Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Expanded Offering from HorseTourneys.com

Off a particularly bad Belmont weekend where Palace Malace scuttled my Belmont Pick 4 and second guessing cost me a Top 3 finish in Friday night's HorseTourneys.com NHC feeder, I contemplated writing about my dreadful handicapping of late, but am a forward-looking sort and will focus my attention an interesting email about new contest offerings from HorseTourneys.com.

Although by my own account I am 0-for-2013 in HorseTourneys' NHC-oriented contests, I remain impressed that McKay Smith's contest site continues to move forward in offering members of the National Handicapping Championship Tour increased tournament options.

No second-guessing the low
takeouts at HorseTourneys.com
Visitors will note a slight change on the site, namely the use of tabs to delineate the types of contests now offered.

The one that immediately drew my attention was the Head-To-Head tab, where two players can play head-to-head for monetary credit (i.e. to buy into future tournaments) on HorseTourneys.com.

For instance, my friend turned HorseTourneys.com tournament juggernaut Terry Flanagan and I could each pony up $55 to match our skills, with the winner coming away with a $100 site credit to use in any of a host of the site's future tournaments.

Based on my recent handicapping selections, it may be easier just to hand him $55, but the implied 10% takeout (the house keeps 10% of our total $110 of entry fees) is reasonable, and HorseTourneys.com notes the percentage will decrease for higher entry-fee contests.

The intriguing part about this, from an industry perspective, is whether this new head-to-head offering will win market share from similar online contests, namely on DerbyWars.com, which made its debut as an NHC venue but gravitated entirely toward a cash-focused prize structure and offers many 1-v-1 contests.

In addition, it'll be interesting to see whether head-to-head contests cannibalize HorseTourneys.com's consistent offering of feeder tournaments, where the takeout is closer to 8% on a $26 tournament fee but where players have to finish in the top 10% of the standings to win a $240 site credit (equivalent to the site's entry fee for an NHC qualifying tournament).

Then again, McKay Smith has been an excellent pilot to a website that continues to raise the bar for the entire online handicapping contest world and provides a much-needed venue for NHC Tour players seeking to qualify for NHC XV.  I suspect that his survey of HorseTourneys.com's customers earlier this year was the catalyst to broadening the weekly contest card to the head-to-head format.

I guess it's time to dust myself off after a dreadful recent run of handicapping and give the HorseTourneys.com head-to-head contest format a shot.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Belmont Pick: Freedom Child

I budget $100 per Triple Crown race, but for this year's Belmont Stake could not find another way to spend the $4.50 that is burning a hole in my pocket, so I ended up with $95.50 of wagers.

Few things in life are ever a guarantee, but I guarantee you will survive at least the first leg of the Belmont Stakes Pick 4 based on my selections -- a $0.50 base wager totaling $52.50:

  • Race 8 (Just A Game Stakes): ALL
  • Race 9 (The Woody Stephens): 1, 3, 5, 7, 11
  • Race 10 (Manhattan Handicap): 1
  • Race 11 (Belmont Stakes): 2, 5, 11

As a guy who is pretty decent at hitting 2-of-3 or 3-of-4 on a Pick 3 or 4 ticket and missing out by a nose or head on my losing leg, I tossed my arms up in the Just A Game, a wide open 7-horse field.  I made Dayatthespa my selection in the Public Handicapper contest, thinking she can control the tempo and hold off the late runners on a yielding turf course.  Mizdirection is one of my favorite horses and I think is the best here, but a lot of her success has come on the quirky downhill turf course at Santa Anita.

The Woody Stephens is an equally difficult (and bigger, 11 horses) field, but I am extremely bullish on long-shot Honorable Dillon, who I think is sitting on a big one and is meant for 7 furlongs.  The connections tried their luck at the Triple Crown trail with a futile 7th in the Tampa Derby and it took Dillon two races to get back into form, and I think he'll score at a big price from off the pace.  I hedged a bit on my Pick 4 ticket by including four other runners -- Declan's Warrior, Capo Bastone, Forty Tales and Let Em Shine -- that I perceive as the biggest threat. 

I made Point of Entry my single in the Manhattan. The 3-to-5 odds are short and crimp the potential value of a Pick 4 score, but I really found no others that can knock off this multiple Grade 1 winner.  Turf conditions (yielding or upgraded to soft or fast) should not matter. 

I am hoping to last to the Belmont Stakes, where I battled between two viable long-shots -- Freedom Child and Vyjack -- but settled on Freedom Child. 

The thing I like most about handicapping contests is the premise of strictly picking winners.  In my view, track conditions should matter least to Freedom Child, who ran away from the field convincingly last month in the Grade 2 Peter Pan and I'm anticipating will easily get the lead in the Belmont.  

The questions become whether he gets a clean break from the gate and how much pressure others will apply on the lead.  I simply do not think Oxbow is nearly as fast and will not be able to keep up and tossed him from consideration. Unlimited Budget may go early, but post 13, in my opinion, puts the lone filly in the field at a disadvantage.  Vyjack will not repeat his unsettled quick start in the Kentucky Derby, with the patient Julien Leparoux aboard this time.  Otherwise, no major early burners in the field.

A mile and a half is a lot to ask of a horse on the lead, but Percussion almost did it on Friday in the Brooklyn Handicap, and the Peter Pan tells me Freedom Child can run all day.  I'm predicting Freedom Child will hold off Oxbow and a more-patiently ridden Vyjack in the stretch to win the Belmont.

Here are the other wagers rounding out my $95.50 expenditure:

  • Race 9: $10 daily double 5 with 1 (Honorable Dillon with Point of Entry)
  • Belmont Stakes (a mix of exotics with hedges in case Freedom Child fades late -- $33 total):
    • $8 exacta 2-5
    • $2 exacta 2-11
    • $2 exacta 5 with 2, 11
    • $3 exacta 11 with 2, 5
    • $1 trifecta 2, 5, 11 with 2, 5 with 2, 5, 9, 11
    • $0.10 superfecta 2, 5, 11 with 2, 5, 9, 11 with 2, 5, 9, 11 with 3, 5, 9, 11, 12

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Leadership Blind Spots

One bad handicapping flip-flop and a Little League function this past Saturday ultimately cost me a Top 10 finish and 885 NHC Tour points in the Tour's first "free" online handicapping tournament of the season, but problems with the interface for the contest site were otherwise a big factor not just for me, but all 1,387 contest players.

Saturday's contest featured 10 races, split between Churchill Downs, Belmont and Monmouth.  Top five finishers won berths to January 2014's $1 million-plus national championship in Las Vegas (NHC XV), and the top 30 won Tour points (top 150 in year-end standings who have yet to qualify get NHC XV spots). 

Who's in First?
These "free" contests are hard to take seriously in the first place, considering the field size (i.e. all Tour members are eligible), but still there to play.  Tournament conditions were otherwise comprised by a sloppy Churchill track that rendered two contest races essentially unplayable, each scratched down to four-horse fields.

I never get my hopes up for these affairs, but Saturday started well, based on my review of race replays (to this point, I was out much of the day).  Scatman, a horse I made my top choice but who scratched from the Hanshin Cup a week prior, scored at a surprisingly generous 7-to-2 against four others in the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill.  

After misses in Race 6 from both Monmouth and Belmont, I hit three consecutive winners in races 7-9 from Churchill: 5-to-1 Rincon Behr, 3-to-5 Lea and 9-to-5 Sky Girl.

Four (albeit one very chalky Lea in a 4-horse field) winners in six races put my mythical bankroll (derived from notional $2 win-place bets) at $45.60 with four races remaining.  

Nothing to write home about, but probably sniffing the top of the leaderboard with chalky outcomes thus far.

In one of my few rare moments of free time ever on a Saturday (mind you, I have 11- and 10-year-old kids), before carting the family to my town Little League's annual Lakewood Blueclaws outing I went to the "free" contest site to check the leaderboard.  It was unavailable...on account, as all Tour players learned on Monday, of "technological problems."

You get what we pay for, I suppose.

So, needing to leave home to hightail it to a minor league baseball game, I was resigned to the contest selections I entered earlier in the day for the final four contest races.

I came up empty in two races from Belmont and one from Churchill, but the outcomes were nothing damaging, with the three race winners ranging from 8-to-5 to just under 4-to-1.  

The final contest race, the 11th from Monmouth (The John J. Reilly Handicap), is where not having a functional leaderboard, and my personal obligations, conspired to cost me valuable NHC Tour points.

When I handicapped very early Saturday morning before my anticipated afternoon chaos, I was between two horses: Bombast and Hop Skip and Away, both 6-to-1 on the morning line.  

I sensed the morning line favorite, 3-to-1 All of the Above, would be over-bet with Joe Bravo aboard.

I root for Joe like any true New Jerseyan, but remembering a line once uttered by Jude Feld on HRRN about a big favorite once getting "Bravo'd" (i.e. ridden poorly), and emboldened by Equibase stats proving Bravo's mettle on turf but mere 5% win rate in dirt sprints, I knew the favorite was vulnerable.  

Bombast barely won out in my internal conflict, but Hop Skip and Away won where it mattered -- on the track, and at shockingly high odds near 10-to-1.  

Changing two key variables -- a) seated on the couch watching the races in real time instead of being a responsible family man and, b) that any view of a live leaderboard would have led me to ditch Bombast's 4-to-1 odds and switch to my backup selection, Hop Skip and Away -- would have given me a final bankroll of $76.40 instead of $45.60, good enough for 10th-place out of 1,387.

The 885 NHC Tour points for the effort would have run my season total to 1,874 (good enough for 102nd), but instead I'm left resting on the fruits of my Simulcast Series Challenge points from April.  

I would never regret spending a wonderful evening with my family and being a responsible citizen, even as Saturday's "free" online tournament outcome smarts just a little.  

And kudos to the NHC Tour leaders for admitting the technological snafu of a non-existent contest leaderboard and announcing Monday an additional "free" online tournament later this season; five more seats to NHC XV will be there for the taking now.  

Short Shrift?

An incident such as Saturday's (i.e., no functional leaderboard), however, reinforces what I consider already suspect credibility and value of these "free" NHC tournaments, especially since I have had no such experiences in on-track and online tournaments where I have paid to play.  

Surely, Tour members are not "paying out of pocket" to compete in these contests as they would in other venues whose livelihoods depend, in part, on things like working leaderboards, but they should question the value of their $50 annual membership fee, especially if the Tour put no time into testing its contest system to ensure proper function.  

I get that technology fails all of us from time to time, but the Tour's been at this long enough to let errors like Saturday's occur.  

For the purposes of this blog, however, the more important selfish lessons learned as a handicapping contest player are equal parts:
  • play every contest to the bitter end (both physically and mentally), and 
  • be a better handicapper and make better selections; picking Hop Skip and Away from the get-go would have rendered a Top 10 finish no matter the Tour's IT pratfalls. 
Otherwise, Saturday proves it is a difficult game when nailing 40% of winners is only good enough for 150th-place.

I'm inching toward some brass rings, but there's still a long way to go.