Friday, August 16, 2013


Before bolting town tomorrow early morning for a weekend at Saratoga Race Course, I wanted to get a head start on handicapping that card plus Saturday's NHC Tour contest, sponsored by Sovereign Stable.

The top two finishers in the Sovereign contest will win spots in the 2014 National Handicapping Championship next January in Las Vegas.

Now, I fully appreciate Sovereign stepping forward to offer Tour players this opportunity, and like many Tour players will probably enter some picks before spending the day at the track or elsewhere.  On the other hand, a glance at the races made me question -- which person was tasked with picking the races to use for this contest, and does this person have a pulse on contest play?

See, of the wealth of races to choose from, the one that most caught my eye that made the cut for the Sovereign Stable Contest was The Alabama from Saratoga (Race 10).

I get that The Alabama is a Grade 1 race, but there are only 6 horses!

Readers can verify that I'm correct probably only once out of every 25-30 times, but I'll walk home the 260 miles from Saratoga (I've done the NYC Marathon three times, so I'm up for a challenge) if 3-to-5 Princess of Sylmar or 2-to-1 Fiftyshadesofhay does not win.

The other four horses (all between 10-to-1 and 20-to-1) are hardly playable in any circumstance, especially in a 10-race handicapping contest where probably 1,000-plus people will register to play.

So, while I'm already cringing at the prospect of handicapping races tomorrow at Saratoga where as many as 16 horses are entered, my reaction is the same about The Alabama in the Sovereign contest, albeit from a totally different perspective.

Why The Alabama?

From a contest player's perspective, the race is a waste.  I get that it's a significant race to the connections, but I just do not get why The Alabama was included in the Sovereign contest.

Dorothy handicaps The Alabama too
In formats like the live-money contests at Monmouth Park, a lot of players will pass on such a race for lack of value.  Is it worth wasting a win bet, for instance, on a 3-to-5 shot, or rolling the dice that some long-shot like Carnival Court (15-to-1 morning line) runs her face off or a tornado sweeps the other five runners off the Saratoga oval?

My money is on most players passing on the race as a single bet.  In all likelihood most will use one of the two favorites in their exotics and save their money for a deeper race where the odds are better spread, but in reality, no contest player would ever want to play a 6-horse race unless forced.

The Anatomy of Contest Race Selection

I reached out to two sources I respect greatly -- McKay Smith of and Scott Carson of The Public Handicapper -- to see how they organize the cards for contests offered on their websites.

"We look for big stakes fields without giant favorites," said Carson via Twitter, "or at least giant faves we think are vulnerable."

This confirms the typically astute selection of four challenging races each week on Public Handicapper, as I see it.  Carson added, too, that Public Handicapper also avoids races like the Del Mar Oaks, where the field is big but the outcome is perceived as chalky.

Smith, meanwhile, emailed me a checklist of criteria used by in carding a contest.  The quality of the race is the top consideration, but among the others:

  • Major tracks always get a preference
  • Races with 8+ horses
  • Good geographical mix (i.e. East, Midwest and West Coast)
  • Equitable mix of turf vs. dirt races
  • Schedule within a reasonable time period (i.e. 3-4 hours for a 10-12 race schedule)
  • Avoid state-bred races unless from a major circuit, and only when they are quality races

"Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's difficult, especially when you bring the time/scheduling component into the mix," said Smith.  "Sometimes players ask me, why didn't you use that race or this one, and the most typical response is because doing so would have extended the tournament far too long than what would be comfortable for most players."

Sounds Logical

The overriding theme seems to be to know the audience.

In the case of the contest player, I would charge that most would rather have full fields and challenging conditions, and Messrs. Smith and Carson clearly have the knack for staging a contest.

"It just comes down to feel and experience," said Smith.  "It's certainly not rocket science by any means, but the more you do it, the more you can identify a schedule that is equitable and fair enough to use on a major day like an NHC qualifier."

Again, I appreciate the no-cost opportunity to play in the Sovereign contest, but on Arlington Millions Day and with deep cards at summer giants Saratoga and Del Mar in the offing, simply argue that The Alabama has no business in an NHC qualifying event.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Crime Pays

Nine hours of driving and several more handicapping yielded bupkis for NJ Horseplayer at the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) qualifier at Suffolk Downs on Saturday, August 3, save for a great pit stop at Ted's in Meriden, CT for a steamed cheeseburger and getting to hang out with some wonderful Tour brethren at yet another fun-filled contest.

Similar to the 2012 rendition, when 53-to-1 shot Caffe D' Oro scuttled my hopes of NHC glory in what was an otherwise productive contest, another egregious long shot from Monmouth Park (where I never seem to catch a price) catapulted a handful of people to the top of the standings.  

This year, however, I was nowhere close to the leaderboard, registering zero winners and just five place runners on the 15-race card.  Ouch!

Somehow, and I still cannot figure out how, bettors dismissed 10-to-1 morning line shot Crime Time in Race 7, sending the horse off at 41-to-1 in a 10-horse turf race at a mile.  Dixie Sun (17-to-1), my pick in a race devoid of a clear favorite, simply flew too late and lost fourth by a length.

The 41-to-1 odds on a horse that showed decent turf form were entirely criminal, but second-year NHC Tour player James Timinck was one of seven benefactors of Crime Time.  

The Raynham, MA dealer of high-end vintage sports collectibles finished third overall but tops among NHC Tour players, earning 1 of 3 berths to NHC XV awarded by Suffolk Downs!

I had the pleasure of being introduced to Mr. Timinck toward the end of the day by fellow Tour players Stephen Fitzpatrick and Marie Jost, and caught up with James via email to recount his experience at Suffolk Downs and pick his brain about qualifying for the NHC, handicapping and other tidbits.

NJ Horseplayer: Congrats on your third-place finish in the 2013 NHC qualifier at Suffolk Downs and earnings 1 of 3 spots to the $1.5 million NHC XV next January.  Will this be your first time competing in the national championship, and has last Saturday's victory sunken in yet?

Stephen Fitzpatrick, Marie Jost,
NHC XV qualifier James Timinck
and NJ Horseplayer at
Suffolk Downs
James Timinck:  This is my second year playing tournaments on a consistent basis.  I have not qualified...until now.  It has started to sink in, that in January I will be competing for the ultimate prize.  How many chances in life do you get a legitimate swing for the fences for approximately $1 million.  I am not a professional golfer, tennis or poker tournament player who gets a chance at a large prize each and every week, and fortunately I do not play the lottery, LOL.

NJ Horseplayer:  Did you imagine getting to the National Handicapping Championship so quickly?

James Timinck:  As far as qualifying so quickly, I believe in my handicapping ability.  I think that mentality, and you have to have that mindset, as the ups and downs in this game are quite sudden.  I did realize in those first couple of tournaments real fast that I would have to reassess my expectations as far as how difficult it really is and tweak the way I grind through a tournament.

NJ Horseplayer:  How long have you been handicapping thoroughbreds and playing in contests, and what's your typical preparation and strategy?

James Timinck:  I started betting races in the mid-to-late 90's, playing strictly greyhounds, as there was a greyhound track and also two other greyhound parks and simulcast facilities in my area here in the East Coast.  As greyhound tracks started to close, I started to focus more on playing horses, and by the mid 2000's I was taking notes and watching replays and playing the horses on a regular basis, and now with the handicapping tournament scene getting more popular, it seems natural to play in tournaments, as I love a good competition to test skills. 

NJ Horseplayer:  Considering Suffolk's format is "pick-and-pray," how much time did you put into studying the 15-race card, and how did you go about building your ticket?  Do you strictly go in with your best pick...favor your ticket around 1-2 key races, much as you would for a multi-race exotic ticket such as a Pick 4 or 6?

James Timinck:  As far as preparation, as soon as I get the designated races from that tournament up, I get started right away marking up the races, referring to past notes on certain horses, watching replays, and I have a good database of horses to watch out for when they get an entry into a race.  The "horse watch" on Equibase and DRF is great, because as soon as you have a note on a horse you can enter them in your horse watch and receive an email the very same day they get an entry into a race across the country at any track.  

When I am building my exotic tickets for Pick 4, 5 or 6, odds play zero factor as to whether I select any horse.  I do tier horses in each race A, B and C as to who I think has the best chance to cross the wire first, all the way to the least likely.  

When playing the "Pick & Pray," I apply a different strategy.  Since you cannot know when entering your picks what the odds are on a certain horse in the tournament, I immediately identify who I believe will be the odds-on favorite in each race and immediately put a line through that horse as if the horse was scratched in the race.  I really like using Beyer speed figures as a reference point to starting the handicapping process in each race.

NJ Horseplayer: I never seem to find a price horse at my nearby track, Monmouth Park, but in my second-straight season of playing in Suffolk's contest, another bomber played a big part.  Last year it was a horse called Caffe D' Oro, who scuttled my NHC qualifying hopes with a 53-to-1 victory (I think I was in the Top 5 to that point).  This year, though my picks stunk overall, Crime Time won at 41-to-1 in the 7th from Monmouth.  First, how did you get to that horse?  Second, how could the bettors let that horse (10-to-1 morning line) go off at such an enormous price?  

James Timinck:  What immediately caught my eye going through the race was Crime Time was not new to turf, having five consecutive turf starts in which his Beyer jumped from a Beyer average on dirt of approx.31.2 to a Beyer turf average of 61.4.  Looking at the other horses, and taking their best 3 Beyers in there last 4 races, #5 Crime Time was tied with #1 Staff Sergeant for the best Beyer average with 64.6, with #2 Discreet Duke coming in with 64.  Finally, I came to the conclusion that the  #1 and #2 would take a lot of money with (Paco) Lopez and (Angel) Serpa, while I get a horse that gets a jockey upgrade from (Carol) Cedeno to (Jose) Ferrer, who gets off the rail and, most importantly, may very well still have more room to improve on turf.

NJ Horseplayer:  You finished 3rd overall and tops among NHC Tour players at Suffolk.  What were your other big scores in the contest? 

James Timinck: My other horses I cashed with in tournament were:

  • Saratoga, Race 6:  #6 Gimme Credit ($9.20 win, $4.40 place)
  • Saratoga, Race10: #4 Cross Traffic ($9.10 win, $5.40 place)
  • Delmar, Race 2  #4 Smokin' Cat ($12.00 win, $5.40 place)
So, I ended up with 4 winners total and I had 4 second-place finishes (every dime counts). 

Sounder advice:
Buy a real bike rack. I was behind
some clown on the Mass Pike
who figured rope would work well.
Yes, that's his little girl's front
tire hanging over the roof (right).
NJ Horseplayer:  Based on your success on Saturday, what advice would you have for fellow Tour players in terms of pick-and-pray formats?  

That's an area where, personally, I haven't had a ton of success, though the format is clearly favored by players in online tournaments.

James Timinck:  My advice on Pick & Pray would be immediately to find who you think will be the odds-on favorite and pitch him, and after that do not calculate odds again.  Just pick a horse you have handicapped, isolate 2 or 3 horses from the field using your tools on how you select horses, and make that decision.

NJ Horseplayer: Now that the Tour is allowing players 2 spots in this year's NHC, what other tournaments are on your calendar this season?  Or, now that you're already qualified for Vegas, will you turn your attention elsewhere? 

James Timinck:  I will continue playing in tournaments all year long in a quest for a second entry.

NJ Horseplayer:  What are your pursuits outside the NHC Tour?  If I recall, you're also a collectibles dealer and otherwise into the casino world. 

James Timinck:  When I do play at the casino, I play poker and craps.  I always want to play games where I am either not playing against the casino or playing with the casino.  When playing dice, I play on the casino's side that the public will not make their points and lose.  Poker, for obvious reasons, using math probability and playing your opponent to be a winning poker player.  You have to dedicate yourself to the games to make a living from them.  My part-time sample size has yielded good results, so knock on wood.

I buy/sell/trade/collect high-end vintage sports collectibles.  The collectibles market has exploded in the last decade as people from all walks of life are diversifying their portfolios with collectibles as strong investments. As we all know, the boys from Manhattan have been a little loose with the numbers this decade.  So, rare high-end collectibles are a great investment for the future and people like quick-and-easy access to liquidity.

NJ Horseplayer:  Again, great job in the Suffolk contest.  It was great meeting you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on Saturday's win and other points.  I hope to see you in Vegas!

James Timinck:  No problem, anytime.  I may be going to the Monmouth tournament in September. You?

NJ Horseplayer:  Absolutely!  See you there!