Renovations at Monmouth kept me from my preferred perch in the quieter terrace dining room, but the sold-out downstairs simulcast parlor proved extremely lively and a welcome break from my erstwhile fortress-of-solitude mindset for contest play.
Generally speaking, I keep to a few close friends at live contests but, contrary to my typical life, do not circulate in search of a social scene.
I especially approach the live-money handicapping tournament with a business-oriented approach -- head down in the past performances and eyes on several tote boards and my bankroll in search of a contest win.
It's a lot to handle a contest card of 30-plus races at three tracks in a 5-hour window, which (along with the real-money wagering format) is what makes SSC the best puzzle on the NHC contest circuit. To be sure, the cancellation of Aqueduct's card prompted the last-minute use of Calder as a third contest track.
From a handicapping standpoint, SSC#2 was a relative positive, as I hit on 4 of 18 contest wagers and, generally speaking, avoided stupid bets (often my pitfall).
I started strong, scoring a 7-to-1 overlay ($10 to win) on Sand Bandit in Race 2 from Tampa Bay Downs.
Then, I channeled my past show-bet blog styling in the opener from Calder to increase my $100 starting bankroll by $22, scoring with $10 to show on Leonides Da Roma as a play against the bridge-jumper on 1-to-2 favorite Forest Friends, who unfortunately hit the board.
So, two wagers in (of at least 10 required at the three contest tracks -- Gulfstream being the third), my bankroll was up to $177.
Three wagers later, I upped that to $239 on a late-running victory by Sweet Afleet in Race 4 from Tampa at an 8-to-1 overlay on a $10 win wager.
An 0-for-5 skid preceded my biggest and final win, 13-to-1 Glacken Road in the "feature" from Calder to run my bankroll to $313, good for a temporary placement in 13th of 277 contest players with at least a half-dozen contest races remaining.
Play or Stand Pat?
By this time, I met the contest mandate for at least 10 wagers and could have gone conservative, sitting on a $313 bankroll in hopes of a Top 20 finish.
Now, the Top 20 out of four SSC tournaments through April earn berths to the SSC Invitational on Saturday, April 26 and a shot at 2 seats to the National Handicapping Championship, but I was not sold (based on the rich SSC#1 contest leaderboard) that $313 would be enough to stay in the Top 20, so I set out for one more decent score that never came. I liked Queen's Parade in the last contest race (finale from Gulfstream), but my $30 win/$20 place wager evaporated in traffic turning into the homestretch (contrary to the DRF trip notes suggesting this first-time ran like a nag).
In the end, I finished 25th and turned a $100 starting bankroll into $203; 20th place was $281.20.
I have no regrets not resting on my laurels at $313 and having taken a few shots at the top of the leaderboard and was duly satisfied that my good friend Terry Flanagan finished 15th to earn a spot in the SSC Invitational. There are still two more contests for me to reach the Invitational.
Contests: The Way To Go
Meanwhile, the player sitting next to me in the simulcast parlor generally kept to himself and was not participating in SSC#2, but shared a relevant observation that leaders in the thoroughbred racing industry may want to consider.
Regretfully, I did not get the gentleman's name, but he noted being a regular visitor to Monmouth Park for simulcasting and that Sunday's atmosphere was nothing like he was used to witnessing when the track is not running live racing. It sounded as if this man had his own personal teller any weekday, making Sunday's atmosphere unusual.
Terms like "ghost town" and "morgue" were offered, as were references to a dying industry, signaling that whatever it is that Monmouth was conducting on Sunday ought to become more of a recurring experience to revive interest in the sport of kings.
In that light, it is pleasing to note that Monmouth Park will be offering 20 seats to next January's $1.5 million National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas (NHC XVI) -- or more than double years' past from the Oceanport, NJ track.
Interestingly, however, only two will come out of the SSC contest series, which even in light of Sunday's turnout of 274 players would suggest better value later in the Monmouth Park contest campaign.
Consider the prospect of paying $200 per SSC (#1-#4) and $200 for the SSC Invitational (or $1,000 in total), the $400 super-qualifier scheduled for Saturday, August 23 alone offers exponentially greater value, offering 10 seats to NHC XVI, compared with just 2 through the multi-round format SSC Invitational.
Based on a turnout of nearly 300 players for SSC#2, however, either there were a lot of contest handicappers needing a break from the winter doldrums and cabin fever, or the handicapping circuit is a notable area of strength in an industry in need of positive press about increasing fan interest.
I know there are no other places I would rather work to earn 50 cents an hour.