The only thing separating me from a shot at the estimated $800,000 top prize is a safe flight to Las Vegas this evening, good handicapping/horse selection, and health and some breaks in the course of running for the horses that determine my contest fate.
Avoiding bad sushi and alcohol poisoning would probably help, too.
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So, how to prepare for a contest where I will play 30 of about 150 carded races...in just the first two days of the NHC alone?!
Just Stay The Course
In general, my process is pretty organic.
I will not shift strategy from how I normally play, leaning toward playable but undervalued long-shots, nor am I overwhelmed by the number of races each day (about 70-75 from 7 U.S. racetracks).
After wrapping up work on Wednesday, I mapped out the chronology of races on the Friday and Saturday cards, considering the NHC entails 15 selections (mythical $2 win-$2 place bets) per day -- 8 mandatory, 7 optional -- as a primer for which races look more playable than others, and so that I do not get distracted by trying to analyze and watch every single race.
Simply put, I need to find and be disciplined in handicapping/playing 7 races in my wheelhouse.
On first blush, I am a little more inspired by Saturday's races, since turf sprints and Santa Anita's downhill turf course are my strongest suit and likely to be my optional plays (5 total).
I am less enthused, but unperturbed, about Friday's mandatory card (Saturday's isn't out yet), featuring deep fields (9-12 horses) but bottom-level claimers from Tampa (Race 4) and Oaklawn (Race 4), plus tracks like Aqueduct (Race 7) and Santa Anita (Race 7) prone to scratches.
The four other "mandatory" (meaning that all 600 or so contestants must play) races are Gulfstream 5, Fair Grounds 7, Santa Anita 5 and Golden Gate 7.
Tonight's homework on the flight is locking down my top 2-3 choices for the mandatory races. Otherwise, I plan a relatively organic approach for my 7 optional race plays, likely focusing on my most familiar winter tracks -- Gulfstream, Tampa and Santa Anita.
Over the last two weeks, I managed a few after-work online tournaments to build confidence approaching the NHC and won 4 of 9 on HorseTourneys.com, while finishing second in another and third in two more. Sure beats 0-for-9 with lots of last-place finishes.
The difference in beating 9, rather than 599, players is night and day, but each victory provided reassurance that playing out-of-favor horses (including one with an 8-to-1 morning line that was sent off at more than 20-to-1) can translate to contests of a grander scale.
Too Many To Thank
Speaking of grander scales, I need to thank a host of people for making my NHC qualification possible, first and foremost wife Kathy and kids Kaitlyn and Shane -- my three-pronged foundation, who support my passions (plural) without complaint and are living reminders that a bad contest day is a minuscule part of life's grander picture.
Otherwise, and in order of impulse, not importance:
- First and foremost Terry Flanagan, who introduced me to the NHC circuit and whose friendship and guidance improve my standing as a person and horseplayer.
- My contest circuit crew at Monmouth Park, including Steve Fitzpatrick, Paul Zerbst and Ray Wallin, all of whom (among others) reached out to me in the last week or so with nothing but positive vibes, including Ray's flattering blog earlier this week. It's great to know that I have wide-reaching support from the Garden State.
- Tony and Lorraine Holobowski, my parents and horseplayers in their own right, for far too many reasons to name here, but namely for everlasting support and encouragement of the notion of sometimes taking chances and not living with regret or fear of failure.
- The Tinton Falls community (too many to name), where great friends, mentors and fellow racing enthusiasts, including Chris & Diane Skurat, Pete Karavites, Paul Ford, Coaches Dan and Steve and DJ Frankie P, either ask me how the contest circuit's going, or let me ramble on several topics of interest, but namely racing. Each will be with me in spirit at the NHC and build my confidence in going toe-to-toe with mostly professional handicappers.
- Steven Nico, a kindred spirit whose passing I continue to mourn and whose spirit I hope to channel. Lucy Nico reached out to me this week with her support, and I hope my blog readers will keep her and the Nico family in their prayers this weekend, for Steven's absence from the NHC is a big void for the circuit.