Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Quest for Jim Benes' NHC Crown Begins Saturday

Congrats to professional horseplayer Jim Benes of Illinois for winning the $750,000 top prize on Saturday as champion of the National Handicapping Championship (NHC)!

Not this Gunning for Glory...
but you get the idea
The margin of victory was scant for the second year in a row (Mike Beychok won NHC XIII by $1 of notional winnings), with Benes beating out NJ Horseplayer's fellow Garden Stater Roger Cettina, of nearby Rumson, by $1.20 on a chalky, but extremely lucrative, selection in the contest finale from Santa Anita.  Rich Grose, the leader after Friday's opening round, finished fourth.

Enough of the platitudes...time to gun for a spot in NHC XV and Benes' title as NHC champ!

The quest for me begins this Saturday with Simulcast Series Challenge #1 at Monmouth Park.

For the faint of cold winters, SSC (3 such $200 buy-in tourneys produce a 60-player "invitational" in April for 2 berths to NHC XV) is the perfect remedy.  The weather forecast here in Central NJ is tame, so there should be no threat of postponement on account of poor driving conditions.

The only conditions that matter will be those at Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs -- the three tracks in play for SSC#1.

The contest parameters, for those who have never played in this event, are straightforward: $100 contest bankroll, mandatory 10 wagers on any of 10 races at the three tracks, and wagers on only 1 horse per race are only win, place and/or show of at least $10 each; failure to meet the parameters results in disqualification.

Players will pony up $200 -- $100 to a no-takeout pot split between the Top 10 finishers, and the other $100 for player bankrolls.  Thereafter, it's open game, as players can bet their $100 on any of the 30+ races carded, with an eye on finishing with the highest bankroll for the day...or, simply finishing in the Top 20. Note, too, that players keep any accrued winnings.

This year, Monmouth expanded the number of players in the SSC Invitational (Saturday, April 20) to 60 (from 45), which could change strategy of horseplayers like me who simply want to qualify for the Invitational.

Last year, the 15th-place finisher in SSC#1 finished with a meager $127.50 bankroll, though results of SSC#2 and SSC#3 suggest players this Saturday will safely qualify for the SSC Invitational by increase their $100 starting bankrolls to around $225-$250.

The question for me ahead of starting my handicapping on Friday becomes whether I can cast aside my mentality of going for the win (after all, first prize is estimated at $10,000 if 200 players enter), or be happy with, say, a 20th-place finish.  If I am lucky enough to hit enough races to increase my bankroll to $200, for instance, logic would suggest that a conservative stance would suffice. However, will other players in the same spot employ the same tactic, or will someone, say, in 21st place with a $190 bankroll sit on their winnings and hope others fall out of the Top 20, or go for broke with a large wager in the finale?

I suppose the solution is to build a $1,000 bankroll a third of the way through the card, but that is probably not realistic.  Nonetheless, I would expect other SSC#1 players to consider similar strategies as me, which is what makes the Simulcast Series Challenge not only a great remedy for the winter blahs, but an even more interesting mental exercise with 15 more total contestants eligible for the Invitational in April.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Grose Advantage, But NHC XIV Wide Open

Missouri's Richard Grose leads the 14th Annual National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas by nearly $67 heading into Saturday's closing day, but my first thought after reading the Daily Racing Form's recap is that the pressure's off all other contestants.

Players make 14 mythical $2 win-place wagers and 1 mythical $4 "best bet" win-place wager from a selection of 8 mandatory races and 7 "players choice" races (i.e. any of the tracks used in the contest).  I suspect that players will focus their 7 wild-card wagers on deeper-carded races at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, where a long-shot can be had, as opposed to a track like Golden Gate Fields (only 3 races with more than 7 horses) and Santa Anita, where rain is sure to result in scratches and solely dirt races.

From my limited history in competing in live handicapping contests, players usually win with a bankroll at least 10x the value of their starting bankroll.  So, assuming a $64 bankroll on Saturday for each player, figure that NHC XIV remains wide open as players roll the dice on horses at least 10-1 or more.  In online contests, the ratio tends to be less, since all races are mandatory and players can win betting chalk.

Nonetheless, my guess is that Mr. Grose's lead is anything but safe.  We'll soon find out...

Best of luck to all NHC XIV contestants and safe travels afterward!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Harnessing My Expectations

As 450 or so players vie for the National Handicapping Championship (NHC XIV) title that gets underway Friday (and Saturday), those of us on the sidelines are left chomping at the bit for a shot at the January 2014 NHC...or simply jealous that we failed to qualify for this year's Vegas extravaganza.

I'm not the jealous type, so I wish this year's NHC competitors nothing but the best.  It would be an achievement to someday qualify.  I figure it took last year's NHC champ, Michael Beychok (great speech at the Eclipse Awards, by the way), seven years just to qualify for NHC; perhaps my fate will be the same.

The 2013 NHC Tour schedule does not begin until February (in my case, with the first of three Simulcast Series Challenges).  Next Saturday at Monmouth Park cannot get here fast enough.
Translation: Bill's horses
will break stride

In the meantime, and somewhat on a lark, I played last Friday and Saturday in two free World Harness Handicapping Championship qualifiers on HorseTourneys.com.  I also signed on for two more contests this Friday and Saturday, but last week's grim performance does not augur well for any shot at the top spot, which would qualify me for the WHHC at the Meadowlands on April 13.

I put out a request for a Q&A with U.S. Trotting Association (USTA) communications director Dan Leary, but in the meantime I'll share my observations about harness racing.

One words come to mind: baffling.

I know so little about pacers and trotters that, even after my father explained the difference to me at least a half dozen times, I find the standard-bred world an entirely different animal than handicapping thoroughbreds and cannot distinguish between the horses' gaits, nor the past performances, rendering me clueless and, in all likelihood, with no shot at winning a spot in the WHHC.

Since it's been more like upper Saskatchewan here than New Jersey here in the Garden State the past few days, I figured I could cozy up under a blanket and practice my handicapping, albeit on a different breed of horse racing...figuring..."how different can it be, really?"

Immensely, would be my observation.

Consideration of the post position, trainer-jockey combos and class seem somewhat akin to thoroughbred handicapping, but concepts such as form, "cover flow" (race-caller parlance for drafting behind other horses, I suppose) and, especially, breaking are drastically different.

I suppose I could draw a thoroughbred sprinter's stumble out of the starting gate as a parallel to a trotter breaking stride after the start (i.e. galloping, rather than pacing), but really I dislike the concept that, with standard-breds, a horse is essentially cooked if he or she breaks.  To the contrary, I have seen thoroughbred sprinters recover from a bad start and still win or make a superfecta.

Case in point.  An acquaintance is part owner in a horse who raced at Dover Downs on Thursday night.  The horse was fresh off a win and seemed in a winnable spot, but in hindsight I learned that this horse looked askew in the warm-up and post parade and the owner knew the horse would run a clunker.  Sure enough, the horse broke stride just as the race started and finished dead last.  (Editor's note: I learned Friday afternoon that the horse chipped its hoof and should have scratched, but the trainer didn't.)

Without belaboring the point, and because I would rather first question an expert on the industry before tossing my curiosities about standard-bred racing totally aside, my initial observation is that fan education is a major problem for harness and thoroughbred racing alike.

HorsePlayerNow.com has been absolutely wonderful in trying to fill the void, and I suppose America's Best Racing deserves mention, though it seems to me a scaled-down HorsePlayerNow.com, but I have had trouble finding good resources on the harness game.  Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places.

Sure, I printed the free past performances from HorseTourneys.com for last (and this) weekend's handicapping contests, but I might as well have read the Bible for hopes of Divine Intervention.  The marks for 2- and 3-wide "trips", for example, gave me no clues in prognosticating the contest races, nor about a horse's form or the jockey's tendencies.

I just find the thoroughbred PPs far more transparent, considering recent workouts, pace tendencies (i.e. front-runner, stalker or closer) and easier visually. Maybe it's more a comfort and experience issue for me.  Plus, features like the DRF Formulator let readers mine a boatload of data for more-granular data.  No offense to Trackmaster (here's tonight's contest races), but the horses' PPs are less telling, and the width of the jockey's bike (or sulky) often eliminates chances of horses (namely on half-mile tracks) winning from outside posts, which makes me question the value of past performances.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on the harness game and I'll shock the world in Friday's contest (featuring Chicago's Maywood Park) or Saturday's (Cal Expo, northern California), but I'm finding quickly that maybe I'm either a generation too late or simply not grasping the complexities of harness racing to draw my allegiance away from thoroughbreds.  We'll see.  Maybe that'll change.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Contest Paradise

I would never advocate buying five entries into any handicapping contest, but the price was too attractive for me to pass up five entries in small-stakes online contests run by HorseTourneys.com on Tuesday.

The National Handicapping Championship (NHC) hub, according to tourney director McKay Smith, recently implemented major systems upgrades to expand the site's capacities, and used a series of five free contests as a test run.  The winner of each would receive $50 in HorseTourneys.com site credit. 

All five contests (3 "pick-and-pray" format, 2 conventional) were open to HorseTourneys account holders and centered on races 2-7 from Turf Paradise. Ironically, all but one of the six races were on dirt, but one has to admit that "Turf Paradise" has a sexier ring than "Dirt Paradise" and most likely did for the track's founders.

"Horse Racing and Spinal Tap"
Ribbing aside, I noticed these tourneys over the weekend and hurriedly signed up, figuring that even in the middle of a workday I could handicap in advance and roll the dice, especially with no knowledge at all about Turf Paradise, outside of my friend Terry having visited the Phoenix, AZ track and providing me a visual akin to Atlantic City Race Course.

With five opportunities, and literally torn between five horses in Race 2, I played the contest like a Pick 5, going five deep with each of my cards featuring a different selection.  Thereafter, I generally went with my top selection for Races 3-7, since most of the contests were "pick-and-pray" (i.e. submit selections for all races before the first contest race goes off), though I fruitlessly dabbled with one ticket in real time.  

My strategy worked decently, as 3-to-1 morning line favorite Jacksonville went off at nearly 5-to-1 and produced a surprising $17.20 of win-place money to tie me atop one of the contests.  Unfortunately, my top selection, Mixed Intent, yielded grudgingly in deep stretch at nearly 10-to-1, a huge overlay from a 9-to-2 morning line; but at least I picked up $10.60 of place money on that ticket, so I was at least alive on two of my five contests. 

After finishing off the board in Race 3 (this one came back to bite me, as right before selections locked in I switched off the horse that ultimately finished second), my handicapping prowess shone through.  I hit on 3-to-2 (but second choice in the wagering) Surfliner in an easy Race 4 score to pad my bankroll by $8 and nearly got 9-to-1 Hometown Heart home in Race 5, but settled for $8.40 of place money. 

With two races to go, I was squarely in the Top 20 (of 150-200 contestants) on two of my five tickets, before vaulting into third place on my pick-and-pray ticket after Bear's Tigerette romped to an easy score in Race 6 to increase my bankroll by $9.20.  Granted, these were "move the chains-type" scores, contrary to my penchant for long-shots, but Surfliner and Tigerette were underlays; can't control the odds... 

In the final race, a $3,000 beaten claimer at 6 furlongs, I was tethered to 12-to-1 (morning line) Loco Marianna.  Based on the way she broke from the gate, however, I sense there was a typo in the program and the horse's name was actual Poco, and I knew my chances to score a $50 site credit were done.  My alternate selection (online contest players typically pick a "backup" horse in the event their main selection scratches) ran on for second, but the place money would not have been enough to vault me to victory.

The end result was pretty decent, considering that four of my five cards basically featured the same selections.  Out of as many as 200 contestants per contest, I finished as high as fourth-place and in the top 35 in three of the other four contests.  On the one ticket where I was able to still make changes in real time, I switched off my Race 4 and 6 winners and fished for big prices that never developed; so maybe it is best, after all, to stick with my original selections, regardless of the live odds.  

Now, would I or anyone in their right mind bet an 8-to-5 shot like a Surfliner early- or mid-card in, say, the upcoming Simulcast Series Challenge at Monmouth Park on February 2?  Probably not, as 7-to-2 is usually my "playable odds" threshold in live-money contests such as SSC.  

On the other hand, Tuesday's performance left me a little more confident in my handicapping ability in early 2014, and validated my view that winning (or at least placing near the top in) handicapping contests is much more than picking winners.  I picked 3-of-6 winners on Tuesday's contest card and logged a pretty lucrative place payout in another race, yet did no better than fourth place.  

Contests are about picking spots to make a plunge.  Moving toward SSC#1, I need to work on avoiding the urge to swing for the fences (as I did on my real-time card noted above) and key one or two viable, undervalued selections that could send me to NHC paradise in 2014.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"New" Quest for Vegas begins February 2

After a wonderful Christmas season and an excellent week-long family vacation in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (save for 2 days bedridden with the flu), I accept the reality of a long, cold winter in New Jersey.

That, and for a second-straight season, my failure to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship.

Espanol still fresh in my mind
That's alright, though, as I clean the slate and note two dates on the calendar that already have my juices flowing -- February 12, when pitchers and catchers report for MLB spring training (we're big baseball fans in the NJ Horseplayer camp), and more importantly, Saturday, February 2, the start of the Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park!

I may not have made it to Vegas for this year's $1.5 million NHC, but February 2 is but four weeks away, and the first of three SSC qualifiers at Monmouth.  The drive for Vegas begins then!

FYI -- SSC#2 is scheduled for Saturday, March 2, and SSC#3 for Saturday, March 30.

There's a slight difference in the format, whereby the Top 20 (up from 15) from each SSC qualifier will advance to the SSC Finals (April 20) for 2 seats to NHC XV in January 2014.

The increase in the number of players eligible for the SSC Invitational is certainly appealing, but with no increase in number of NHC prizes, reduces the odds of winning a spot in Vegas from 1-in-22.5 to 1-in-30.

Granted, I have a simple goal of merely qualifying for the Invitational for the first time ever, but I can only speculate that Monmouth's motivation for increasing the field size for the finals was either financial (i.e., to cover any higher fees that Monmouth Park must pay the NTRA to cover the cost of 2 NHC seats), or simply to raise the level of competition on April 20.

Whatever the motivation, adding 15 players to the SSC Invitational field gives me a better chance of at least making it to the Invitational, which will be one of my goals in 2014.  I hope to see you there!