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.

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