Sincerely, I was content to cheer on my friends who qualified for next month's $2.5 million championship from afar, but I had a gut feeling this past Saturday about other events of December 19 and at the last moment entered the NHC qualifier on NHCQualify.com.
Saturday would be my day, I thought to myself that morning.
My CYO basketball team of 7th-8th graders had a really good week of practice and seems to be developing as at least a competitive second-year team in an established league, so as coach I rolled the dice on a full-court diamond press to cure our sluggish starts thus far this season.
The boys responded, forcing several turnovers and jumping to a 10-2 early lead and winning 32-25.
Emboldened by our first win of the season in four tries, my mission for the NHC qualifier Saturday was to start fast as well.
I did so in the opener with 10-to-1 Little Popsie in Race 7 from Aqueduct to tie 32 others atop the leaderboard at $32.30.
Popsie's early speed from a rail draw and no other $40k claimers of merit proved wise in a 5-length victory.
In the third of 12 mandatory contest plays, I landed on another front-running type, 7-to-2 Financial Modeling, in a 6-horse stakes at Aqueduct with sexier names (Kid Cruz and Mylute among them) and watched him roll by 4+ lengths to gain $13.20 of bankroll.
Two and three contest races later, 5-to-1 Solemn Tribute and D'bunnyphone were nursed toward the leads of their respective races and vaulted me to the top of the leaderboard halfway through an event featuring six more races and three from FairGrounds, including two with larger fields scratched down to half their size, making it hard for my rivals to make up ground through enormous long-shots.
Two "place" scores in the second-half of the contest were enough to cap my bankroll at $93.30 and a 5th-place finish of 519 contestants, securing my passage to Las Vegas next month.
Priceless Conversations, Valuable Friendships
In hindsight, I had some great discussions with friends on the NHC Tour last week (Paul Zerbst, Damian Sasso and Dan Camoro among them) that proved extremely valuable to Saturday's success.
Foremost, however, was a pep talk of sorts from NHC XVI and BCBC qualifier James Timinck, an extremely talented contest player and handicapper who, as any true stalker would, scouts my play and noted that I had gone "too long" with the long-shots of late in small-dollar online tournaments.
As anyone who has visited this site knows by now, my premise is to find playable long-shots; not to fish for huge prices and hope to get lucky, but maybe an 8-to-1 or 10-to-1 morning line runner who takes zero money but can win at a price. I live to find inefficiencies in the market.
On Saturday, I kept in mind James' observation that incremental scores of $7-$8 often are the contest players' friend, and so I scaled back my expectations a bit for which long-shots could win, especially in a month where I find the fields nationwide (outside of 2-year-old prospects) generally bottom-of-the-barrel and that horses who get the lead tend to score.
To be sure, Saturday's race victors were almost exclusively on or near the lead and Little Popsie proved to be the longest-shot to win.
Grinding through small-dollar scores is normally not my recipe to contest success, but in doing so I accomplished my last-minute goal, which made James' advice all the more valuable.
Outside of my enthusiasm for qualifying for the NHC for a second straight year, and getting to hang with usual playing partner (and first-time NHC qualifier) Terry Flanagan and reunite with some other great Tour players I met at last year's NHC, I can approach Vegas from a far savvier perspective.
I have been through the ringer once already, so to speak, and now know what to expect in terms of travel, accommodations and set-up/layout of the contest venue and format.
It's no longer that oasis in the desert.
Last year, I was more excited and almost content just to be there among the pros.
Next month, I will return to Treasure Island with a mindset of a competent handicapper looking to crack the Top 10% and return to Monmouth County with a larger prize.
I also return to Vegas with a bigger bank of knowledge, gleaned from conversations with my newfound friends on the NHC Tour -- an extremely welcome and honestly unexpected byproduct of my $50 annual membership fee.
There are others, like me, who compete part-time on the circuit but are excellent contest players and, first and foremost, quality individuals willing to help others succeed at the track.
Surely there are others with bad info or who will never take me (or other part-timers or long-shot players) seriously on the NHC Tour, but in my five years on the Tour I have become adept at vetting the advice and the personalities.
Approaching Christmas, I am lucky and thankful to have found such a classy group of peers, so a tremendous "Thank You" to folks like those named above and the likes of Stephen Fitzpatrick, Marie Jost, Peter Pruzinsky, Josh Kamis and others so giving of themselves in shaping me as a better handicapping contest player.