue for betting races -- some bonus or rewards points, members-only contests, free PPs, a free pen...something extra more than a place to burn through cash.

The bottom line is that NJ-based handicapping contest players are screwed, when considering players in many others states can subscribe to a TwinSpires.com and DRFBets, both of which offer online play-in tournaments for seats in the $2 million NHC tournament in Las Vegas in early 2012.  The TwinSpires site, alone, is offering 20 seats in a November contest, which would be an enticement enough for me to defect, would NJ's archaic state law allow.  I am not really sure how to go about it, and have no time to form coalitions to pressure legislators to let horseplayers take their online dollars elsewhere, but if anyone has ideas, I'm all ears.

Speaking of contest play, I am happy to have survived the first three days of the Monmouth Park Survival at the Shore without burning a life preserver (as happened through the first weekend last season). There were 1,462 players eliminated already and only 5,024 to leapfrog on the way to the top spot for a coveted NHC seat; but, hey, 1,337th-place gives me a nice stalking trip, right?!

And, this coming Sunday, I will be "competing" in the first of two Monmouth-Woodbine handicapping challenges for a spot to Vegas.  It will be interesting to see whether Monmouth draws the 200 contests that are targeted in the brochure.  Later this week I'll post some thoughts on good horses that I'll pick (meaning those you should likely avoid).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

An afternoon meant for horse racing!

No self-deprecating rants about my handicapping ineptitude or the downward spiral of NJ's live racing program...just excitement about the weather and a family outing at Monmouth Park this afternoon.

Thanks to the men and women of U.S. Armed Forces, civilians like us get to enjoy a wealth of freedoms and frivolities (i.e., horseplay). Let's do our best to acknowledge our service members not only this weekend, but all year, and say prayer for those who perished in the line of duty.

In searching of a military-themed piece tied to horse racing, I stumbled upon this story from VegasInsider.com, leading up to the 2008 NHC in Las Vegas, where a U.S. Army sergeant, Chris Lavezza, had earned a spot in the year-end NHC Championship after finishing 4th in an online qualifier...while serving in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom!  Here's a great quote from that story:
"The NHC helped take my mind off the gravity of being in a war zone,'' said Lavezza, who spent most of his time in Afghanistan in a compound in Kabul. ``You have to be vigilant every day out there especially when you travel given the existence of I.E.D.s (Improvised Explosive Devices) which can be anywhere. You just never know what's going to happen from day to day in Afghanistan.''
Imagine handicapping under such stress, though like many of us, the handicapping hobby is a release from the daily routine for many. Subjection to enemy gunfire is obviously far from routine, but you catch my drift.

I had a hard time navigating the NTRA website and others in trying to find out how Mr. Lavezza finished at the NHC, but it warmed my heart to see that not only did he qualify, but the NTRA's press release about his qualification tied Mr. Lavezza's interest in the sport to trips to Penn National with his father as a kid. Many of us have similar bonds, and as a horseplayer it is great to read these kinds of pieces, when there are misconceptions about horse racing as a sport of a lesser ilk.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Gaming industry survey data imply urgent need for NJ casinos outside Atlantic City

Typically, I like to post about my suspect handicapping skill and inability to take down a handicapping contest, but in my real line of work as a financial editor this week, I came across an interesting survey that obviously NJ's Governor Christie has not read but hints at a continued downward spiral for Atlantic City and that just maybe it is time for the Garden State to embrace casino gaming outside the misnomered "Vegas of the East."

The American Gaming Association's 2011 State of the States survey of casino entertainment revealed some startling, albeit unsurprising data that, in my opinion, hints that Mr. Christie and the Legislature might want to reconsider kowtowing to Atlantic City lobbyists and doing what is best for the state's tax coffers, creating jobs and stemming the outflow of cash to neighboring casino states New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. To be sure, competition will only intensify in the Empire State, with Resorts World New York, the casino at Aqueduct, slated to open this summer, while plans evidently are underway for a "racino" at Belmont Park and a new arena for the NHL's Islanders.

In my view, Mr. Christie's incessant hammering of NJ's racing industry and his need to cut off the annual "subsidies" from casinos that propped up the racing business (and kept them quiet about slot gaming at the tracks) was ill-conceived and only obscured what is the chronic defection of wagerers from Atlantic City and a faulty business model that cannot match Las Vegas.  Separate from the AGA survey, I obtained figures showing that, between 2007 and year-end 2010, revenue generated by AC casinos declined by a compound annual average of 7.4%, with 2009 and 2010 reflecting double-digit declines amid the recession and slow recovery.  The notion that diverting tax dollars to "revive" AC and help complete another mega-casino (Revel) in an overly saturated AC market is utterly foolhardy and akin to Alec Baldwin's character Shelly Kaplow in the 2003 film The Cooler, who was stuck in the mentality of the old-world Las Vegas.
"Let me tell you something, Harvard,
come upstairs with me in my office, watch
and learn how to protect your investments
the old-school way."

Meanwhile, the AGA survey makes clear where this revenue is likely going, with Philadelphia quickly the No. 1 U.S. Racetrack Casino market in the U.S.  Yonkers is No. 2, while Dover, DE is No. 6 and three Pennsylvania markets (Grantville, Meadow Lands and Wilkes-Barre) ranked 8th, 9th and 10th.

Interesting, too, is that AGA reports that New Jersey saw the nation's biggest decline in consumer spending on gaming in 2010 (down 9.4%) and commercial casino tax revenue skidded 12.1%, the highest in the nation (by nearly five percentage points to No. 2 West Virginia).  At the same time, Atlantic City's 11-casino workforce fell by 6%, but remained the clear No. 2 behind Nevada. Furthermore, consider that Nevada has 25x the number of casinos (259, according to the AGA survey) than the Garden State but only 175,000 "commercial casino jobs" (as classified in the survey), or one-fifth the number per casino (675 for Nevada, 3,100 for AC).

Although I certainly understand the effort to sustain employment and make Atlantic City vibrant, the Governor is clearly missing the point that gaming at the Meadowlands, and perhaps Monmouth Park, must at least be considered, if not embraced, to stem the defection of casino and horseplayers to neighboring states.

Anyway, the AGA Survey is a worthwhile read, and as always I welcome your feedback.  I simply think that horseplayers should remain abreast of this kind of industry data.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The kind of story the industry needs to promote

Over lunch I read this piece on DRF.com, noting that a horseplayer at Sunland Park hit a $96 Pick-6 ticket that paid $752k!

There is no handicapping contest perspective here, but rather a random argument that these kinds of scores need to be marketed more prominently than in an industry trade publication in order to draw new customers to the sport.  In my view, host tracks should treat the publicity of handicapping contests with more detail - let us know the individuals, their strategies, great selections, etc...the kind of light this blog hopes to shed, even if only a little.

This idea is coincidentally bolstered by two other pieces in DRF - one showing a 5% increase in Preakness Stakes viewers (signaling that there is some intrigue in the sport and people will watch and participate), and another "critiquing" NBC's usually predictable coverage of Saturday's Preakness and how the mainstream media have let thoroughbred racing slip through the cracks, save for the Triple Crown (forget the other 362 days). 

Food for thought over your lunch break...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Preakness Day debacle

Realistically, unless I could have miraculously gone 12-for-12 on the Monmouth Park slate during this weekend's Horseplayer World Series contest, there was no chance of winning that event, which from the looks of it hinged on picking the correct Preakness Stakes winner.  Congrats to Tony Dadas of Middletown, NJ who did that by nailing a $40W/$20P wager on Shackleford to turn his $30 starting bankroll into $663.50 of winnings, plus the $2,590 first-place pool and a seat to the February 2012 HWS in Las Vegas!

Another great debacle...
The afternoon proved horrific for me, going only 1 (a show wager) for 11 with three second-place finishers and my worst-played race of the season, when in a four-horse field I liked but passed on Perfect Embrace in the 7th and fatefully put a third of my bankroll on favorite So Much Love, who finished a fading second to a $13.20 winner. The handwriting was on the wall, as Red Rock Or Bust and Papa NJ Horseplayer also had fruitless, though enjoyable, afternoons.

There was otherwise nothing to write home about, considering my expectation that Sway Away could compete in the Preakness, which clearly did not happen.

Next up: the NHC Tour contest at Monmouth Park on Sunday, June 5, where maybe I'll let my kids make my contest selections for me as we spend the afternoon in the picnic area.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Monmouth's first live contest Saturday

The 12-race card at Monmouth tomorrow afternoon is not the most appealing, and two turf races have already been taken off the dirt in light of wetness, but the $50 handicapping contest for a spot in the Horseplayer World Series in Vegas next February is likely to come down to the Preakness, which is the final race of the contest (6:16 p.m. ET).  That is, of course, if we can avoid a repeat of last year's event, where the eventual winner nailed a 102-to-1 shot to run away very early with the top prize. 

It is nearly impossible to get a great feel of the contest card, considering the uncertain track conditions, but much like last week's TVG contest preview, I have identified a few prospects:
  • Monmouth - Race 1: Sammy's Trip (5-to-1) is fourth choice in a 7-horse $20k maiden claimer, and the field is awful top to bottom, but a replay of this one's April 7 mile-turf race at Gulfstream showed the horse checked slightly very early (not noted in the past performances) before the first turn and ran evenly thereafter at a $35k condition. The 3-to-2 M/L favorite, Stimulus Program, may be deserving of such short odds, but the 4-month layoff following a 6th-place showing at Gulfstream and 10-week layoff before the next workout, in my view, do not inspire for such a short-priced horse, and I was not the least bit enamored with the second and third choices, so I may land here if 4-to-1 or more.
  • Monmouth - Race 3: Green's Hard Ten (3-to-1). Yeah, there's really not much glory in calling a morning-line second-choice in a meager 6-horse field, but this one gets jockey Wilfredo Corujo, who is 0-for-9 to start the meet and 6-for-144 in 2011 (a meaty 4% win percentage).  I am hoping that the bettors dismiss Green's Hard Ten based on the jockey, but they would be remiss to do so based on some past races, notably the April 15 turf race at a mile-and-a-sixteenth at Gulfstream.  The horse's bold 5-wide middle move against comparable claimers is a bullish indicator for me on the cutback to six furlongs, IF the jockey avoids traffic (which shouldn't be hard in a 6-horse field).
  • Preakness Stakes: The format for Saturday's contest (a $50 buy-in, with each player getting a $30 bankroll and the other $20 put to the contest pot, divided among the top 10 finishers) includes win, place or show (and combinations thereof) wagers on the 12 Monmouth races and Preakness, where I keep looking at Sway Away (15-to-1) and King Congie (20-to-1) as viable long-shots. I was bearish on California shippers in the Kentucky Derby, but Sway Away's San Vincente effort at Santa Anita in February (2nd to The Factor) was visually impressive, and if Garrett Gomez can be more patient with this one than Patrick Valenzuela in the Arkansas Derby (a key race), I think Sway Away will have a shot at speed-favoring Pimlico. Otherwise, King Congie was a very game third in the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 16, and I know seems like a grass-synthetics type, but I anticipate the pace will not nearly resemble the dawdling 48.3 and 1:13.2 fractions of the Kentucky Derby, and this horse can close well into what I expect will be a strong pace scenario. Right now I'm thinking Sway Away, but the point may be moot, depending on whether I can preserve enough contest bankroll for the finale. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indiana player runs away with TVG contest

NTRA identified Shannon Brough of Salem, Indiana as the winner of Saturday's free TVG online contest, and this winner deserves tremendous credit for amassing a $184.20 bankroll with mythical $2 win-place wagers on 10 races.  Anyone who had picked all 10 winners of the races from Monmouth, Belmont and Hollywood would have amassed $197.90, suggesting that Shannon probably nailed all but one contest race - WOW!

Congrats to Shannon and two other players for earning berths to the 2012 NHC Tour Championship! I managed to finish 210th out of 3,306 competitors (top 8%), which isn't worth much in the grand scheme, but rarely do I get my hopes up about these free-for-alls, considering the depth of contestants, so I'm satisfied having nailed a few winners, including one I addressed on Saturday by way of video analysis, Chokecherymary.  Here were my selections:
  • Monmouth, Race 6 - Itsagoodtendollars, 4-to-1 (6th out of 8): Originally landed on Marquet Rebel (finished 7th), but Turbo Compressor proved every bit the 6-to-5 chalk in a 13-and-a-half length win
  • Monmouth, Race 7 - Steady Gentleman, 44-to-1 (5th out of 7): It look's like we're not at the Elite Meet anymore...back to smallish fields and a low-teens exacta payout...
  • Monmouth, Race 8 - Primary Witness, 8-to-1 (3rd out of 7): The first of three calls from Saturday's blog, Witness stalked well but flatted out in the final turn. Zero bankroll with 7 races to go.
  • Belmont, Race 8 - Hear the Footsteps, 8-to-1 (3rd out of 10): See Witness - flattened out the final 300 yards, but a good effort after almost half a year off and worth considering next time around.
  • Belmont, Race 9 - Beer Meister, 26-to-1 (7th out of 10): Who was more drunk - me for picking this horse or Alex Solis confusing Meister Brau for Zenyatta and setting this horse up for a 20-length rally? Never happened... 
  • Belmont, Race 10 - Isn'tlovejustgrand, 56-to-1 (4th out of 12): This could have been a potential game-changer for a lot of contest players, myself included (though not enough likely to win, since I was 0-for-5 heading into this race and needed some big prices), but this one finished a hard-closing length behind the 9-to-1 winner to provide some cheap thrills, zero bankroll notwithstanding...
  • Hollywood, Race 5 - Every Ego, 25-to-1 (WIN: 1st out of 9): The caveat to these online contest is that notional payouts are capped at $42 and place at $22, so this one netted $58.60 and moved me to the top 300 in one fell swoop. Two very bullish indicators - Rafael Bejarano got the mount and this 3-year-old was meant for 2-turn grass as an offspring of El Prado and Grindstone.  Plus, the rest of the field was very suspect, in my opinion, and all angles worked as Bejarano rode to perfection.
  • Hollywood, Race 6 - Chokecherymary, 5-to-1 (WIN: 1st out of 9): Although I knew I pretty much had no chance of placing Top 3 in the contest, I stuck with my earlier handicapping rather than fishing for a bigger price and was rewarded $13.20 to win and $6.40 to place, moving me to 124th place with a $78.20 notional bankroll.  As noted Saturday, replays of this horse's first two tries indicated this horse was live, and by all indications, Chantal Sutherland is off to a strong start at the Hollywood meet.  Chantal rode this 3-year-old filly to a 2-and-a-half length victory and is one to watch down the road. 
  • Hollywood, Race 7 - Unbridled Kimanchi, 42-to-1 (last out of 11): I was between eventual winner Smug, 22-to-1 Tiz Gianni and 36-to-1 Competent, but thought this one might run to the lead and somehow hold on, but it never happened as Kimanchi sat a head behind the leader at the three-quarter pole in 1:11.2 before fading to dead last. 
  • Hollywood, Race 8 - Price, 5-to-1 (3rd out of 5): Nothing like a deep 5-horse Cal-bred field to close out a contest. Price finished about a half-length behind the winner Korban, ending the contest.
In the end, two winners and three thirds (5 out of 10 "in the money") plus a fourth at an enormous price is something to build upon heading into the upcoming Monmouth Park contest for a seat in the less-ballyhooed Horseplayer World Series next February. On the other hand, considering the thin fields on opening weekend relative to the 2010 Elite Meet and that only two horses at double-digit odds won their races (11 of the 23 winners this past weekend were odds-on favorites at Monmouth), it is going to take a much better performance and, hopefully, a reversal favoring value-seeking contest handicappers. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ideas for Saturday's "TVG Online Challenge"

At quick glance, today's TVG contest offers some compelling price plays on the 10-race card featuring three races each from Monmouth Park (6-8), Belmont Park (8-10) and Hollywood Park (5-8).  Entry is free to any NTRA Inside Track member, and the top three finishers win coveted spots in the 2012 NHC Tour championship in Las Vegas.

Aviator shades...resurgent, but
still not cool anymore.
In these kinds of contests, where there are usually upwards of 2,000 contestants, some long-shots are an absolute must, and I am hoping to wheel back to last year's Kentucky Derby day contest where I finished 16th and was close enough to win heading into the final contest race, but it's hard to get one's hopes up in this kind of free contest, which I suspect will draw some sophisticated handicappers and the random TVG viewer taking shots in the dark. Still, it's a shot worth taking.

There are three longshots I find particularly intriguing, one at each track, but outside of calling the $418 ArchArchArch-Nehro exacta in the Oaklawn, I would discourage my scant readership from betting the ranch on any of these (and my picks for the contest are subject to change, based on weather conditions closer to post time); I took a quick glance at all 10 races this morning before heading out for my big date today with a 12-yard pile of mulch).
  • Primary Witness (8-1) - Race 8 at Monmouth: Assuming all 7 entrants go on this mile-and-70 yards $32k optional claimer, I recognize there are sexier picks in graded stakes-placed Nacho Friend (7-to-2), Eltheeb (5-to-2) and inside horses Mia's Angel and Dueling Alex (both 3-to-1), but throw out Primary Witness's two lackluster Gulfstream efforts (both 1-turn miles) and like that this one is 3-for-4 at today's distance and has a win and show in two tries on the Monmouth strip.
  • Beer Meister (20-1) - Race 9 at Belmont:  The Grade 2 Peter Pan (a 9-furlong, 1-turn race) is LOADED with talent, and in my view it is hard to ignore Ramon Dominguez on 6-to-1 Alternation (5th in the aforementioned Arkansas Derby), but in spots like this where I am intrigued by a half-dozen decent price horses, I am willing to take a shot on jockey Alex Solis in this spot from Post 3.  I suspect the bettors, too, will look at Beer Meister as an immediate throwaway, considering this horse is shipping in from less-prestigious Turf Paradise (Phoenix, AZ) and finished an uninspiring 5th in the Sunland Derby on March 27.  However, this is a horse who can make up ground in a race with speed, and I expect that to be the case here, hoping that Solis can save ground and chase down the leaders in the stretch. Beer Meister, in my view, will not be 14-16 lengths back as he was in his last two tries, and after a sluggish start from post 10 was eating up ground in the Sunland Derby before being forced 6-wide on the final turn, which was too much to make up in a Grade 3 event.  Note, too, that Plum Pretty came off a victory in the Sunland Oaks to take home the Kentucky Oaks as well at a favorable price.  Maybe this is an emotional pick, considering I'm still licking my wounds from just missing out with my pick of 16-to-1 St. John's River in the Kentucky Oaks, but Beer Meister is worthwhile. 
  • Chokecherymary (8-1) - Race 6 at Hollywood: Much as the Sunland Derby video told me that Beer Meister did not get the best of "trips" but is nonetheless talented, the video on Chokecherymary shows a decent horse at a favorable price who may be dismissed by bettors.  This 3-year-old filly, ridden by Chantal Sutherland for trainer Gary Mandella, ran a game 4th in her debut at Santa Anita (6 furlongs) at 38-to-1 on April 3, stalking the leaders into the stretch before getting forced into the rail, checking ever so slightly and flattening out in the stretch.  The winner of that $57k maiden special weight, Screaming Regal, came back to finish second in a $125k stakes race on April 23, which is a bullish indicator for Chokecherymary this afternoon. And I'm willing to throw out CCM's second start on April 23, when she was declared a "non-starter" from post 13, when a gate attendant was literally standing in front of the horse inside the gate as the race started, and the horse had no choice but to back out of the starting gate.  Plus, the horse to her inside lost its irons at the start, making for a complete throwaway, in my opinion.    
Best of luck to anyone else participating in the TVG contest, and especially to those making it out to the opener at Monmouth Park! 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Shore's (True) "Greatest Stretch": Handicapping Monmouth's fate

Home of the 2007 Breeders Cup
The 2011 Monmouth Park 7-day race meeting through Memorial Day is a far cry from the ballyhooed "Elite Meet" of 2010 marked by inflated purses but equally frothy gains in "handle" (parlance for dollars bet), with an underwhelming average of eight horses for the 11-race card on Saturday's opener -- no surprise considering the shamefully iffy ownership of The Shore's Greatest Stretch.

Outside of a "guarantee" that the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell will run on July 31, Monmouth's calendar, depending on what you read, in my view depicts three primary scenarios as we await the outcome of real estate developer Morris Bailey's bid for a five-year lease on the track by June 1:
  • Optimistic: New ownership will be in place by June 1 and shake sensibility into New Jersey's horsemen and breeders that the 2011 meet should follow the "2011 Season Events" spelled out in a marketing brochure that hit my mailbox this week and, even if ambiguous out of necessity, hints at a rational schedule from May 14 through Labor Day, with live weekend racing until the scheduled Oktoberfest celebration on September 25. 
    • Kudos to Monmouth's marketers for working with what is likely a sliding scale and recognizing the customer with free admission and race program passes (via the circular), and lending some sanity to what the bettor is seeking - i.e., fuller race cards, more opportunity to win low-takeout exotic wagers (more later on this). 
  • Less likely: The track could go dark as of June 1 as Governor Christie's actions would have it, since he would rather not subsidize peanuts to a salvageable entity that can rebound but instead give bags full of tax dollars to privately owned casinos with flawed business models and who have shown no aptitude at anything but running the cash sieve known as Atlantic City deeper into the ground
  • Even-less likely: Ownership will change and racing will proceed by the laborious calendar on Monmouth's website and in accordance with the legislature's preposterous law for 141 thoroughbred racing days annually through 2016, as endorsed by the Horsemen and Breeders "associations"...but to anyone who watches the sport knows is overdone.
I'm no expert at reading the horsemen's conditions book, but Saturday's card reflects a head-scratching hodgepodge of low-budget $5k-$30k open (i.e. horses bred in any state) claimers, a $75k stakes that with just seven horses and, check this out, two $50k Jersey-bred starter allowances and two $80k-$100k J-bred maiden claiming races!

I agree that every effort should be made to promote the state's breeding, but graded-stakes-placed Nacho Friend (second to Trappe Shot in the 2010 Long Branch and a game third in the 2010 Gotham Stakes prep to the Kentucky Derby) is running in a $32k optional claimer.  This indicates to me that few connections with big-name horses would commit to stabling and entering horses this early at Monmouth - a big negative for horseplayers and a detriment to those marketing the event.  

Then again, I guess this is what the fans and horse owners alike get because of the sketchy ownership status for Monmouth Park. 

In short, the state's thoroughbred industry leaders need to get their act together quickly, as Gov. Christie has accurately suggested (though eliminating subsidies as the vehicle to brokering a quick sale of Monmouth Park is extremely short-sighted).  A reorganization of the purse structure is a must, and the industry needs to make much greater strides in marketing its product to a vibrant, younger audience.  However, Saturday's opener reflects reductions of two races (including one less stakes event) and 40% in the number of entrants for the 2011's opener versus 2010's - both bearish indicators.

From the perspective of the horseplayer, the managers at Monmouth Park deserve a ton of credit for attractively-low 15% "takeouts" (i.e. what the track keeps) on Pick 4, 5 and 6 wagers and offering a new 50-cent Place Pick Six that is sure to win bettors' dollars away from other U.S. tracks and is breathing life amid the track's shaky status, but otherwise the rest of the interests need to come together and do a better job of listening to what the customers offer in terms of rational solutions for saving The Shore's Greatest Stretch beyond Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

No huge Derby surprise, outside of the winner

There was much rejoicing in the NJ Horseplayer household yesterday with my son's First Holy Communion mass last night, but no so much on the wagering front, as I knew I was cooked when the first-half fractions of the 137th Kentucky Derby were about two seconds slower than I anticipated (48 and three-fifths seconds) and my late-running pick, Dialed In, was some 15 lengths off the lead.  C'est la vie.

Notwithstanding picking the wrong winner and early fractions, my handicapping was not that far off, considering my exacta and trifecta plays included Nehro and Mucho Macho Man.  Really, the Derby was won owing to a masterful ride from John Velazquez, who found an opening and took Animal Kingdom to a nearly three-length victory.

It will be interesting to see whether Animal Kingdom can recover quick enough to win the Preakness in 13 days, with DRF reporting that he will run at Pimlico, as will Dialed In.  There will be enough discussion elsewhere about that in the days ahead.

Congratulations to the 25 players that advanced to the championship round of the latest BC Qualify contest!

The last person to qualify amassed a hefty $96.80 notional bankroll for the 10 contest races (notional $2 win-place wagers), which is a pretty impressive tally.  My showing was a less-than-stellar 169th out of 249, with only two winners from Hollywood Park on the 10-race card (five races each from Churchill and Hollywood).  The contest action heats up for me the next two Saturdays, with the TVG Challenge on May 14, one of the more difficult ways to win one of three spots into the NHC Championship in January 2012 and open to NTRA Inside Track members, and the $50 contest at Monmouth Park on May 15 for a spot in the Horseplayer World Series in Las Vegas in February 2012.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'll avoid another "Dialed In" cliche

Anyone turn on HRTV this morning? Definitely not a cliche-free zone...

NJ Horseplayer, calling Nick Zito!
Dialed In, in my opinion, will win the 137th renewal of the Kentucky Derby. In the grand scheme of things, my selection means a hill of beans, but for clarity, I hope my 1-in-19 chance proves accurate.

Without belaboring the point, I just liked what I saw from Dialed In during the prep season, but what sold me most was the someone nondescript second-place showing in the Gulfstream $62k optional claimer.  In my view, this horse's ability to close against older, established horses into slow fractions is the difference.

I do think the Derby today will have hellish early fractions (i.e. 46-second half), much last 2010, which will favor horses that can rate or close and avoid trouble, and Julien Leparoux has ridden this horse masterfully thus far and is off to a great start at Churchill Downs, so I'm going with Dialed In over hard-knocking Mucho Macho Man and Nehro in strictly exotics plays.  In keeping with my tradition of a $100 Derby bankroll, here are my tickets:
  • Race 9: $1 exacta box 12, 6 - $2 total
  • Race 10: $5 exacta box 8, 13, 9 - $30 total
  • Race 10: $0.50 trifecta box 1, 8, 9, 13, 19 - $30 total
    • Coming into the Derby draw, I was going to go with Nehro over ArchArchArch, but did not like their positions enough to consider them as winners, but think they can finish underneath. And I think Derby Kitten, despite never having raced on dirt or above a Grade 3, will appreciate the distance and will benefit from the No. 9 post.
  • Race 10: $1 superfecta: 8, 19 over 8, 13, 19 over 1, 9, 13, 19 over 1, 9, 13, 19 - $20 total
  • Race 10: $0.50 Pick 4: 4, 8 with 8, 13, 19 with 5, 7, 9 with 3, 9
Take these with a grain of salt, and best wished on cashing some big tickets in the Kentucky Derby!

And wish me some luck in today's Breeders Cup qualifier at www.bcqualify.com, which is a low-budget contest that offers spots in the $10,000 entry-fee tournament on Breeders Cup weekend.  The top 10% of today's finishers, along with the same number from two more qualifiers on May 14 and 21, advance to a championship round on May 28.  The contest features 5 Churchill and 5 Hollywood races.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Is the Kentucky Derby that important?

Amid a very busy work day, I noticed an email alert from the Daily Racing Form that Uncle Mo has been scratched from Saturday's Kentucky Derby (gee, what a surprise) and wanted to vent for a second about the apparent desperation of the connections to get this horse into the field of 20 and how such actions not only took away a spot for a healthier horse, but detract from the sport.

By all accounts, anyone following the Derby trail knew that industry experts have long observed that Uncle Mo's weight was down; sure enough, Mo has gastrointestinal issues, but did we really need to wait until Oaks Day to gain confirmation?

From a handicapping perspective, Uncle Mo was a throwout for me considering that the Wood Memorial effort was anything but the dominant horse in the 2010 Breeders Cup Juvenile (plus, it is pretty well know that front-runners typically do not win at the mile-and-a-quarter).  I suppose I should be disappointed that there is one less horse taking other peoples' money, but on the other hand, I have to question what Uncle Mo's connections were thinking (outside of Kentucky Derby glory) and cannot buy into any attempted spin that we should, perhaps, be disappointed in the sadness of the connections that their horse cannot run for the roses.

Was it prudent to send the horse to Churchill to roll the dice that he would be sound for the Derby? Even if Uncle Mo trained decently, was that enough to merit risking the horse's longer-term health? In light of the Life At Ten incident in the 2010 Breeder Cup, should we question whether trainer Todd Pletcher should have sat this horse on the sidelines, maybe for a later opportunity when he horse is more fit?  In the grand scheme of thoroughbred racing, these are logical questions surrounding the most-watched (and, for many, maybe the only-watched) race in America.

Were I ever blessed to afford Grade 1 horse ownership and one with the talent of an Uncle Mo, I certainly would prefer a longer-term approach to the horse's prospects for victory and health and not push for the one-hit wonder, Kentucky Derby or not.  Then again, my perspective slants toward the health of the horse and the growth of the sport, not to the breeding shed like so many Derby hopefuls.

Ah, but it's back to work for me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A bad day at ACRC beat a good day at the office

The scenery at Atlantic City Race Course hearkens to Bruce's famous "you ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright" lyric from Thunder Road, but once again struck a chord for me, the NJ Horseplayer kids and my folks and about 10,000 other fans of live racing for Sunday's fourth of six cards at the Mays Landing track.  Tuesday is closing day.

Even these experts went 0-for-4!
Although none of the NJ Horseplayer family hit a single winner (we're mostly an exacta-leaning bunch, often known for picking first- and third-place winners) on the six-race card, it was well worth the trip, and a shame that the track cannot extend the meet a little longer or consider a similar autumn meet (rather than running live in front of a smattering of fans at Monmouth in late November, like in 2010).

Putting aside the ramshackle grandstand, scratch parking lot, lack of live tote and inability to hear the track announcer while watching from the track's apron (kind of like attending a Rutgers men's basketball home game, where the PA guy is inaudible), ACRC offers a festival atmosphere and signals, in small doses, that live racing is far from dead.  Marketed properly (and with drastically reduced takeouts and perhaps free admission at Monmouth, like at ACRC), the thoroughbred sport can succeed in the Garden State, Mr. Christie and horsemen!
Lines at least 8-10 deep at every turn

ACRC packing them in!
Inside the grandstand: people elbow to elbow for most of the afternoon (but without any fights, unlike an Eagles game), and space in the paddock got tighter ahead of each post parade as the afternoon progressed.  There was definitely a vibe in the air, with people of all walks, from track regulars to families with toddlers, enjoying the action.  The courtesy of the tellers, track volunteers and others - outside the overzealous security guard hellbent on reprimanding kids moving faster than a crawl - was impressive, and clearly the patrons seemed to enjoy themselves on the breezy 60-degree afternoon.

Kate's Cozy Kiss ahead of her
second-place finish in Race 1
Based on the outcomes (0 for 6), I spent way too much time handicapping in advance and, similar to prior ramblings focused on handicapping contest strategy, I fell into similar traps of moving off of horses that were totally logical but, in my view, were at odds too low, which is a bad strategy at a track where it is almost impossible to follow the live odds.

Race 3 was a perfect example.

Readers may recall my commentary Sunday about this race in particular, especially my stance against 2-to-1 M/L favorite Tenplus, who entered the 12-horse maiden special weight event at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf with easily the top one-time Beyer figure (74 on an off track at Fair Grounds in January 2010) and a 31% winning trainer. However, I stood against, owing to concerns about a year-layoff off that top race, a subsequent 43 Beyer on the horse's next outing at the same distance on turf, and that the horse never factored in two more maiden tries, including a big drop from $38k special weight to a $12,500 claimer condition on March 18 at Gulfstream.

Tenplus went off as second at 2.6-to-1 but (unfortunately my most accurate handicapping call of the afternoon) was pulled up on the backside and vanned off, which is the absolute last thing any horseplayer ever wants to see on the track.

Diana Girl, 3rd in Race 1
The top choice, Boston Pops Band, who had a nice second-place effort in his third lifetime start (at age 5, usually an automatic throwout for me), looked visually the best in the post parade and was closer to 2-to-1, but I stuck with my morning handicapping and boxed my bomber $10 exacta of Hollywood Lou (10-to-1 M/L) and Royal Tea Time (30-to-1 M/L), hoping the combo of Angel Serpa and first-time blinkers would help the latter's cause for a miracle top-two placing.

The intelligent, more-conservative play would have been a 3-horse box at a lower denomination, since I didn't like anyone else in the field, but therein lies my problem - bankroll management. I went for the dicier call and it hurt, as Boston Pops Band won over Hollywood Lou (8-to-1 final odds) and paid $45.60 for a $2 exacta.  Royal Tea Time ran well for about three-quarters but faded to finish 9th and I could tell was not of the winning caliber after a quarter mile.  Lou, however, was the right call to at least play underneath and, if not for being bumped at the start, might have fared better than a two-and-a-half length place finish.

Meanwhile, I did stick to my guns (for the most part) in using half of my allotted bankroll on Race 4, convinced (as noted Sunday) that Hippocrates Jones (6-to-1) was ready to score - $20W, $5 exacta box with Odds and Evans (7-to-2 M/L) and Sweet Rascal (10-to-1 M/L) - but in my opinion jockey Casey Fusilier sat the dead closer Jones WAY too far back off the pace and the horse rallied belatedly to finish fourth, about four lengths off winner Sweet Rascal, who ended up at 11.5-to-1. Ouch!

The final race was a compelling 5-furlong sprint, where I had half of the exacta (runner-up Local Celebrity) but my bullish view of Lawdy Me (6-to-1 M/L, who was 4-for-8 at the distance and 3-for-3 with the jockey) proved flawed as the horse finished a well-beaten sixth after a sluggish start.

The visit proved a modest monetary setback for the NJ Horseplayer faction, but nothing beat the companionship and intellectual challenge of handicapping, the sound of hooves hitting the turf, $3.50 beers served by Hooters waitresses and all other visual and olfactory pleasures of a day of live racing at the track.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Headed to Atlantic City for Sunday card

The weather is spectacular at the moment, but shows some clouds and maybe a sprinkle for the fourth of six 6-race cards at ACRC.  Absent scratches, there are at least 10 horses per race, providing some great betting opportunities. I am looking forward to the action and spent this morning handicapping the card; whether that helps remains to be seen.

Hippocrates Jones at 6-to-1 in Race 4 is my best bet, considering that at least seven of the horses seem to front-run and can burn out over the mile and 40 yards, plus trainer Charles Simon's modest 2-for-9 success in moving horses from dirt to turf.  The horse's summer 2010 turf races at Arlington Park also augur well for this Jones' return to the turf, in my opinion. I will likely match Jones with Odds and Evens (7-to-2) in an exacta.

Otherwise, Lawdy Me (8-to-1 M/L) looks like a playable long-shot in a 12-horse field in the finale.  The 5-furlong sprint is loaded with appealing horses, especially Northern Vow, listed at 10-to-1 and with Joe Bravo  in his only listed mount riding for trainer Grant Forster, who had a winner on Friday. Northern Vow logged an 89 Beyer in a 6-furlong win on dirt at Oaklawn in early March, but I'm leaning instead of matching Lawdy Me with No. 11, Local Celebrity, who is 4-for-5 at the distance on turf and should get a trouble-free trip from the outside post. 

Other plays on the card, absent scratches, are Diana Girl (3-to-1) in Race 1, Harvest of Hope (6-to-1) in Race 2 (over Devilish Beauty) and Noah's Harvest (3-to-1) in Race 5.  I typically lean against favorites, but am simply drawn to the aforementioned horses.  I am reserving judgement on Race 4 at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, considering the wide open field. Tenplus looks like the prohibitive favorite at 2-to-1 for 31% trainer Keith Lebarron, but there are two bombers -- 10-to-1 Hollywood Lou and 30-to-1 Royal Tea Time -- that I will be watching on the board.  The latter's November 2009 effort (yes, a long time ago, but these are not Kentucky Derby horses) at a mile and the addition of blinkers might just work for a horse who gets Angel Serpa and seems to be training decently of late off a layoff, while Hollywood Lou gets Navin Mangalee for a third-straight race, with the last two decent 4th- and 2nd-place finishes at a mile-70 at PARX. 

I hope to post a recap with photos tonight.