Monday, January 30, 2012

Interesting Dichotomy between NHC 13 and HBO's "Luck"

Anyone who tuned in to the much-acclaimed HBO premiere of "Luck" on Sunday night -- much like NJ Horseplayer, who watched it two times -- came away highly entertained but, naively perhaps, a bit squeamish about life at the track, where the new series revealed some seedier sides of thoroughbred racing.

Of course, the track (Santa Anita) is merely the picturesque setting for a much broader fiction that, in my opinion, will prove a TV hit and maybe pump some life (or publicity, at the least) into a sport in the throes of precipitous decline, but the backdrop was nonetheless set with the main character opening Episode 1 with a release from prison and four schemers (including one wheelchair bound degenerate and dependent on oxygen) at the track putting together a Pick 6 ticket and (spoiler alert) hitting for, but not yet claiming, $2.8 million.  Portraits of this and a horse snapping one of its front quarters are perhaps not the most engaging invitation for someone to view the track as a great destination.

On the other hand, and very few people may know this due to the lack of television and print-media publicity, but's reports from the 13th Annual National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island in Las Vegas portray an altogether different side of the story, recapping not only what proved to be high drama to the very end...a nail-biting competition between 480 handicappers vying for a $1 million top prize, but also tremendous class, sportsmanship and humility shown by the subjects at the two-day tournament, held on Friday and Saturday.

Michael Beychok (above, courtesy of, of Baton Rouge, LA, took down the NHC in the last contest race by a nose with a 3-to-1 shot from Golden Gate, finishing with a final score of $238.60 on his plays -- a mere $1 ahead of runner-up Dave Flanzbaum (below, also from

Congratulations, in the first place, to all contestants who qualified for NHC 13 (a futile effort for me in 2011) and also to those who took home prize money, but especially to the top finishers for surviving what had to be a gut-wrenching two days of handicapping, and displaying a level of professionalism in the post-game.  The top two finishers displayed an extremely cordial, professional and unassuming tone that came off as the complete reverse of much-ballyhooed World Poker Tour shows found all over cable TV.

Watching the juvenile conduct (i.e. sunglasses, backward hats and blank stares) at an event like the WPT or the conduct of select characters portrayed in Luck could make those outside the thoroughbred handicapping circuit falsely assume the racing game is strictly degenerate.  To the contrary, in my two years on the NHC Tour and as primarily a weekend player with a family and life far richer than wagering contests, I have found other players to be an extremely focused, studious and upstanding group in love with the sport, with players engaging extremely well socially and sharing ideas, whether at the contest betting windows or in online contest chats.  There is a tremendous level of mutual respect on the handicapping contest circuit.

The two videos above, and the thoughts shared with DRF by Day 1 leader Nolan White (a relatively new contest circuit player, who referred in questioning to lessons learned from his "Granddaddy") portray a much more affable yet competitive niche of the industry that needs to be publicized more than NHC 13 drew this weekend.  Maybe I missed it, but outside of brief references on HRTV's post-script to Sunday's racing, the event seemed grossly under-covered by the racing media.  No on-site updates from TVG or HRTV, no ESPN (which finds deathly snowmobile jumping contests far more saleable).  Only seemed to be a resource for information.  Kudos to

Piggybacking Mike Watchmaker's thoughts about NHC 13 in Monday's DRF, now is the time for the NTRA and NHC to search for a TV outlet or production team that can package some human-interest programming focusing on what is now a big-money tournament (see Steve Crist's interview for interesting perspective on the NHC's evolution).  People watch others "hand-fish" for catfish in murky Bayou waters, so why not the human interest of a big-money handicapping showcase?

Whether TVG (which on Friday night aired a yawner of a show touting the merits of exchange wagering), HRTV or ESPN-37 become the host network for such an event, I would argue that any brand-name TV coverage would do wonders not only for the handicapping contest circuit, but in improving the perception of the thoroughbred industry itself.  This is something the entire industry should support.

The casual viewer or racegoer needs to know that there is excellent intellectual competition in the racing game, outside of the races on the track and machinations in the back stable or in betting parlors, that goes beyond the perception of thoroughbred racing as a mustier business with an unseemly culture.

Surely the industry could get a much-needed shot in the arm from a fictional racetrack-based series such as Luck, but the industry needs to collectively cultivate and inspire fans to recognize there's far more to the Sport of Kings.  The NHC is an excellent vehicle, in my view, to achieve such interest, and the NTRA and NHC should attack this aggressively in the run-up to NHC 14 in January 2013.

See you on TV next year...wink wink!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

On the Sidelines on a busy Saturday

A literal interpretation, perhaps, as I coached one hoops game and am on to another this afternoon, explaining the relatively quiet (in terms of parimutuels) Saturday afternoon for NJ Horseplayer.

The weekend started well with a 5th-place finish (out of 39 entrants) in a $25 Derby Wars Friday Big Game yielding a $100 payout -- not too shabby -- late Friday afternoon; the key was nailing 46-1 first-time starter (12-to-1 morning line) Melrose Woods, trained by Dan Hendricks.

I'm hoping to turn some of that good handicapping fortune into success in two mythical contests today -- the Public Handicapper's weekly 4-race spread, featuring two races each from Gulfstream and Santa Anita; and as those races overlapped with the Facebook-based contest sponsored by HBO's new series Luck (premieres on Sunday), I'm entered there as well.  Here are three quick highlights:

  • Romin Robin (8-to-1) has a decent shot, in my opinion, in the 9-furlong Florida Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, simply because Joe Bravo is riding well on the turf.  
  • Red Defense (8-to-1) is intriguing on the 6.5-furlong downhill course at Santa Anita, but with as many as three horses scratching out of the scheduled 8-horse field, this could be another of the less-than-stellar California stakes races. 
  • Today's bomber play is Bench Glory (20-to-1) in the Valentine Dancer at a mile on turf from Santa Anita. Jockey Brice Blanc is having an awful start to the meet, but Bench Glory's first time on turf gives me some confidence that the horse likes the surface, and Blanc hits at 11% on turf and is riding for trainer Sean McCarthy, a good under-the-radar type.  I'm willing to take a shot in this unexciting field.
Best of luck to everyone today, especially those in the National Handicapping Championship in Vegas, where upon quick glance there were some players successfully scoring on bombers in yesterday's first round.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Empty in season-opening Monmouth contest

At the very least, the Simulcast Series Challenges at Monmouth Park are three of my favorite contests of the season -- live-money events where handicappers play the races of their choice across three tracks. The snow in the Northeast washed out the Aqueduct card, but Gulfstream and Tampa offered 11 races each with full fields and plenty of opportunities for some big prices. I hit none of them, unfortunately.

NJ Horseplayer as "moron"
An unceremonious 0-for-10 on a $100 starting bankroll with minimum $10 win-place-show wagers was highlighted, uncharacteristically, by my inability to pull the trigger on what I thought was a playable long-shot in 24-to-1 Pepe's Valentine in the 8th from Tampa. Down to my last $10, for some reason I could not pull the trigger on the longest price in what was a ragtag field, and sure as heck this nag stalked the "hot" early pace and caught the front-runners with a nice ground-saving rail trip in this $17k claimer.

Instead of increasing my bankroll to ~$260 ($51.80 to win) and easily a top-10 spot (the top 10 of 134 participants split cash prizes, while the top 15 earn 1 of 45 spots in the April SSC Invitational for two spots in the 2013 National Handicapping Championship), I wasted my final bullet in Tampa's 9th. Game, set and match.

Typically I give myself a "cooling off" period before blogging my contest performance, but hosting a little shindig for tomorrow's NFL Championship round I wanted to pound out the unhappy recap and air some grievances. In short, I was close with my first $10W wager, 6-to-1 Fly South, in the opener from Gulfstream, where Javier Castellano gave the horse a perfect trip before succumbing to the clear favorite, 2-to-5 Don Missil. Even in hindsight I'm satisfied with my play against severe chalk.

My only other close call was 2-to-1 Mobilizerin the 4th from Gulfstream, who lost by a head and who took a lot of late money.  I put $10W while the horse was hovering around 7-2 with a minute until post; Mobilizer lost to the even-money favorite by a head.  I skipped out on $7 winner in 5-to-2 Red Orchestra when my top choice, Lady Whimsical, scratched from the gate in the 7th from Tampa, but other than perhaps a slight confidence booster, I'm not sure that "miss" ruined my day.  Pepe's Valentine ultimately did.

Gulfstream was ridiculously chalky (the three biggest win payouts were $11), which bodes poorly for horseplayers like me seeking prices, but I have no excuse at Tampa, where my five selections were generally awful but 5 of the 11 winners paid $30 or more for a $2W wager.

It's back to the drawing board, I suppose, and proof again that I've got a long way to go before even approaching the higher echelons of handicapping and bankroll management.  Until SSC#2 in February, I anticipate sitting tight on the contest front, maybe staying fresh with a few efforts on Derby Wars and maybe an NHC Tour freebie, assuming the Tour is offering five again this season to tour players.


A few side notes...

  • Kudos to the Monmouth Park staff for getting a) the facility open under some icy conditions in the region and b) 134 contest players to turn out even on a day where Aqueduct was scratched because of weather; Sophia Mangalee does a great job spearheading these midwinter events.  I can only speculate that the turnout would have been upwards of 200 had the weather been more favorable, and anticipate a much deeper field for SSC #2 on February 18.
  • Credit to Red Rock or Bust for toughing out the road conditions from the Oranges to participate. At one point Terry found the leaderboard with ~$150 bankroll after a nice win on 9-to-2 Tarpy's Goal in the 7th from Gulfstream but went scoreless thereafter to join me in the basement.
  • Good luck to anyone from the NJ Horseplayer blogosphere involved in the National Handicapping Championship this week in Las Vegas!  After a full season as an NHC Tour player, I have the utmost respect to those who gained entry into what is sure to stack up as a difficult two-day tournament where the pot is worth more than $1.6 million, with the first of roughly 500 contestants taking down a cool mil. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Starting 2012 on a Good Note

Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope everyone's having a prosperous start to 2012, more prosperous than my handicapping contest outcome in 2011 (as portrayed in my new blog header).

I got a late Christmas present in the form of a press release from Monmouth Park, announcing there will be a Simulcast Series Challenge this winter, with three handicapping contests slated for January 21, February 18 and March 24.  Fortunately, none of these conflict with any assistant basketball coaching obligations, weekend trips planned by the Mrs. or things like Valentine's Day, where playing ponies over catering to the wife would, presumably, be frowned upon.

SSC: Winter Picnic
at Monmouth Park
I despise winter, especially January and February -- really nothing redeeming about Arctic blasts, but these three contests are among the favorites on my calendar, considering the live-money aspect ($100 entry, $100 bankroll) with the potential to win real money (50% of the pot to the winner, then a sliding scale down for the Top 10 finishers) and the timing in the dead of winter.  For those who have yet to participate, the SSC is a must-attend.  Save for frugal food credits (usually a $10 voucher...not much, but something), everything is right about these tournaments.

The Top 15 in each month's contest advance to a 45-spot April play-in for two National Handicapping Championship seats.  I went 0-for-2011 with a break-even performance and one crap-out and am hoping to turn in a better performance this year.

If the SSC keeps true to form, players are required to make minimum $10 win, place or show (or a combination thereof) wagers, typically on Aqueduct, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, for a minimum of 10 races.  Tampa, in my opinion, tends to produce the biggest prices and is an excellent handicapping contest track, more so than Aqueduct, though that may change in 2012 with bigger purses.  Gulfstream's card is always deep and of high contest quality.  Really, the handicapping contest is a wide-open affair, with some 35 races on the card.  The hardest part, for me, is patience, considering I seem to find value in every race.  Admittedly, however, the only way to win is patience and well-placed big wagers on 1-2 races...picking spots, more or less.

It's hard to be patient, but I'm anxiously counting down the days until SSC#1, past performances in hand and ready to stake out a spot in the Monmouth's terrace restaurant, looking out at the dormant track and picturing opening day some four months down the road (hopefully, based on what's going on with track ownership).

Otherwise, there's not much contest action to report on my end.  I may enter the Horse Tourneys $25 contest on Saturday for a shot at the "Last Chance" tournament in Las Vegas for this year's NHC, but would more or less fly blind and make picks in advance, which I'm typically not a fan of, though my"catch lightning in a bottle mentality" may win out at just a $25 ante with some well-placed long shots.  We'll see.  Elsewhere, it's a "freebie" for-fun contest, but I'd highly recommend Del Mar's "Winter Meet" contest; it's a great way to practice handicapping skills, with free PPs on a daily race of the day from Santa Anita.