Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jersey-Bred Spotlight: "A Legend On The Lawn"

Consistent with the grittier side of New Jersey lore penned into music by none other than Bruce Springsteen, the Garden State offers its own "boutique" thoroughbred race meeting...of sorts.

ACRC: Truly vintage, like the cover
of the Beastie Boys' record for
Paul's Boutique
Atlantic City Race Course, suitably housed on Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing but curiously spaced some 15 miles apart from the "glitz and glamour" of the Atlantic City casinos and boardwalk, opens its 6-day annual "All-Turf Festival" for 2014 this Thursday.  

First post each day is 3:30 p.m. ET, with racing culminating on April 30 with the $50,000 Tony Gatto Stakes.

By no means should visitors to "ACRC" expect a boutique anything on the order of, say, a Saratoga, Del Mar or Keeneland.  

The track is more Paul's Boutique.  


No, this little-known and rather unsightly thoroughbred racetrack has seen exceedingly better days since 1946, when the venue opened with much fanfare and initial stockholders included Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and a host of big-band leaders.  

Alfred Hitchcock even filmed a movie at Atlantic City Race Course in 1964 -- "Marnie" (see the 2:35 mark in this trailer...I couldn't locate the whole scene). 

Today, a company called Greenwood Racing owns the historic establishment, using it for off-track betting; my Dad's favorite place, in fact, for simulcast play.  

The 6-day meet is a state mandate, presumably to keep the OTB license...and so we have the 2014 All-Turf Festival. 

Almost Mythical

The old place still has plenty of magic, though.  

Fields are typically very full, as evidenced by 64 horses entered for Thursday's opener, or more than 10 prospective runners per race.  (There's a certain track a lot closer to my house that I'd LOVE to see be able to card 10-horse fields with regularity.)  

Parking and admission are free.

The paddock is still in pretty good shape and extremely accessible for fans.  

Seating is a little dusty, but generally provides a decent view of the races.  

There are plenty of betting terminals and tons of human tellers.

Pretzels and beer are inexpensive.  

Great family-festival atmosphere.

Not too bad!

The Legend On The Lawn

Ahead of Thursday's opening and the NJ Horseplayer caravan (my kids and parents) rolling into Mays Landing for Sunday's card, I caught up with resident ACRC handicapper William F. Hudgins, better know simply as "Hudg," for his thoughts on the annual turf showcase.  

I have only seen "Hudg" on prior visits, but plan on arriving early this year for his daily handicapping seminars starting at 2 p.m.  

I would encourage you to do the same and take heed of what "Hudg" has to offer on each day's racing card, since most of the horses at ACRC ship from PARX or use ACRC as a weigh station for the Monmouth Park meeting.

The dude knows what he is talking about!

Without further adieu, here is my email interview with "Hudg."  


NJ:  Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, "Hudg."  I noticed from your website that you're a man about the turf.  How did you first get involved as a handicapper, and in particular of turf thoroughbreds? 

Atlantic City Race Course handicapper
William "Hudg" Hudgins
Hudg: I started playing the thoroughbreds back in 1973 at Thistledown in Ohio (just outside of Cleveland). I was introduced to the sport by a friend and kinda' fell in love with the game almost at first sight, although I have to admit I wasn't a very good handicapper at all for the first few years - some highlights but a ton of losses.

NJ: Share, if you would, some angles that go into your handicapping. Are you more a pedigree specialist, or are you more of a pace or other form of handicapper?

Hudg: I'm a pure "class" handicapper - that entails analysis of current form, suitability to distance, pedigree and overall ability of the animals under scrutiny.  Each of us eventually evolves, over time, into a niche that suits our individual personality and class handicapping fits me to a tee.  I play longer races in lieu of the sprints - the longer the better, which allows class to rise to the forefront.

NJ: I notice you've been the racing analyst for the 6-day Atlantic City Race Course turf meeting for some time.  How did you get involved, and what does the job entail?

Hudg: I was fortunate enough to meet Director of Operations Mary Jo Couts at a Super Bowl party and we became good friends - although talking horses, a passion for both of us, was a bit of a nuisance to some at the gathering.  Mary Jo recommended me to track President Maureen Bugdon, and the two of those fine fillies gave me the opportunity to put a lot of years of handicapping experience to good use helping patrons better understand the game with daily seminars and my analysis of each forthcoming race.  I owe those two a tremendous debt for their faith in me. 

NJ: ACRC's a pretty peculiar place. Considering the brevity of the spring meeting and that horses ship in and out pretty quick, do you have any particular track bias or handicapping angles that you find play particularly well at ACRC? And do these tend to carry over annually, or do these biases and angles change from year to year?

Hudg: ACRC has one of the finest turf courses in North America - it plays fairly in terms of the best thoroughbred can win from any post and at any distance.  There is a very slight advantage to the innermost posts (typical over almost every grass course), especially in the sprints, but otherwise class - the ultimate factor over the lawn - usually tells the story.  ACRC has its "regulars" in terms of jockeys and trainers whofind the venue to their liking more than others (see the attached stats sheets) and these individuals can be relied upon to produce year-in, year-out provided, of course, that they're on an animal in good form,suited to the distance at hand and not too ambitiously placed in terms of class.

NJ: "Can we take anything from the recent form of horses, either based on race results or recent works? From my small sample of trips to ACRC, it seems to me the runners are often PARX shippers who run on dirt or maybe local trainers getting in a tune-up before shipping to Monmouth."

Hudg: Current form is always important and is one of several entwined factors that meld into the class assessment equation.  PARX shippers, as well as those coming up from Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs with recent racing activity/workouts even if only "fair," merit respect provided they are either bred to run well over the lawn and are slated to face moderate competition or have proven ability over the grass against decent competition.  And yes, many trainers utilize ACRC as a primer for Monmouth Park / Meadowlands future events - but those types will usually show sharp form over either or both of those courses and while respectable should be viewed with caution.

NJ: The betting card is not as thorough as at other major tracks, with exacta, trifecta and daily doubles the only exotics.  Does this change how you go about analyzing races for your audience, or your own wagering at ACRC?

Hudg: ACRC does offer the wagering pools you mentioned and also a couple of superfecta races as well. My aim from the time I open up the Daily Racing Form until I render my opinion is to find the logical contenders, then sort them into order of preference.  I play to pick winners, which by the way is exactly how I play throughout the long racing year.  Picking winners is the key to showing a long-term profit, be that over a short stint like this forthcoming 6-day stand or over a full calendar year.  He/she who can consistently uncover the winner will be around the black ink when the dust finally settles.

NJ: Any new features that ACRC visitors can expect this year? 

Hudg: From what I've been told management continues to make things as comfortable and amiable as possible for our guests, so I'm sure they're up to something, although specifics I know not.  My daily seminars - at which we school both the novice and seasoned players - still remain at a 2 p.m. start time (they last roughly about an hour) but I've been informed that I'll have a bigger area in the paddock to work in since we've been happily inundated with fans over each of the past sessions (the more the better - love teaching!).

NJ: I know it's still early, but I'm going on Sunday. Any good ideas on that card, or particular plays on other days that readers might want to keep an eye on as the meeting starts on Thursday?

Hudg: No, not really - you're correct, way too early to address Sunday's offerings from that crafty Sal Sinatra (a terrific racing secretary by the way and a great guy to boot).  I've fully handicapped Thursday'scard, will chisel that in stone pending scratches, then settle into a traditional routine where what transpires each day may or may not impact my nightly assessment of the next day's card.  It's a tactfully slowbut extremely effective method of operation that serves me well.

NJ: Thanks so much for sharing some time with us, Hudg!


The 4-1-1 on "Hudg"

  • Age 60, lives in Millville, NJ
  • In addition to ACRC seminars, has additional stints around the Breeders Cup
  • Seminar host at Valley Forge Turf Club in Oaks, PA
  • Favorite track: Woodbine's E.P. Taylor Turf
  • Favorite wager: $20 win/place
  • Regular betting locale: Favorites at Vineland (NJ) -- his "home away from home!"

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


One-quarter of the way through the 2014 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) qualifying season, there are a few reasons why I feel that much farther than ever from landing in Las Vegas next January.

The 2014 winter Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) series was enjoyable but totally unproductive, unlike last season, when I qualified for two entries to the SSC Invitational.  

No seat for NJ Horseplayer
at the 2014 SSC Invitational
This year, in four pre-qualifiers, I depleted my bankroll in three of the tourneys and came out just a few bucks ahead in the other, falling a few spots shy of earning a bid to the SSC Invitational on April 26, when two NHC berths will be awarded.

End result?

No passing "Go" and collecting $200 for NJ Horseplayer.

No room at the inn.

Shut out of the prestigious SSC Invitational.

There were no "brutal beats," so to speak; only inconsistent handicapping and bankroll management.  It really came down to bad end games, where I will need to improve in live-money tournaments.  Online tournaments as well, for that matter.

As a part-time player, I have yet to come up with a viable system for late-contest, live-money wagers.

In SSC No. 4 this past Saturday, for instance, after playing patiently on a 30-plus race card from three simulcast tracks (Aqueduct, Tampa and Keeneland), I failed to capitalize on a good mid-contest score at 12-to-1, whereby I conservatively played the minimum $10 win bet instead of doubling down or risking my remaining (at that point after 6 unsuccessful win wagers) $40 live bankroll in a sink-or-swim bid.

The Esquire TV show Horseplayers has me thinking more about late-stage bankroll management.

There was a scene where professional horseplayer Christian Hellmers wagered something like $16,000 on two bets late in a high-stakes contest, convinced he could connect.  Instead, he lost on both, but came away not second-guessing his logic, which was predicated on tried-and-true handicapping and a lack of fear.

That type of mentality is one I need to channel more as a handicapping contest player.

Speaking of Horseplayers, and extending the theme of inadmissibility, the show offers a stark reminder of how difficult it will be for a part-time player of my caliber to get to and succeed at the National Handicapping Championship.

Several of the show's scenes were filmed on location at extremely expensive tournaments -- the $10,000 buy-in Breeders Cup Challenge, the $3,000 Grade One Gamble from Keeneland, a $1,000 mid-week NHC tournament at Saratoga and an exclusive, almost made-for-TV tournament from Louisiana.

There is an air of exclusivity that I did not sense as much early on in the show, but have noticed more lately.

The NHC Tour, and the thoroughbred industry on the whole, needs to be extremely wary of this, in my opinion.

NHC Tour new points system
misses the boat on pre-qualifiers
The concept of ponying up $50 to get five "free" NHC online qualifying tournament, candidly, is none too appealing when it seems, at least in my view, that the Tour has become very slanted toward full-time and big-money players.

Opening the door for Tour players to earn multiple berths to the National Handicapping Championship is in itself ludicrous.

Is playing two tickets in a tournament a show of one's true handicapping skill?

I say "no," and therefore see a conflict in the Tour offering players a shot at 2 NHC seats per season, simply for the sake of increasing in-season contest participation and tacking on seasonal points standings.

Perhaps that is what the NHC Tour wants, and therefore I am merely the outlier who can afford (i.e. time- and money-wise) to play a few $100-$200 on-track tournaments a season but am otherwise relegated to bankroll builder tournaments and NHC qualifiers via and other online hubs.

The new Tour points system, meanwhile, misses the boat on certain nuances of on-track tournaments and, with the SSC series in particular, devalues what is otherwise a great but difficult event.  Monmouth Park will need to take note of this loophole, since players could choose to stay away from SSC and participate in what is now a far more lucrative summer schedule of direct NHC qualifiers in Oceanport.

At the same time the NHC is encouraging on-track contest play, the Tour gives zero reward to players at Monmouth Park who, over the course of four SSC qualifiers, like myself, paid $200 per tourney, or $800 in total.  The reason for this, as I understand it, is that "pre-qualifying" tournaments (i.e. those that do not directly give away NHC berths) do not count toward NHC Tour scoring.

Under a new scoring system rolled out this year, players who participate in an NHC qualifying tournament at the track receive 150 NHC Tour points just for entering (online tournaments award only 50 points).

So, those of us that sign up for the $300 May 31 contest at Monmouth will receive our 150-point participation bonus.

Those who signed up for any 1 of 4 live-money SSC pre-qualifiers this winter got zero points.

Same goes for players who pony up $165 to play in a "pre-qualifying" tournament on -- zero points.

Such participation bonuses are, therefore, really no incentive to increase player participation.

Personally, I see no difference in someone forking over hard-earned money to play in either an NHC-oriented tournament, whether it is a pre-qualifier or a qualifier.

In reality, too, reaching the NHC is even that much harder for players who, in essence, have to win or place highly in two consecutive tournaments, so why not reward Tour participants for their efforts and supporting the game financially.

This is especially true for those of us who cannot canvass the U.S. (i.e. the Esquire TV Horseplayers set) playing the elite tournaments from week-to-week.

Regardless, I do give the Tour credit for amending the tournament points system in what seems a fairer distribution of awards to the top 10% of players in a given event, but think the leadership needs to take a second look at allocating points for NHC-focused pre-qualifying tournaments.