Of course it would have been nice to finish first and take down Saturday's top prize of $14,350 (plus bankroll winnings) as well, but a Top 20 result was my stated goal heading into this winter's SSC. This is my first time in three years of attempting to qualify for the SSC Invitational, so needless to say I'm happy with the outcome, especially since I found Saturday's betting card ho-hum and got off to a wretched start.
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SSC Invitational, Sat. April 20
My $100 starting bankroll slid to $40 after an 0-for-6 start where my $10 win selections largely stumbled at the start. Still, I could not get discouraged, since there were horses I liked later in the contest.
Fortunes turned for the better on my seventh wager: 8-to-1 Perfect Tay in Gulfstream Race 6 at a mile on the grass.
I did not know this tidbit beforehand, but this 4-year-old colt was among the last offspring of renowned turf sire Rahy and otherwise drew my attention for breaking his maiden last March on Gulfstream's turf and racing in 2012 at Woodbine against some tough stakes runners like River Rush and Miami Deco.
The four-month layoff and 15-to-1 morning line were not a huge concern, considering Edgar Prado had the mount (he rode Perfect Tay in his maiden, and lone, victory) and the 5-to-2 favorite in this $25,000 optional claimer, Lemon View, looked vulnerable in an 11-horse field at a mile.
True to form, Perfect Tay got off to a slow start, but the early fractions were brisk, and Prado made an aggressive move from the rear heading into the final turn before passing 30-to-1 bomber Buzz the Deputy very late in the stretch to pay $19 to win. The $95 total payout to me boosted my bankroll to $125, giving me some ammunition for later in the contest.
Two wagers later -- my ninth of a requisite 10 to qualify for cash prizes and advancement to the SSC Invitational -- I was quite familiar with the field of horses racing in the $60,000 Challenger Stakes from Tampa Bay Downs (replay courtesy of Bloodhorse.com).
Turning Fortune On Its Ear
Recall, if you will, my diatribe on the outcome of a race from Tampa Bay Downs during SSC#1. No need to rehash that one, but half of the Challenger field was coming out of that Feb. 2 race, where I thought I got jobbed by a poor stewards' decision (only to find out the final chart did not make note of my jockey brushing another horse with his whip in the stretch -- a clear cause for disqualification).
This Saturday's tote board showed that bettors were all over the entry of Nicklaus Way and Meowser, the first- and second-place winners of that common Tampa optional claimer on February 2, betting them down to 2-to-1 from the 9-to-2 morning line. And they were not even the favorites; 9-to-5 morning-line choice Prospective, a 6-time stakes winner (including a Grade 2 and two Grade 3 events) went off at less than 6-to-5, leaving four other horses at juicy odds.
I felt that the likes of Shellback and Thank U Philippe (runners on February 2) were tosses, as was 35-to-1 The Original Scotty. That left 12-to-1 Argentine Tango, and my eventual selection.
"14-to-1 is egregious on the 5 horse."
Those were my exact words to fellow contestant Red Rock or Bust before making my way to the window for a $10 win wager on Flatter This, who at a 4-to-1 morning line was completely dismissed by the bettors, going off at nearly 15-to-1 and producing a $158 win for me, running my bankroll to $263.
Antonio Gallardo gave Flatter This a perfect trip, settling toward the rear of the pack in the backstretch before pouncing on the leaders into the final turn and then running clear to a nearly 3-length victory.
Handicappers missed key angles on this one, perhaps explaining the massive overlay.
Flatter This lacked the kinds of graded stakes victories of Prospective (2012 Delta Mile, Grade 2 Tampa Derby, Grade 3 Ohio Derby among them), but was coming out of a $62,000 optional claimer on January 26 at Gulfstream won by 2012 Grade 1 Travers Stakes winner Golden Ticket. Flatter This' December 29 try on turf was a toss, but the previous 2 efforts, including third in the Gulfstream Claiming Crown Jewel, signaled that prominent Tampa trainer Kathleen O'Connell could get this one to fire.
Needless to say, it worked out.
By that time (around 4:40 p.m. ET), I needed to make one more wager to comply with contest rules...but knew that, unfortunately, I had to leave by 5:15-5:30 p.m. for, um, an engagement party. (Thanks, Mrs. NJ Horseplayer!)
As much as I wanted to stick around until the bitter end, I could not, and so contemplated 1-2 more wagers in hopes, first, of a decent win to put me in the Top 10 (i.e. eligible for a cash prize) and, second, of keeping my bankroll above $200 and maybe hanging on for a Top 20 finish and SSC Invitational berth (the 20th-place finisher ultimate ended up at $185.50).
I went $20 win-show on 23-to-1 Be Bullish in the Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct, but fell 3 lengths short of ultra-impressive Comma to the Top, whom I had dismissed in Friday's blog on account of short rest and cross-country travel but ran like a true champion. I have no regrets about Be Bullish, who was very game late and galloped out well, but seemed never seemed comfortable along the rail under Mike Luzzi.
Transparent ($10 win) was then no match for the impressive Vyjack in the Gotham, decreasing my bankroll to $213 and leaving me with a decision.
All In...Or Capital Preservation?
Had it been feasible for me to stick around for the 3-4 races remaining from Tampa and Gulfstream, who knows what could have happened; but before leaving Monmouth, I settled on one final $10 win wager on Tidal Slam in the Tampa finale. I liked the horse, and figured, at worst, I'd break even for the day on my initial $200 investment and still have a shot at the Top 20. A win could put me at $250-300.
Tidal Slam ultimately was bet down to less than half his 10-to-1 morning line and ran extremely flat, finishing fifth behind 33-to-1 bomber Countess Emma, which made me (and Red Rock) cringe.
At that point, watching the race from home, I figured a dozen or so contestants with $10-$20 left in their bankrolls would have bet the longest shot on the board in hopes of a miracle and knocked me out of the Top 20, but ultimately that did not happen.
I am left to only speculate what could have been (positive or negative) had I been able to stick around through the final race. I had no strong feelings on races 9-11 that closed out the Gulfstream card, but on Friday night I handicapped Brainy as a worthwhile play in Race 10 from Tampa. I'm not sure, however, I would have bet on a such a huge underlay (2.9-to-1 final odds of an 8-to-1 morning line).
Either Way, Mission Accomplished
It's easy days after to contemplate different outcomes, but through SSC#1 and SSC#2, I find myself playing pretty well this Simulcast Series Challenge season.
In both contests, I increased my $100 bankroll to at least $250 and put myself in position to make a big play late (SSC#1) and/or qualify for the Invitational (SSC#2).
Ahead of SSC#3 on Saturday, I now have some room to be less conservative, considering I am now assured a spot in the SSC Invitational.
I'm not sure I have the courage yet, say, to go "all in" with my full bankroll on a horse, but in my last three contests at Monmouth (dating back to last fall), I have made between $40 and $90 wagers on horses I've liked. I did not hit on any of them, but (knock on wood) have generally been able to build profitable bankrolls with some well-intended long-shots to stick around late in contests -- all positive signs.
Come the SSC Invitational in April, the key will become putting that amount (or more) on a winning selection like Flatter This to have a shot of rolling into Vegas for NHC XV next January.