Players can kick in $25 for the buffet lunch, Daily Racing Form and track program (not a bad deal, based on last year's experience), but that is not required.
In other words, anyone can show up and play.
I had planned on entering the tournament regardless ($60 entry or not), as there are few on-track NHC tournaments in my geographic, scheduling and budgetary wheelhouse. The prospect of a five-hour drive to East Boston from Central NJ is not too daunting, and in yet another spin on freedom, the rest of my family will be away until Saturday night, freeing me for such a business trip.
And no matter how well I perform at Suffolk, the original Ted's (Meriden, CT), makers of "World Famous Steamed Cheeseburgers Since 1959," is the perfect pit stop halfway home.
Steamed cheeseburger: Ted's... need I say more?
There appear to be no significant changes to this year's Suffolk NHC qualifier outside of the waived $60 entry fee. NHC Tour and non-Tour players can participate, with the top 3 NHC Tour players earning spots in Las Vegas next January.
Players will make mythical $2 win-place wagers on 15 pre-selected races from four tracks. There appear to be no odds caps on win-place payouts. Tour points will be given to NHC Tour players finishing in the Top 10% of the standings.
The latter issue is one I addressed following the 2012 Suffolk Downs NHC qualifier, but I'm not going to quibble much about it again, as I understand what I'm getting into. Similar to last season (when I finished in 7th among NHC Tour players but came away without Tour points), I have no qualms with the entire universe entering the tournament, but for NHC Tour points purposes would argue that it would not be difficult to have separate standings for all players (i.e. for cash prizes) and only NHC Tour players.
If the Tour is not going to mandate everyone to pay the $50 to join, those who decide to compete on Saturday merely for Top 10 prize money should be excluded from any Tour points calculation.
That's for another day, I suppose.
And, Tour players, do not forget that the NHC Tour's free" online handicapping tournament is also this Saturday. I'm not expecting much (in either case, for that matter), but it's hard to cast aside even the most remote of opportunities at a spot to NHC XV.
The concept of commuting 90 minutes each way to work is probably foreign to many, but here in the New York City area, it's a way of life, and the bus is probably one of my top handicapping venues.
You can hear a pin drop. Unlike the train, which is about as quiet as the trading floor on Wall Street from the opening to the closing bell, riders give you the evil eye if you so much as drop a pin.
Chatting away on the phone, except in an emergency, is frowned upon in the unwritten rider code. Only on Wednesdays -- matinee day on Broadway, popular with female senior citizens who talk the entire ride home -- are there verbal exchanges for the entire ride, but that's the exception.
So, after scoring on a mythical $50WP "wager" in the first race of Del Mar's online handicapping contest yesterday, last night I printed the past performances for today's contest -- Race 8, a $32,000 claimer at a mile and a sixteenth on turf -- looking forward to a quiet ride home spent handicapping one race.
The field of 10 goes post-ward around 8:40 p.m. ET.
Problem is, I could have spent the entire day reviewing the past performances and still not come away with a confident selection.
Of course I'll make a selection no matter what, since there's no cost to play the contest and I am cocky enough to think I can predict any race outcome.
Still, today was one of those occasions where I seriously pondered -- toss the race and avoid dropping a mythical $100 in the Del Mar contest, or roll the dice and pursue an angle that could produce a big score.
Let the debate begin.
In the meantime, here's a quick rundown of the field with my thoughts (questions, concerns, etc.), and a link to Brisnet's past performances:
Beachcombing (8-1), Joe Talamo: on the bench since late September and won three straight on turf last summer, but at Lone Star; trainer Cody Autrey is 20% (19-for-79) with horses off 90+ days; class drop out of a stakes field, but at Remington. Logical contender.
Romeo Royale (8-1), Alex Bisono: contemplated this Cal-bred with 3 wins in 22 turf tries, including 1 at Del Mar, but that one's off the sheet. Not in love with 0-for-25 jockey second off a layoff against $40,000 claimers; best performances seem to be against state breds.
Black N Beauty (15-1), Alonso Quinonez: reclaimed by John Sadler, which drew my attention despite the lofty odds, awful form the last two and first try on turf in 25 lifetime starts. Gut tells me Sadler's testing the waters here and figures he can sneak in a claiming race w/o the horse being taken, but very dangerous trainer in middling field is a positive. Should factor in early pace scenario too, in a race devoid of big early speed. May try to steal.
Warren's Big Cat (30-1), Julien Couton: OK, it's a Jack Van Berg Horse (1-for-71 in 2013), but horse has shown at least a little life at times; still, 0-for-last-14 makes this one a toss.
Winsome Charm (8-1), Arnold Perez: automatic toss for me; should be there early, but have played this one before in past contests and been burned. I'll let him beat me.
Robbie's War (8-1), David Flores: in the money in 6-of-16 on turf, but only 1 win in 18 tries prompts concern that maybe he's an underneath horse at best.
So Elite (6-1), Mario Gutierrez: stalker who, to me, is not that impressive. Seems to be the kind who lingers late but never hits the wire; only a place and show finish in 10 races in '12-'13.
Tamarack Smarty (3-1), Julien Leparoux: connections an obvious plus (trained by Mike Mitchell -- 20% with turf starters), but concerned that this late runner will be too far back off a tepid pace to make up considerable enough ground to win late. Plus, the horse's best form was in '11. Clear winner if he recaptures that form, but 3-1 seems a little too low for my liking.
Te Rapa (5-1), Kayla Stra: 5% turf rider a concern (learned my lesson last week in a similar scenario during the Monmouth Park contest with Shannon Uske; sorry, ladies). Bigger worry, however, is the horse's pattern of fading in the stretch each of his last 6 tries. Should be forwardly-placed, but not sure he's capable of closing the deal here, though this horse has 2 wins in 4 tries at Del Mar.
Fear the Beard (7-2), Rafael Bejarano: expect will take money and speculating he may go off as favorite, having finished in the money in 7 of 12 lifetime starts, including 2 straight place finishes at Betfair Hollywood Park at a mile. Not too concerned about outside post and think he may be forwardly placed.
NJ Horseplayer's Pick: $50WP, #1 Beachcombing
Although I'm somewhat tepid off the layoff, I'm willing to roll the dice here, considering all of the horse's 4 lifetime victories in 16 starts came on grass, and this horse has been aggressively placed in races in Lousiana, Texas and even New Jersey (two second-place showing in non-graded stakes at Monmouth in 2011). I like the rail draw and figure the horse will be forwardly placed.
Thoughts, anyone...this toss-up a play or a toss for you?
In all honesty, after reading that last night, I slept a whole lot better and was far less disappointed with my end game en route to a 13th-place finish (out of 79), so much appreciated, Jim!
A decent run of "pre-qualifiers" in Horse Tourneys' contests padded my bankroll enough to enter a few NHC qualifiers ($240 entry fee), and yesterday provided prime conditions (i.e., disgustingly humid outside, kids away with friends, wife out and about) to throw my hat in the ring for a meaningful NHC qualifier.
The 12-race contest featured races from Woodbine, Arlington, Hollywood and Ellis Park (home base for HorseTourneys.com).
Payouts on notional $2 win-place wagers were capped at 20-to-1 for win and 10-to-1 for place. Top 2 finishers won spots to NHC XV. Tour points were awarded to the top 10% of finishers.
I started slowly (0-for-2) but landed a big score in contest race 3, the Ontario Damsel Stakes (Woodbine 8), when 41-to-1 Surtsey scored an easy triumph.
When I handicapped that race from the shores of Avon-by-the-Sea on Sunday morning, I thought I had a diamond in the rough. As a 2-year-old, Surtsey won a restricted stakes stalking the pace, and I anticipated much the same race shape Sunday and was not worried about the first-time turf angle.
In addition, the Damsel field was not that great, and Surtsey's 2013 debut was a toss, as I saw it, considering a 9-month layoff and the curious rider assignment. I totally respect Chantal Sutherland as a rider, but suspected perhaps some cobwebs in her return to Woodbine last month off a stint in retirement and perhaps Surtsey got short shrift in the 2013 debut on June 15.
I figured the 20-to-1 morning line on Surtsey would discourage a lot of players, but 17 of yesterday's 79 players found the same exact horse. Nonetheless, Top 20 with a $64 bankroll through three races was a good start, albeit with lots of work ahead (i.e. nine races).
I stayed hot, picking up another $16 of win-place money with a 4-to-1 score on Norma's Dream in Race 6 from Ellis Park, where, by default, Norma's Dream seemed to be the only runner who liked the dirt and ultimately won by five widening lengths. At that point, I was in a 3-way tie for third or fourth.
As fate would have it, however, my next pick -- Bug Juice (nearly 5-to-1) in Race 7 at Arlington -- was strong but got stuck in traffic and finished third by a half-length, proving the first of a scoreless finish for NJ Horseplayer for all ensuing contest races.
Aside from Miss Giacomo, whom I marked as a contender but passed on in the finale from Woodbine and paid a handsome $14.60 to win and $5.90 to place, I would not have played any of several short-priced winners as the contest approached the finish, so I have no huge regrets there.
The final race, however, is where I faced a dilemma and kicked myself thoroughly afterward, and where Jim Peake's tweet provided proper grounding.
I was in a 3-way tie for 11th-place. The leader (and eventual winner James Michelson) had a $126.60 bankroll, followed by Roger Cettina at $113 and a handful of others, like me, in the $80-$95 range.
I had two choices -- pick a longshot and hope no one else would land on that same horse and maybe sneak into the Top 2, or stick with my rational morning handicapping, take a lower-priced winner, and hope to come away with NHC Tour points for finishing in the top 10% of players.
Hugo Pirate or Charlie'sboywins?
Race 8 from Hollywood, which to me shaped up as a speed duel between nine horses at 6.5 furlongs, favored Charlie'sboywins, an off-the-pace type who finished in-the-money in 8 of 15 starts on the surface and was cutting back from over a mile.
Problem is, after handicapping the race on Sunday morning, two horses were scratched, and I was $46.60 out of first. I figured, at best, I could steal second-place (remember, Top 2 advance to NHC XV) if I found a plausible play around 13-to-1 (and no players ahead of me in the standings would).
There were three horses offering double-digit odds right before post-time.
I opted to "play for the win", as irrational as that proved in hindsight, and picked 16-to-1 Hugo Pirate, ridden by front-running specialist Agapito Delgadillo.
My rationale: how often is a horseplayer -- especially a part-timer like me in a field of many full-time professional handicappers -- within striking distance of WINNING a spot in Las Vegas?
I went for it, but told a neighbor who randomly stopped by my house and ended up watching the race with me the horse probably did not have a shot.
Until the last second when HorseTourneys.com locked down the picks, I battled internally.
Go For The Gusto, or NHC Tour Points?
Hugo Pirate for the improbably NHC win, or stay with Charlie'sboywins and use the roughly $20 of winnings to, perhaps, come away with a 5th- to 8th-place finish and around 1,000 NHC Tour points?
As luck would have it, no one above me in the standings took Hugo Pirate, so my gambit was, if nothing else, well designed.
A miracle win at 16.6-to-1 would have yielded at least $35 to win and, I'm guessing, at least $10 to place and maybe launched me (and two others with the exact same picks and bankrolls) into a Top 2 finish.
Hugo Pirate, however, as anticipated, locked into a speed duel with four others before running out of gas and was passed by, you guess it, a FLYING Charlie'sboywins late in the stretch.
The $21 of potential earnings would have capped my contest bankroll at $101, good for sixth-place and (if I'm reading the NHC Tour rules correctly) 1,000 NHC Tour points.
Combined with the 989 points earned for the Simulcast Series Invitation at Monmouth Park in April, I would have moved up to 118th-place on the Tour leaderboard. The Top 150 at season's end gets you a spot in NHC XV.
The Downside to Points
Perhaps my rationale makes no sense, but qualifying for NHC XV by accruing Tour points is probably not attainable for part-time NHC Tour players like me.
Simply put, I do not play in enough tournaments, nor am I good enough a contest handicapper, to stockpile points. The only live tournaments for me this year are Suffolk on August 3 and Monmouth in September, in all likelihood. I have friends playing in the Saratoga and Aqueduct two-day tournaments later this season, but have neither the time nor the bankroll to participate.
I still have some bullets on HorseTourneys.com and can otherwise probably play a few other online venues, but in the end it's very difficult to match strides with folks who either do this for a living (or "pros," as referenced by Jim Peake) or have no constraints in playing multiple tickets per NHC qualifier. I earned that right in the SSC Invitational, but found it difficult to juggle two contest cards.
A look at the list of Tour players who have already qualified for Vegas shows the aforementioned Mr. Michelson not only near the top of the points leaderboard, but also already having won, count 'em, TWO spots in NHC XV!
Unless there's a different person with the same name, Mr. Michelson played (and won) Sunday's HorseTourneys.com qualifier not only just for the NHC Tour points, but the prospect of upwards of $5,000 for Tour players who win four tournaments in a season.Quite the luxury!
One Simple Goal: Win 1 Tournament to Get to Vegas
The notion that a player can take down three, let alone one, NHC qualifier is mind-boggling and only reinforces the admiration I have for contest players who can succeed on a regular basis.
Contrary to my views post-contest, Sunday's outcome was not all dour when put into proper perspective.
Maybe I just need to take the points when I can and hope to get to Vegas through the back door (i.e. Tour points).
Winning a handicapping tournament outright, on the other hand, just seems the most direct route for a part-timer like me, but the water is clearly deeper when NHC berths (and Tour points, for full-time players who compete for the $150,000 the Tour awards to half- and full-season points leaders) are at stake.
I'm a guy still testing the waters, but courageous enough to swim around even the biggest fish.
An unsolicited messaged helped to reinforce that notion.
See, it cost me $200 to enter Sunday's NHC qualifier at Monmouth Park ($100 bankroll, $100 toward the pot), plus $4 for parking and $3 to get through the turnstile -- a $207 "all-in" investment (excluding my cost to subscribe online to Daily Racing Form and print two sets of past performances from home; but, hey, I could have picked those up for "free" at the contest registration desk).
Weighed down by nickels, dimes
Meanwhile, track patrons who paid $20 for a popular (i.e., bought by over 1,000 people) "Groupon" not only got two clubhouse admissions (a $10 value) and clubhouse box seats ($6 value), but also valet parking ($10 value), two track programs ($7 value), a $2 betting voucher and a $5 coupon for the Monmouth Park Gift shop -- all told, a $40 value!
And being that Sunday is "Family Fun Day" at Monmouth, those who brought their kids also probably got some free face paint, bouncy houses and pony rides (my kids, 10 and 11, opted out).
Now, Sunday was not the first time I have gone without a win in a handicapping contest, but even a few days later two seemingly minor things leave me bitter about the experience. Granted, I was a late registrant (I waited until 1:30 p.m., since I did not single out any plays until race 4 from Woodbine -- 1:54 p.m. ET post time), but:
Monmouth Park had run out of simple paper charts that I depend upon to organize my contest wagers
No food and beverage voucher.
Get Over It, You Say
Listen, hear me out.
I am steadfast that when players are making a concerted effort to visit a track and fork over contest entry fees probably above the budgets of many track visitors that day (and probably also wager on the side into the betting pools), a nickel and dime mentality is not a wise business model.
Belmont Park and Aqueduct, from what I gather, each provide a nice lunch and beverage spread for its two-day, $400 buy-in handicapping contests.
Suffolk Downs, which I am planning to visit again this summer, set up an air-conditioned room solely for its tournament players and put out a nice lunch, beverage and dessert spread last year...for a $60 buy-in tournament!
And did I mention that Suffolk offers one more NHC seat (3) than Monmouth (2) did this past Sunday?!
Yes, Suffolk Downs.
A contest turnout of around 300 registrants at Monmouth may prove otherwise, but in my opinion, certain things should be provided to keep the customer coming, like a simple sheet of paper (not one of the 5-6 people at these tables even so much as made an effort to say "let me see if I can get you one") or a measly $10 voucher (given at the winter contest series) to get a few sodas on a 95-degree day.
"At your service, sir!"
In short, the Groupon-driven customer, who may never visit Monmouth Park again or comes once a season for s**** and giggles, gets a handful of perks and may not even pump a single dollar into the wagering pool.
The full DRF chart, to be sure, would suggest that the average bettor among the 7,277 in attendance wagered, on average, a little more than $66 into the $483,146 on-track pool.
I can only speculate that at $0.0001 per sheet of printing paper, plus the prospect of 300 contest players eating into the track's concession profits, would be a huge hit to the track's sustainability at this point, since what other reason would there be to upset a customer who is investing $1,000+ a season to play in Monmouth's on-track handicapping contests?
$4 for my spot
All the more reason to head to Boston instead of Monmouth on Saturday, August 3. Yes, I'll drive the 10 hours round trip to play at Suffolk on August 3, instead of the $100 Horseplayer World Series contest at Monmouth Park that same day.
Adding Insult to Injury
Speaking of the aforementioned fourth race from Woodbine, the outcome was a harbinger of my day. I told my equally heat-stricken sidekick Red Rock or Bust that this $50,000 maiden special weight was ripe for a first-time starter to win.
Citing a decent work tab, I sided ($10 to win) with first-timer Rexton, who went off around 11-to-1.
Rexton stumbled at the start and recovered to finish sixth of 13, but was no threat to fellow first-timers Regal Warning (34-to-1) and Csonka (35-to-1). Ouch!
Next up, a $10 win wager on Staff Sargeant in the fourth from Monmouth, a $20,000 claimer at a mile on turf. Playing a 5% jockey on a horse nearly double its 6-to-1 morning line is probably not the recipe for NHC contest glory, but I did so at my own risk.
The full chart gave a more-generous classification of Staff Sargeant's finish ("...raced off the pace inside, advanced on the far turn, came wide and rallied mildly between foes"), but in my view Shannon Uske cost me a nice win mutuel with a weak stretch run after positioning the fresh horse perfectly to that point. I took solace, at least, in Red Rock winning that one with 17-1 Michael P.
After an admitted reach in the 5th from Monmouth, I loved two horses in the 6th from Woodbine -- 10-to-1 No Explaining (#9) and 5-to-1 Solid Appeal (#10). In a last-second call, my $10 win wager went the wrong way -- Solid Appeal won by two lengths to pay $13.10. My horse finished third.
Down to a $20 bankroll, and noting the obvious bias to front-running speed on the dirt at Monmouth, I found value in 9-to-1 Indian Spell in the 8th from Monmouth.
As luck would have it, Indian Spell, facing winners for the first time off a maiden-breaking score in Oceanport on June 9, zipped to the lead, only to be the sole dirt runner on the day to get nabbed in the stretch -- 3-to-2 Lucky Liberty got my horse by a head at the wire to halve my bankroll...ultimately squandered on a 31-to-1 bomb I liked in the Queen's Plate at Woodbine but finished fifth.
Bad Karma, But Always A Few Positives
Neither of my two gripes with Monmouth Park on Sunday had anything to do with my contest misfortune, so I'll just chalk up Sunday's outcome more to bad alignment of the planets.
My logic and handicapping were not as atrocious as in some other contests, and despite an extremely hot afternoon, I had the benefit of hanging in the picnic area with a respected handicapper (Red Rock, who got off to a $300+ bankroll but could not hit late) and being graced with a great visit from NJ Horseplayer reader John Millili, who braved the heat and my profuse sweat to stop by and say hello.
Yes, horseplayers, this IS the place for you!
It's nice to meet fellow NHC contest horseplayers in person and garner positive feedback about my written ramblings on handicapping contest play. Had I not had to bring my kids with me, I'd have spent more time socializing with other players, and probably in an air-conditioned environment.
As Monmouth Park has yet to post final contest standings from Sunday, I can only hope that John (and/or wife Barbara) ended up atop the leaderboard when all is said and done and booked a spot in NHC XV.
That, or before the long drive from, yes, Furlong, PA, he at least bought the Groupon.
It's hard to explain to your family, friends and colleagues (or even the frequent visitor to your local track or OTB) in 60 seconds or less why you're spending the day at the racetrack or on some obscure online website playing in something called a handicapping contest.
Those of us "in the know" understand the value of and hard work put into winning only 1 of 500 seats to a prestigious (albeit little-known) annual national championship in Las Vegas.
Well, the Tour, presumably seeking to increase its recognition and draw members to what is already an underground community of $50 annual fee subscribers, is taking its act to the small screen.
Esquire Network, spawned from the men's magazine and set to debut on September 23 somewhere on your cable system (since sophisticated adult male TV viewers don't have enough "guys" networks to chose from already - wink wink), will feature the NHC in a fresh show called Horse Players.
NJ Horseplayer, portrayed by someone far more charismatic and with a fuller head of hair and greater fashion sensibility, rolls up to Monmouth Park for the July 7 NHC Qualifier
I guess that eliminates me from contention from D-list reality TV stardom, since I'm not high stakes, a professional horseplayer OR a big character (physically or personality-wise), but I'm really excited by the prospect of expanding the NHC Tour and our annual championship beyond its relative obscurity.
Putting horseplayers' faces to names and pre-packaging handicapping contest content with actual race footage could become must-see TV and buck the perception of horse racing as musty TV.
Not A Big Sports Network, But At Least Someone's Trying
I have long expressed the need for the NHC Tour to drastically improve its publicity and draw more horseplayers into a sport perceived by most as an old guy's game.
The NHC Tour concept bucks that notion, but either lacks the resources or direction to dismiss such perception and its relative obscurity. The NHC Tour's "News" page, for instance, is bereft of any reference to the big Esquire Network announcement; one has to burrow down to the News & Media>Press Releases link to find the canned press release, picked up a scant few -- i.e., Daily Racing Form, HANA. The Tour, unless I missed it or am following the wrong Twitter account, didn't even tweet the announcement.
Getting the NHC Tour brand on TV is akin to hitting the jackpot, in my opinion -- not only for the Tour and handicapping contest circuit itself, but horse racing in general. Racing's fragmented leadership needs to be on the bandwagon and promote the hell out of Horse Players.
Recapping Geelong-St. Kilda
I'm not sure Esquire Network, owned by NBC Universal, is the venue to raise the NHC Tour's profile to the heights of the World Series of Poker, but it's a start in addressing the identity crisis for an outfit that hosts a $1.5-$2 million (yes, the dollar amount IS correct) annual championship, and I guess Esquire will be in more TV households than horseplayer mainstays (but fee-based) TVG and HRTV.
NHC Contest Circuit -- more interesting than even Chuck Norris
The first thought that came to mind when I saw the initial tweet about Horse Players was why the show couldn't find its way to the main NBC Sports Network, which, let's face it, is not packed with the most compelling programming.
Now, NBC Sports Network is not quite ESPN circa 1979 with Australian Rules Football and Munster hurling, but unless you're a big fan of the Tour de France, Major League Soccer or reruns of Chuck Norris' Total Gym for $14.95, NBC Sports Network is probably not for you.
Creators Investing Millions?
Placement on Esquire Network rather than the higher-profile NBC Sports Network initially made me cautious that Horse Players will be a low-cost, perhaps low-brow perspective of degenerate horseplayers, mirroring the portrayal of some hapless fictional bettors in HBO's short-lived "Luck".
However, I stumbled upon a message board discussion about Horse Players, where a poster cited an interview of an NHC official noting that NBC is putting "millions" behind the show. I have no knowledge of TV show production costs by any means, but a 7-figure investment (if true) would signal the creators see the value in televising horseplayers' quests to make it to, and win in, Las Vegas.
Check out Michael Beychok winning the 2012 NHC and you'll see why televising human reactions to neck-and-neck horse races with a huge contest purse at stake will prove far more dramatic and compelling TV than watching a bunch of Generation Me'rs in sunglasses and outfitted like the Unabomber playing Texas Hold 'Em, at least in my humble opinion.
Doing so at a much richer production value than grainy cell-phone quality video is a huge plus.
In addition, considering Esquire Magazine's position as a "guide for men who want to live a fuller, richer, more-informed and rewarding life," I suspect that Horse Players will shed more light on the lesser-known intellectual and social aspects of the handicapping contest circuit.
Now, fellow horseplayer Red Rock or Bust -- an intellectual to the highest degree -- made no mention to me of on-camera appearances during last weekend's Belmont Handicapping Challenge, where film crews were gathering footage of perhaps more interesting people, but it seems the show's creators will be touring several contests nationwide, including Monmouth Park, to chronicle the build-up to NHC XV next January.
If it happens to be this Sunday's NHC qualifier at Monmouth Park, maybe my stardom awaits.
With or without me, I hope that Horse Players becomes a raging success not only for the nascent TV network and its financial commitment to the project, but also the NHC Tour itself, which certainly could use the notoriety midway through its second decade in existence and offers tremendous entertainment value to those of us who participate on a regular basis.