Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Salty Thoughts

Salt is a recurring theme for the NJ Horseplayer lifestyle these mid-October days.
  • Anyone with the visual or olfactory misfortune of crossing my path after, say, one of my long (i.e. 15- 20-mile) NYC Marathon training runs will find my face literally covered in salty sweat
  • From a thoroughbred handicapping and contest perspective, I have finally taken a break from rubbing salt into my own wounds after, two weeks ago, throwing away a perfectly winnable seat to the 2013 National Handicapping Championship (NHC).  
  • Tuesday night's Night School on addressing "Other People's Advice" got me thinking: are "expert" handicappers' opinions worth their salt?
Take my observations with a grain of salt, but on the latter two bullet points especially, recent contest outcomes got me thinking a lot about whether I'm worth my salt as a Tour member and contest player, and whether outside (often free) advisers are worth their salt.

On the heels of a tiring 16-mile Friday training run and enjoyable Saturday at Rutgers Stadium tailgating and cheering on my beloved Scarlet Knights (yes, 6-0 and No. 15 in the first BCS standings), I took a physical breather on Sunday, October 7, and at the last minute entered's NHC qualifier.  I spent little time in advance handicapping, and so set my expectations low.

I stuck to my mantra of picking playable long-shots, and the outcomes of the first 6 (of 12) contest races yielded few winnings to anyone, with 5 of the 6 race winners paying less than $6.80 to win.  Granted, I ID'd eventual winner Balance the Books as the best horse in the Grade 3 Bourbon Stakes from Keeneland, but saw no value in picking a horse that, ultimately, paid a combined $6.60 to win and place.  

So, with zero bankroll through the first half of the contest, I hunkered down in search of some prices, and in Race 9 from Keeneland landed on Charming She Is, listed at 20-to-1 on the morning line but off a second-place finish in a $75,000 stakes event at Kentucky Downs and a grass closer-type in a race filled with early speed.  Here's where the salt in the wound angle comes into play -- at the last second, I switched off Charming She Is, missing out on a 23-to-1 winner and a combined $57.80 of win-place winnings.  (Too bad I did not get get shut out of the system in that instance). 

This decision proved especially costly when considering that, two races later, I found another long-shot that made sense -- d'Princess was sent off in Race 6 from Santa Anita at 26-to-1 (totally dismissed off a 12-to-1 morning line) and wired the field, as hoped, to produce $62.20 of combined win-place money (FYI: win payouts are capped at 20-to-1) and put me at least within striking distance of the leaders with 3 contest races to go; but there were no big prices to be had thereafter, leaving me with a 45th-place finish.

Had I stuck to my guns with Charming She Is, I would have finished 3rd in the contest and won a berth to NHC.  Instead, I was relegated to licking my wounds and am back to the salt mines in search of a late-season bid to the $1.5 million championship next January.

Meanwhile, my participation in the September 29 qualifier on yielded an interesting observation that ties into Tuesday's Night School -- that of "expert handicappers' picks" and how much weight a horseplayer should put into another's prognostications. 

Opinions vary.  

Much as I respect what a Brad Thomas and Andy Serling have to say about respective Monmouth (or Gulfstream) and NYRA races, rarely do I make a selection based on their picks, unlike my colleague Red Rock or Bust, who I have seen win contest races on a Brad Thomas call, in particular.  I am generally skeptical of free advice. 

One such purveyor of "free" advice is one-time NHC Champion Ron Rippey, whose picks are regularly published in the Newark Star-Ledger.  Rip took down the September 29 contest and is headed to Vegas, but I was curious the next day whether his picks aligned with his Ledger picks, namely for Belmont Park.  To his credit, Rip gave out chalky Point of Entry in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic for the Star-Ledger and stuck with that in the online tournament, but no others for the Ledger in Races 6-11.  

To the contrary, in the contest, Rip hit on 8-to-1 Jersey Town in the Kelso, collected $4.20 of place winnings on Zagora in the Flower Bowl, and tallied $17.10 of combined win-place payouts on Bernard's Galaxy in the Belmont finale (a maiden special-weight).  

This is not to disparage Rippey for not backing his published Ledger picks with real money (i.e. an NHC seat) on the line, but to validate my view that experts' published picks are generally worth bupkis, and that all handicappers alike absorb a ton of information that can sway one's confidence at any point. 

Some of the Night School commentary would validate this perspective.  

Churchill Downs' Jill Byrne, for instance, noted that she needs to enter her picks for publication of the track program some 48 hours in advance.  I'm guessing the same holds true for Mr. Rippey with the Star-Ledger.  

A lot can change, especially in the seconds leading up to post time, much as it did in my switch off Charming She Is in the contest October 7, and much as it can for expert handicappers who see something in the post parade or hidden in the past performances that gets them to adjust on the fly with real money on the line.  

In such cases, that is why I will continue to take other peoples' opinions with a grain of salt and rely more heavily on my own handicapping and convictions. 

Unfortunately, I'm just not salty enough a contest player yet to recognize this in certain situations.  One such situation occurred on October 7, but I am confident that soon enough I'll salt away a trip to the NHC, so long as I continue to move forward -- kind of like with my NYC Marathon training.


Speaking of the NYC Marathon, it is less than 3 weeks away, and I truly appreciate the outpouring of publicity that industry colleagues such as Scott Carson ( and the NHC's Michele Ravencraft have provided the last two weeks.  

My campaign to raise $2,000 for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) received a slight boost on account of Scott's and Michele's efforts, but I am a mere 25% of the way to my goal and generally disappointed that more horseplayers have not embraced this campaign.  I am nearing $3k in my bid to raise a total of $6k for 3 charities, but only a select few have responded to PDJF, which all horseplayers should keep in mind in terms of the risk that all jockeys take for the sake of our entertainment.

I am hopeful and confident that more folks will step up before I run the NYC Marathon on November 4, and thank you in advance for any donations you can make toward the cause. 

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