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).
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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.
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.
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