Thursday, June 21, 2012

Greener Grass Outside NJ

Approaching what is a very quiet mid-season in my third annual stab at qualifying for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC), as a predominantly weekend player my shot at merely getting to Las Vegas next January is becoming as long as the horses I espouse in contest wagering.

NHC pastures harder to reach for
the NJ Horseplayer
Spending $400 to enter an online tournament at is not justifiable on a budget, and allocating an entire weekend to play in an on-track event like Belmont's Summer Handicapping Challenge this Saturday and Sunday is simply not feasible.  

Were I single, retired or extremely wealthy, perhaps, but not as an avid contest fan who has a world of work and familial obligations.  

And much as I enjoy the live competition, even the contests at nearby Monmouth Park are looking less appealing.  Yes, a top-two finish could yield a lucrative payday, but considering the $200 entry fee for a mere 2 NHC seats, players' chances are a meager 1:80 to 1:100 of qualifying for NHC XIV. 

OK, my handicapping is not stellar, but the more my interest grows in an NHC berth, the more realistic I have become about limited opportunities for Tour players like myself (weekenders), compounded by my residence in New Jersey, where at least a quarter of NHC seats are out of reach owing to an arcane, monopolistic law prohibiting out-of-state ADW systems via TwinSpires, DRFBets or TVG. 

The NHC Tour's lack of transparency in how much racetracks and online contest organizers pay to offer seats to the annual championship compounds my frustration, especially when a facility like Emerald Downs (Washington) somehow just offered five (5) NHC seats and a $12k first-place cash prize in a $100 June 3 contest capped at 300 participants (1:60 shot) (congrats to winner Chris Larmey!).  Meanwhile, Lone Star Park is offering a free on-track handicapping contest series, culminating in an October 6 championship where the six (6) top finishers get fully paid NHC berths.  

I can only question how these two particular tracks can afford to offer as many seats through one qualifying tournament as my state's leading track does in a tourneys potentially costing upwards of $1,000 to play (based on entries to three Simulcast Series Challenge and two other tournaments). 

This has prompted me to consider my options for the second half of 2012, and where I may allocate my resources through Labor Day on a shoestring budget, relative to other players who frequent online contests or with limitless budgets and travel schedules.  Here's what I'm targeting, at least through Labor Day:
  • July 7: Monmouth Park ($200 Handicapping Contest) - less than 50/50 at this point, considering potential July 4 weekend scheduling conflicts (plus, I was not on track in time on the date of cancelled May 19 contest to at least get the $50 chit available to other players)
  • July 18-September 5: Del Mar Internet Contest (free) - The NHC Tour calender shows two (2) NHC seats will be awarded this year, versus one (1) the last two years; a fun, but tough, contest
  • August 4: Suffolk Downs ($60 entry fee) - The notion of driving 4.5 hours toward Boston on a summer Saturday may seem far fetched, but with three (3) NHC spots and potential Tour points on the line, and the Red Sox hosting the Twins that night, I am considering this one. Plus, my 45-MPG diesel is conducive to efficient road trips).
    • The tournament format looks a bit rigid, in that players have to make their selections on all 15 contest races before the start of the first race, but adds an intriguing strategic element.  
  • (assorted $20 NHC pre-qualifiers) - Perhaps the best NHC value, in my opinion, when considering that for an Andrew Jackson, Tour players can qualify in a real-time event for a $195 NHC Qualifier and, ultimately, 1:50 shot at an NHC berth. 
  • Any NHC Tour member freebie tournaments - seems like a while since there's been one (the Tour gave away 10 seats in my first year of membership, and if I recall eight last year), though I am figuring one will surface at some point this summer.  
Clearly my opportunities are limited relative to NHC Tour players residing in other states, but those are the breaks in the Garden State.  Then again, it's a great place to fritter away time with the kids in the sand at the shore, so there!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Colonial Downs contest starts on Saturday

The National Handicapping Championship (NHC) is the focus for NJ Horseplayer, but fellow contest handicappers should give the Horseplayer World Series-based Colonial Downs Handicapping Contest some consideration.

This free online contest (any free contest warms my heart) is not only a great practice venue for NHC Tour members, but also offers one seat in the 2013 HPWS in Las Vegas, plus cash prizes for the second- through fifth-place finishers.  I will participate from time to time in any HPWS-based contests at Monmouth Park, but otherwise do not go out of my way to play non-NHC focused tournaments, though Colonial's has appeal.

Bracing for Colonial's
2012 online contest...
and lots of turf
Similar to other online contests, the Colonial Downs contest, which kicks off this Saturday and continues through Virginia Derby Day on July 21, players are required to make mythical wagers (on four races per day from Colonial Downs).

Interestingly, unless this year's rules have changed, the four contest race wagers progress from a win bet in Race 1 to a superfecta by Race 4.  Past leaderboards (I have competed, albeit irregularly, the past two seasons) can get egregiously high, especially for players using bombers who actually hit the board in their exotics selections.  As the contest lets players pick four horses as part of their three-horse trifecta, for example, there's a big shot at a big hit.

For me, this kind of contest is less valuable in terms of practicing my win-place-show handicapping or experimenting with different theories than with, say, the free upcoming Del Mar Handicapping Contest (NHC seats to the top two finishers this year), which focuses as well on bankroll management, but it presents an interesting way to get into some past performances and take a shot at a worthwhile prize.

Kudos to Colonial Downs for running with this contest again, and good luck to all those who participate!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I'll Pick Another

In the blink of an eye, the 2012 Belmont turned from Tiger Woods atop the leaderboard over Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy going into the back nine of The Masters on Sunday, to Carl Pettersson winning the Heritage the week after against players like Colt Nost, presumably looking to secure their Tour status and maybe pick up a big paycheck for a decent finish.

No matter how thoroughbred racing pundits will argue that the Belmont is still worth watching, the shine is clearly off the Belmont with 4-to-5 favorite and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another scratching out with tendinitis.  Not only scratched, but retired!  No point waiting to see whether the horse's condition improves to, perhaps, take a shot at the Breeders Cup Classic in November (back home in IHA's home in California) or preparing for a 4-year-old campaign in 2012 to benefit the sport, I suppose, especially with the prospect of an equine mint in the breeding shed.  "Zenyatta, meet I'll Have Another!. 

Belmont Stakes best by scratch
far from run of the mill
Nonetheless, someone has to win the Belmont.

Street Life is the NJ Horseplayer selection, somewhat by default.

Public Handicapper odds put Dullahan and Union Rags in the 2-to-1 to 3-to-1 range, which is way too low for horses that will be over-bet because of their perceived misfortune (i.e. bad trips) in the Kentucky Derby.  Both will run after skipping the Preakness and get two of New York's best jockeys.  In my view, however, Union Rags is just not the same as in his 2-year-old season, and Dullahan's 2 career wins were on synthetic tracks, raising concern about whether the added distance will really help in deep dirt.

Hide your eyes on some of the other entrants: three with merely maiden wins (Five Sixteen, Guyana Star Dweej and Optimizer) and four winners in optional-claimers or allowance races (Unstoppable U, Attigun, Ravelo's Boy and Paynter).  Maybe Kelly Breen catches lightning in a bottle a second year in a row, but there are other early runners here and the stakes win at Delta Downs last October doesn't inspire.

That leaves Street Life, who should benefit from a rail-saving trip and get a much better start than in the one-turn Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont on May 12, when he drew the far outside post in a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth race, started 11 lengths behind and came on to finish third by less than two lengths.  I am admittedly not experienced enough to read into how horses gallop out after the finish line, and did not think much of the favorite in that race, Mark Valeski, but the replay suggests Street Life will appreciate this 12-furlong race.

Scheduled to attend a family reunion tomorrow, I have nothing on the handicapping contest docket, and merely dabbled in the Belmont with a whopping $0.50 Pick 4 ticket that cost $12, starting in Race 8 (1, 4 with 5 with 1, 5, 6 with 1, 2, 3 and 50.

Let the record show that I am 0-for-19 with my picks in the weekly Public Handicapper challenge, so emptying the bank account might not be a wise move for readers, but I think that Bourbon Courage (5-to-1) is sitting on a big race in the Woody Stephens, while Omayad (12-to-1) is compelling in the Manhattan, even though this Chilean import is greener in the U.S. than a bunch of formidable turf runners at a mile-and-a-quarter.  Crossbow (12-to-1) is my Public Handicapper pick in the True North Handicap.

Best wishes with your selections for the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Difficulty Digesting Those Seconds

Sunday's handicapping contest at Monmouth Park yielded only one winner in 16 win bets for NJ Horseplayer, along with six excruciating second-place finishers and three show runners.

Going 10-of-16 in-the-money while sticking to the place-show strategy I have written about on several occasions might have yielded a more-favorable outcome in the Monmouth-Woodbine Challenge, since in the final race I liked 29-to-1 Here's Kiki, who guessed it...second (paid $23-plus to place), but feeling more cocky I went for the gusto to that point.  No guts, no glory got me nothing but red ink, and not even some "free" eats (Monmouth Park got cheap and did NOT give the usual $10 food voucher...penny-wise, considering contest players -- 186 -- ponied up 200 bucks to participate -- though to their credit MP is giving players who signed up for last month's cancelled contest a $50 credit for the July 7 make-up).

After four really bad $10 win selections to start the contest (I jumped in headlong, since I could not get to Monmouth until around 145p, or three races in at both contest tracks, and the contest mandate was at least five wagers at each MP and Woodbine to qualify for prize money and a potential seat to the National Handicapping Championship), I scored on 8.5-to-1 first-timer Windfast in Race 6 from MP.  The horse's workouts suggested the outside draw in a 10-horse field of $50k claimers at least had a puncher's chance, and jockey Juan Pizarro hustled Windfast out to an easy lead and wired the field, with the $10 win wager running my bankroll to $145.  

The next contest race, the Alywow Stakes from Woodbine (Race 6), proved the inflection point for me and colleague (and laggard blogger) Red Rock or Bust. We discussed at great length -- perhaps one of the greatest aspect of handicapping contests is sharing opinions and knowledge with fellow players -- how prohibitive favorite Tu Endie Wei was beatable at around 1-to-2 (and finished dead last).    

Let the race replay show that my selection, 10-to-1 Blue Heart, probably my "best idea" of the day, relinquished a late lead to 3-to-1 Dene Court and lost by a long neck, costing me a mere $10 win bet on paper but really a shot at increasing my bankroll to around $240-$250...enough ammo to at least consider my oft-written "place/show" strategy.  (Red Rock, meanwhile, if I recall, just stayed alive by hitting with Dene Court and eventually went on to a $200 bankroll and Top 15 finish.)  Not to say I'd have gone that route, but here were the rest of my outcomes en route to zeroing out on the final contest race:
  • MP7: 18-to-1 Simeona, a game 4th at that price (-$10W)
  • WO7: 9-to-1 Crane Beach, 2nd to the even-money favorite ($-10W)
  • MP8: 2-to-1 Wildcat Creek, 2nd, nabbed in the shadow of the wire (-$10W)
  • WO8: another "inflection point", as I recall telling Red Rock I was between the three outside horses...picked the wrong one, as River Rush scored at 21-to-1; my ultimate selection, Drago's Best, was last seen standing still and finished dead last ($-10W, $5PL)
  • MP9: 16-to-1 Love Who, 3rd by a length-and-a-half (-$10W)
  • WO9: 2-to-1 Northern Passion, 2nd by three-quarters (-$20W)
  • MP10: 31-to-1 Miss Tallahasse, 6th of 8 off a layoff since October '11; thought Kendrick Carmouche and an impressive work were positive for a horse off a good 2011 campaign (-$10W)
    • In hindsight, I rushed this pick a bit, but have no regrets in what was a wide-open affair
  • WO10: 4-to-1 Miami Deco, 2nd by two lengths (-$20W)
  • MP11: 4-to-1 Raro, 3rd by one-and-a-quarter (-$20W)
  • MP12: 29-to-1 Here's Kiki, 2nd by two-and-a-half (-$10W)
    • Kudos to trainer Holly Harris, whose Blue Heart earlier in the card proved to be my sole winner on the afternoon and may be one to watch with her adept handling of NJ-bred maidens
Perhaps less-publicized mainstay Monmouth Park jockeys Francisco Maysonett and Shannon Uske are even hitting at higher win rates, but putting my outcome in perspective, my DRF past performance Sunday would read something like "June 3, 2012: Horseplayer NJ (16 1 6 3 .06)."  

Clearly a low-percentage win-rate, but those nine other in-the-money finishes suggest this handicapping contest bug-boy is on the verge of more-lucrative outcomes.