Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let Us Pray

Those looking to read about scripture or Tebowmania have stumbled upon the wrong place (but thanks for visiting), because our worship is toward last night's "Pick and Pray" National Handicapping Championship (NHC) "preliminary feeder" contest on

"May he be healthy...
and run like Secretariat"
Building upon Tuesday's thoughts, and reflecting our experience in last night's $20 NHC "feeder," directors Ron Geary and McKay Smith deserve much credit for offering NHC Tour members a low-cost but highbrow weekday venue through which to qualify for NHC 14 in Las Vegas in January 2013.

A 37th-place finish (out of 115) last night does not dampen our sentiment a bit.

The "pick and pray" format (i.e. handicap 10 contest races, enter selections in advance of the first, and "pray" that the horses picked win their respective races) is a novel idea, especially considering that many handicappers will often move off of their initial selection because of changes on the tote board, how a horse looks in the post parade, or on some last-minute nugget of info unearthed on the PPs.  Basically, there's no turning back.  "Pick and Pray" requires contest players not only to handicap races well and show conviction, but also to consider several scenarios -- do I play long shots (hoping to get luck with one max-payout horse) or chalk horses throughout or somewhere in I confident that I'll have enough accrued notional winnings early on to play that even-money favorite I love in the contest finale?

Pick and Pray has its pros (good handicapping and a well-placed long-shot will usually ensure success) and cons (no turning back from predetermined picks or switching to bombers to make up late contest ground, to name a few), but with 115 entrants on a tournament originally listed to draw 70 players, there is no disputing the success and/or popularity of this NHC-focused tournament.

NJ Horseplayer got off to a rousing start with 7-to-2 winner Cardiac Rehab in Race 6 from Penn National, amassing a combined $13 win-place payout on a notional $2 WP wager.  After a loss in the second contest race (Lone Star 3), we hit on 6-to-1 Royal Ignition in Race 8 from Penn to up our bankroll to $34.20 with seven contest races to go -- not a bad start.

Following a miss in Race 9 from Penn, we scored $5.40 of place money on Maker in the opener from Hollywood Park to move up to 19th place with $39.60, but that was likely the turning point in not reaching the Top 11 contest finish needed to score the $195 contest prize, as overlay horse Forward Commitment (nearly 10-to-1, off a 4-to-1 morning line) beat us by half a length.

The final five contest races yielded only one place finisher in a race that also helped to turn the tide for at least a few players (Race 9 from Lone Star Park), where 10-to-1 Wild Dixie caught 7-to-1 Southern Art (our pick) in the stretch to produce a notional $32.20 of winnings -- a good score in a contest where $73 of notional winnings was good for 11th place.

Considering that is awarding at least 15 and upwards of 20 NHC XIV spots through May, NJ Horseplayer will no doubt make a return visit(s) to the $20 feeder tournaments, whether or not the tournament involves prayer.

Annual Pilgrimage to Atlantic City Race Course on Sunday

The NJ Horseplayer camp (me, the kids and my parents) will be making the annual trip down to ACRC for a glimpse of 1930s-style racing, and will Tweet some photos and other such stuff tomorrow.

No, not this Sonny Crockett
ACRC is an utter dump aesthetically, but the OTB parlor of choice for my Dad who lives within a half-hour (at his Eeyore driving speed); state law mandates the track run six live racing cards in order to maintain its off-track betting license, and so we have this meet, with races run entirely on turf (there's a "dirt" track, but not maintained and under allowance, maiden special weight or, gulp, stakes conditions). Basically, no claiming activity or regular track business.

There are several reasons, however, why people within 90 minutes of ACRC should hit the Garden State Parkway or AC Expressway -- full fields (at least 10 signed on for five of the 6-race card), whopping prices (with a lot of wayward horses or those coming off a long layoff to prep for the Monmouth Park meeting yielding some huge prices) and a throwback feel (nearly impossible to hear the race caller, definitely need binoculars to follow the action).  With some 8k-10k patrons (to lend a "classier" bent, we'll use the Masters term for "fans") on hand, there's a lot of electricity as well, as many visitors we've rubbed elbows with the past two years mentioned making the trip merely to recount visits from decades past.  Plus, Sonny Crockett will be on hand!

Horseplayers are limited to a Race 1-2 double, win-place-show, exacta and trifecta wagering, and a Race 6 (the finale, a 12-horse field) superfecta, and the teller machines are antiquated, making for long lines at the window; but it's a trip worth taking, and one we'll do Sunday afternoon.  There'll be plenty of inexpensive beer on tap, bingo hall-style eats and more.  First post is 330p.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 expanding NHC slate

Ellis Park Race Course's online handicapping contest subsidiary,, is increasing the opportunities for weekday players to qualify for the 14th Annual National Handicapping Championship (NHC) in January 2013 through a series of low-cost qualifiers this week.

This will presumably have little bearing on contest participation on a site like that offers cash and points-based prize contests five days per week, since is specifically a gateway to NHC, Horse Player World Series (HPWS) and other casino-based tourneys.  However, for players striving for the NHC, offers a shot at low-cost NHC qualification and may steal at least a little business away from others.

Weekday NHC qualifiers on tap
For a reasonable $20 entry fee, NHC Tour players can win a $195 credit to one of several direct NHC qualifying tournaments offered by  This week alone, is hosting five such $20 events (2 each on Wednesday and Thursday, and 1 on Friday), where players will have a 1-in-10 shot at winning a $195 tournament credit.

Those entering the $195 tournament will have a shot at winning one of 3-4 prize packages (four if 190+ enter) that include entry to NHC XIV and three-night stay at host Treasure Island, while the top 10% of non-qualifiers get another $195 tournament credit. Not a bad deal, in our opinion.

Interestingly, two of the five events this week are of a novel "Pick and Pray" concept, where horseplayers are locked into their initial picks and cannot change midstream -- an action that cost NJ Horseplayer a shot at one of the $195 credits a few weeks back.  This kind of tournament also lends itself well to working folks, like NJ Horseplayer, who can handicap and enter picks a night in advance and "let it roll", so to speak (professional obligations prohibit me from playing live midweek).

Players can debate the merits of such a qualifier-based strategy, since a player, in essence, needs to finish near the top of the standings in (potentially) consecutive tournaments (i.e. the $20 qualifier, then the $195 game -- a difficult feat).  Considering it could cost an NHC Tour member $300-$400 to qualify through an online venue such, however, the economics of the deal are pretty good, especially for those of the belief (like NJ Horseplayer) that real-life contest participation can never hurt.

Of course, the devil is in the odds -- $20 for about a 1-in-60 or 1-in-70 shot to win an NHC seat via (and no credit for NHC travel expenses) or at least $110 (the base level cost of one entry to an qualifying tournament) for about a 1-in-10 shot at an NHC prize package may not be as appealing to players with unlimited tournament bankrolls or NHC Tour professionals.  But for the price of about two lunches (at least in NYC), is no-brainer.

The increased frequency of opportunities at NHC tournament qualification make an intriguing player in the online contest circuit, in our opinion, even if the odds are not as great as through an  Here's to hoping that draws the maximum number of players (50 entries to most, and 80 in Friday night's contest) and my "pick and play" selections this week yield more fruit than my 10th-place finish (out of 55 players) last Friday evening!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Irrational Exuberance

April is generally a quiet period on the weekend handicapping contest circuit in the NJ Horseplayer camp, largely on account of annual (the last 3 years, anyway) futility in qualifying for the prestigious Simulcast Series Challenge Championship at Monmouth Park, but also since so many contests are logistically or financially (if I want my wife and kids to still like me) out of reach.

Tournaments like the Grade One Gamble (a $3,000 entry fee) at Keeneland on Sunday, April 22 are out of my geography and weekend horseplayer's finite budget.  I'm not, well, invited, to The SSC Invitational on Saturday, April 28 because my handicapping stunk in the three winter qualifiers.  Meanwhile, as a New Jersey resident ("Thanks, Legislature!"), I am prohibited by law from playing for National Handicapping Championship-based contests available at places like XpressBet and

Handicapping contest circuit in
growth phase, or nearing maturity?
The next NHC-oriented "live" money option is the Preakness Day Handicapping Contest at Monmouth on Saturday, May 19.  In the meantime, a glut of online tournaments are popping up on and, but these -- and what I would consider a low turnout to this past Saturday's tournament -- got me thinking...

Is the handicapping contest circuit in the throes of an irrational growth cycle or already mature en route to decline?

I am no veteran of the circuit, but even in just years as an NHC Tour member it's clear that the industry is growing by leaps and bounds...almost too fast.  Probably a good thing for some who constantly crave contest action or with infinite bankrolls, but based on my own experience so far in 2012, and working in the financial services industry, Alan Greenspan's thoughts about the Dot-com heyday are ringing in my head.  

This past weekend alone offers a great example of the horseplayer buffet, and how the circuit is exhibiting signs of so-called irrational exuberance that the former Fed Chief addressed in the late '90s: 
  • 33 mostly well-subscribed cash and points-based incentive tournaments on
  • 2 NHC-oriented and 1 other tournament on on Easter Sunday
    • Only 70 people played in the $40 NHC "feeder" event and about 130 in the $195 tourney for three guaranteed NHC spots (though I'm curious how many paid the full $195 fee to enter; I won entry to one of these last month through a $20 "feeder" tournament, and these feeders are an affordable way at a shot to the 2013 NHC) 
  • 2 tournaments on -- a feeder site to the Horse Player World Series
  • Saturday's NHC-based event ($110 entry fee) on
  • Onsite tournaments at Treasure Island in Las Vegas and Lone Star Park
Surely I'm omitting (accidentally) some, but the above is already a lot to wrap one's head around!

The arsenal of tournaments is surely confounding, and the downtime of my "stay-cation" this week (kids' spring break) got me revisiting why I got into the handicapping contest circuit as a hobby in the first place -- and why I bore you with my unsolicited thoughts: intellectual competition and to qualify for the NHC in Las Vegas, plain and simple.

A site like DerbyWars is certainly enticing to those players who enjoy "contesting", but I have been spreading myself too thin playing in their bevy of tournaments.  I'm signed on for two on Wednesday, but in all likelihood will take a big step back in competing there once I tap out my dwindling cash account and/or points; the ready access also can fuel a compulsion I would much rather avoid, and (much as I like and continue to endorse DW) candidly, the lack of NHC ties is a detriment.  With a finite bankroll, I especially need to hone in on select NHC-focused events.

With only 200 of 360 available spots purchased this past Saturday, I would argue that may need to scale back its $110 entry fee even more (it was $150 earlier this year), considering how saturated the online circuit has become and that part-time/weekend players like me can go to and qualify for an NHC play-in for a $20 or $40 contest fee...and on a more user-friendly contest interface.  

By no means am I panning any of these contest sites.  To the contrary, I think it's wonderful that handicapping contest players like myself now have a wealth of opportunities to play, whether they be for cash, notional prizes or one of the 500 seats to the 2013 NHC.  However, with seemingly low barriers to entry to the handicapping contest industry, all stakeholders -- especially the NTRA, presumably, as overseer of horseplayer-related issues -- should heed the lessons learned from other industry growth cycles marked by a period of overaggressive growth because, eventually, consolidation (i.e. decline) will follow.