Sunday, April 21, 2013

Vegas Plans On Hold

If one thing's for certain after Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge Invitational at Monmouth Park, it's that I'm becoming a credible handicapping contest player, but have a long way to go before reaching the upper echelon and a National Handicapping Championship (NHC) seat.

Pending Monmouth Park's audit, Joseph Perry and Mary Wilmes earned berths to NHC XV in Las Vegas next January, turning their $200 live bankrolls into $1,419 and $1,099.90 respective finishes by the close of Saturday's Keeneland finale.

(Contest parameters were at least 10 win, place or show wagers of at least $20 each on Keeneland, Aqueduct and Tampa -- Top 2 finishers to Vegas).

In the end, I'm estimating I picked up 900-950 NHC Tour points for at least having some bankroll in the end (a meager $6.25, to be exact...more on this later), which is mere consolation in a tournament where I had a hard time managing one of my two entries I earned but at one point was in the Top 10 with my second.

There were three turning points that help explain my outcome.

Thor's Mjolnor

Juggling a 30-race handicapping contest card is difficult enough, but I knew it would be even tougher with two contest entries, so I studied Aqueduct and Tampa on Thursday and Friday nights but found just seven races I considered playable, and only 3-4 horses where I had real conviction.

One of those was in Race 6 from Aqueduct, a $25,000 New York-bred optional claimer at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on turf.  East of Danzig, coming off a 4-month layoff and shipping in from Gulfstream Park, looked vulnerable to me as 5-to-2 morning line choice, and I thought 12-to-1 Thor's Mjolnor was logical, and yet another indication of where Beyer speed figures are somewhat useless.

Thor's Mjolnor, a Gary Contessa trainee, was hard used, having run eight times since November 3 -- coincidentally the date of his first and only turf race, a closing 6th-place finish against tougher state-bred allowance company.  Considering jockey David Cohen's aggressive riding style, I thought Thor had a shot, as did others; the horse opened around 5-to-1 and went off just under 8-to-1.

In hindsight, however, my $20 win-$5 show wager was too soft for a horse I absolutely loved, as Thor got the perfect trip and held off a hard-charging East of Danzig, netting me $184.25 and running my bankroll to $314.25 through five bets.

Two races earlier, I missed out on another sizable payout when 11-to-1 Comes the Dream got run down late by even-money favorite Mills in Race 4 from Keeneland, but I should have attacked Thor Mjolnor more aggressively.

Regardless, I found myself in a pretty good stalking position (between 6th-10th to that point) and, at the least, knew I was certainly in the mix for a Top 2 finish.

Tough Tampa Beats

On my 8th and 10th contest bets, I had tough-to-swallow defeats in back-to-back Tampa races with logical horses: Delta Bluesman in Race 8 and (my best bet from Tampa) Iloveyourbutimbored in Race 9.

Two admittedly speculative losses after the Thor's Mjolnor score set me back $40, and with $274.25 remaining (and running out of races to bet as, amazingly, I was extremely patient with my selection) my goal was to try to increase my bankroll to around $400 -- enough for a major late wager on a favorite to steal the contest where it looked, to me, the chalk would win the late races.

Delta Bluesman was a third-time maiden who ran decently against similar Special Weight company and pitted against what I considered a lackluster 8-horse field with only one first-time starter.  Delta's debut on February 17, a 6-furlong sprint, was the key -- a race that included 2013 Colt and Gelding Division OBS Championship winner Michael With Us, owned by local connections at Kenwood Racing.  The barn is rather hot this season, and I regularly keep tabs on H. Robb Levinsky's horses.

The 3-to-1 odds seemed fair, so I bet $20 to win on Delta, who, to quote the Daily Racing Form chart, "showed strong stamina to drive to a clear lead a furlong out only to hang near the wire."  Of course the winner was the first-time starter, Dancin n' Dealin at nearly 13-to-1 (jockey Danny Coa won 3 of the last 4 Tampa races).  That was the only time I punched my table all afternoon in frustration.  

Next race, I loved Iloveyoubutimbored at a 6-to-1 morning line and even stayed on him with a $40 win wager when bet down to 5-to-2 co-favorite, but apropos of my Tampa selections this day, my horse hung in the stretch and finished second.

Had those two horses held on for wins, my bankroll would have been roughly $380 instead of $216 with five races left on the contest card.  To boot, had my bet between those two -- $20 to win and show on 7-to-1 runner-up Spun Cap -- had enough stamina to hold off the impressive Sweet Cassiopeia in the $100,000 Giants Causeway in Race 8 from Keeneland, I'd have had around $520...mission accomplished, right?!

Saddle Literally Shuffled -- Final Turning Point

I was not enamored with any horses in the finales at either of the three tracks, and had merely lukewarm conviction about the Coolmore Lexington Stakes from Keeneland (Race 9).

Scratched from the top of my notes on the race from my pre-contest handicapping Saturday morning was "lukewarm on the No. 1", altered to "prefer 7, but only lukewarm."

For the record, No. 1 was Winning Cause ($15.60 winner) and No. 7 was Examen (9th place).  Ugh!

The more I looked at the Coolmore, I knew the race was prime for a stalker-closer type, and stuck with Examen, based on the connections (34% win rate for Garrett Gomez-Tom Proctor), my usual admiration of Gomez's handling of late runners in turf races and that Keeneland's synthetic surface would suit Examen, and a Giant's Causeway pedigree.  For those reasons, I gave him the edge over Winning Cause, who I knew could close but was not sold could win at two turns (his two wins were at 7 furlongs, but at Keeneland).

Examen looked to be making up ground toward the final turn and was angling toward the rail but ran squarely into traffic, and from that point on his race went downhill, with Gomez tugging Examen up ever so slightly and Gomez appearing uneasy in the saddle.

Net result -- $50 win and $20 place wager out the window, and my bankroll down to $146.25.

After two ill-advised $20 stabs at big prices in chalky-looking Tampa and Aqueduct finales, I bet $60 win and $40 place on 16-to-1 Break of Silence, who was double his morning line odds and won two straight but was up against a clear favorite in Suyeta, who ultimately won by a widening three lengths in the Keeneland finale.  I cannot complain, as my horse ran a game fourth but was a cut below.

No Real Regrets

Credit to Nicole Lince for running what was another spectacular Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) -- my favorite handicapping contest series.  Monmouth Park management could consider catering the affair similar to New York contest venues (i.e. Belmont, Aqueduct) to give the invitational players something more for their accomplishment, but otherwise offers players a tremendous and utterly challenging tournament.

More than 2 NHC seats would be nice too, but that's for another discussion.

I suppose I could benefit from the 900+ NHC Tour points for clinging to around a 15th-place finish just for holding on to a few bucks of bankroll in the end, but realistically I'd need to play in online tournaments more regularly to accrue enough points to sustain a place in the Top 150 of the Tour standings (a backdoor into NHC XV).  There's plenty of tournament season left to pick up some points in other venues, and unlike a lot of other Tour players I suppose I have the benefit of logging requisite points for one on-track tournament; the rest I'll get online.

Saturday's bid to finish first or second, however, was scuttled by several near misses that, again, prove at certain times it's better to be lucky than consistent, and I need to go back to the drawing board in terms of when to really drop the hammer on a top choice like Thor's Mjolnor and eschew conservatism, rather than worrying about knocking myself out of a contest too early.

On the flip side, I did not want to come away from two contest entries totally empty (colleague Steve Fitzpatrick reminded me that the Top 30 finishers would earn NHC Tour points), and playing my way into two entries in the first place is a bullish indicator for my handicapping contest future, so chalk Saturday up to another valuable learning experience on my quest to an NHC berth.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ayes for Keeneland

This should come as no shock to anyone, but Keeneland Race Course is outstanding!

The NJ Horseplayer caravan -- and my two kids -- returned last Sunday from a 5-day junket that ultimately I dubbed the 2013 America's Pastime Tour, including baseball day games in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as well as stops at Keeneland and Old Friends Farm just outside of Lexington, KY.

Feast your eyes on Thurman's
Bacon Cheddar Ranch Burger...
3/4 lbs. of juicy goodness
(and a higher BP for me
There's nothing that says Americana more than baseball and horse racing...and burning up lots of gasoline to drive over 1,000 miles round trip while stopping along the way at some of the top local U.S. establishments, including Thurman Cafe in Columbus, OH, Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and the Windy Corner Market in Lexington, KY.

Keenelend will be a critical focus in the week ahead, especially ahead of next Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge Invitational at Monmouth Park (2 NHC seats up for grabs among 60 entries), where as you might have read me boasting about winning two entries.

As Keeneland is one of three contest tracks scheduled (Tampa Bay Downs and Aqueduct the others), I really need to brush up on my Keeneland in advance of the SSC, but come away from my visit last Friday with nothing but visions of grandeur.

If I let my daughter pick for me, I might do even better next week; my brilliant 11-year-old called the winners of last Friday's early Pick 3.  (I did one-up her with a good score on a 3-to-1 shot -- Upgrade, a horse I loved at Gulfstream in SSC#3 that scratched that day -- and a $30 base exacta.)

NJ Horseplayer road-trippers
bracing for a big visit to Keeneland
For anyone who has never been to Keeneland, I would highly recommend spending more time than we did.  One day simply is not enough, especially if you have the time.

We rolled into the parking lot around 11:30 a.m. for the 1:05 p.m. first post on opening day and spent some time feeling our way around the grounds.  Regretfully, I was a day early and had to pass on fellow blogger Derek Brown's (@NJDerek) kind offer to attend his tailgate; tailgating, I learned, is a must, and there's plenty of acreage for it on the expansive Keeneland grounds.

On the way in, I could not avoid how well-dressed everyone was for the occasion (many, especially the younger set, in khakis, sport-jackets and ties), and how young an audience.  The kind folks (Sam and her husband Dave relation to either NASCAR or the 60s guitar icon) seated next to us deemed this the norm, and that many UK students regularly attend the track, particularly during the spring meeting.  I was impressed, flying in the face of widespread negative commentary I have seen elsewhere that racing cannot attract a younger audience.

Scene from the paddock
Access to everything once inside, from placing wagers to buying food and drinks to gift shopping, was brilliant.  I would estimate the crowd at roughly 25,000-30,000 and I did not wait in a single line, and all of the staff were extremely pleasant, unlike many other sporting venues I have attended.  The food was good; my son and I took Tom S's advice and got the Kentucky Burgoo (stew), which was very tasty, and the "adult" drink selections obviously focused on bourbon but was diverse as well.

The paddock, meanwhile, combined a feel of new-world construction with old world charm.  The facades at Keeneland are impeccably clean and everything else so well manicured, and the crowds around the walking circles are electric and hospitable, even elbow-to-elbow with most patrons.  Keeneland reminded me of Saratoga in many ways in terms of the experience and quality of racing, but is unique.

Upon our exit, we strolled through the stable area, which interestingly sits to the right front of the main track entrance and is pretty much open access.  We caught stable hands washing down and feeding horses, and I found it a great experience, especially for the kids, to get a backstage pass of sorts into the operation.  Not that patrons cannot access the stable areas at places like Saratoga and nearby Monmouth, but scheduled tours are the norms there, from what I have experienced.

I absolutely cannot wait to return to Keeneland again, maybe next time with my wife and/or friends, to experience more of the outside "adult" activities like the Bourbon Trail...and to see more premier racing.

Catching Up With Old Friends

Outside of Keeneland, one place I will absolutely revisit in Kentucky is Old Friends Farm.

NJ Horseplayer-in-the-making
bonds with Arson Squad
The kids and I hit Old Friends on Saturday morning on our way to Cincinnati to meet a longtime Rutgers friend at the Reds game, and the 90-minute tour was extremely enjoyable and would far prove more nostalgic for fans with deeper historical knowledge of racing.

As a casual thoroughbred racing fan until joining the NHC Tour in 2010 and getting involved in the handicapping contest circuit, I could only lay claim to recognizing some of the name residents at Old Farm -- Gulch, of course...Arson Squad and Seabiscuit impostor Popcorn Deelites, to name a few.
Gulch enjoying a happy retirement

I was hoping to meet Eclipse award winner Rapid Redux, who gained headlines for 22 straight wins in 2011-2012, but he was resting at a satellite farm.

The tour is magnificent!

Visitors benefit from the setup the proprietors afford, walking through a well-designed route that provides hands-on access to the horses, most of whom were happy to take in a few carrots from us and a rub of the neck.

Outside the Windy Corner
Market, hidden away in the
beautiful horse-countryside
of Lexington, KY
I felt particularly connected to Arson Squad -- not sure why. Maybe it had to do with winning a NJ-based Meadowlands Cup in 2008 and sensing that we were Jersey folk, but probably more that he was just a cool and friendly customer.  I really enjoyed being in his presence most.

As the kids and I made a donation to take the tour, and spent a decent amount of cash in the gift shop, I would encourage readers to consider making a donation to this wonderful venue.  Until last week, I heard their advertisements multiple times on At the Races on Sirius and contemplated a donation but lost track.

Now, however, I plan to include Old Friends as part of my family's annual giving, recognizing not only the value that the operators of Old Friends put in to caring for these distinguished horses, but the education and joy they provide to anyone crossing the farm's path.