Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Point of the Matter

If there is one, the upside to finishing three-quarters of a length from winning berths to both the 2016 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) and the $382,000 "The Big One" at Laurel Park this September is that I am now the proud owner of 2,341 points in the NHC Tour standings.

By virtue of a 7th-place finish in the Preakness Day NHC qualifier through, I picked up enough "Tour points" to draw within arm's reach of the Top 150 in the Tour standings, at least at this still-early stage of the 2015 NHC season.

Horseplayers belonging to the NHC Tour can qualify for the $2 million-plus national championship in Las Vegas each January by winning an NHC-sanctioned qualifier, or by accruing enough Tour points in a season to land inside the Top 150 in the Tour standings.

Tour points are awarded for finishing in the top 10% of a tournament's standings and allocated by an Excel formula too difficult for me to describe, but that basically rewards about 3,000 points for first place and graduated down, taking into account the number of individuals (not total entries).

The 280-player tournament I recently played awarded Tour points down to 28th-place, while the NHC Tour's "free" online tournament featuring 1,700 players pays down to 170th.  Tournaments at a racetrack pay a 25% points premium compared with online tournaments, encouraging members to play handicapping contests at their nearby racetrack.

Photo courtesy of
Let's Go Arts blog

NHC Tour Points Reward Quality...

Ken Jordan, of nearby Farmingdale, NJ, qualified for (and ultimately won $250,000 as runner-up in) the 2015 NHC through what I'll dub the points "back door," playing well enough throughout the 2014 season and then accruing enough Tour points in a late-season NHC qualifier to win a seat in Vegas this past January.

No matter the avenue, every NHC Tour player's goal is (or should be) to reach Vegas for a shot at the $750,000 top prize and to play against the top players in North America at the 3-day national championship, hosted by Treasure Island.

So, as consolation for one of my selections (14.5-to-1 long-shot named Gemmabeto in Race 5 at Santa Anita on May 16) getting nabbed by 2 others 50 yards from the wire in a nondescript $20,000 maiden claimer (a horse none of the six folks ahead of me in the standings had played), I now have a decent amount of points to at least need to consider the prospect of working my way up to the 7,500 points or so needed to get to Vegas through the back door.

The easiest way for me to return to Vegas for a second-straight season will be an outright win in Saturday's upcoming tournament at Monmouth Park, where the top 5 finishers receive packages to the 2016 NHC.  However, another 2 top 10-type finishes could net me enough NHC Tour points to sniff the Top 150 in the year-end standings.

...and Quantity...

Generally speaking, the NHC Tour points route to Las Vegas is far more difficult for part-time players to attain, since the leaderboard is rife with full-time players who in some cases have already won the maximum 2 spots to the NHC but buy multiple entries to several tournaments and subsequently play handicapping contests to win points for $175,000 of cash awards to the Top 20 in the standings at year's end, including $75,000 and a 2017 NHC berth for the winner.

To be sure, one player I tracked in last year's points standings played in around 80 NHC qualifiers last season, compared with 12-15 that I estimate I played in 2014.

Presumably, a big bankroll and lots more free time than I can afford are needed to load up on points, but I understand and support the concept of rewarding full-time players who pay more into the system and financially support the NHC more than yours truly.

In reality, however, the notion of cracking the Top 20 is impossible for Tour members like me (unless I do extremely well and/or get lucky in the scant number of qualifying tournaments I play), is a tad far fetched, and so I typically play every tournament to win, rather than accrue Tour points.

...but Devalue Monmouth Park's Winter Simulcast Series

With that in mind, from a budgetary perspective, I got to thinking about perhaps my absolute favorite tournament, the 4-part Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park each winter and how the NHC Tour points scoring system essentially devalues on-track tournaments of the type that use multiple rounds of play to determine a champion.

For background, the Tour counts each player's Top 6 scoring events throughout the season to determine the scoring champion.  Of those, 1 event must be a "live" tournament at the track, while the other 5 can come from online tournaments (or a second or third "on-track" qualifier as well).

The mandate of one on-track tournament score is, in part, to encourage business at NTRA-member tracks, such as a Monmouth Park, which benefits when players in its NHC qualifying tournaments are wagering real money into the actual betting pools and creating so-called "churn" -- a favorable proposition to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and its member tracks.

The alternative for an NHC Tour player is to sit at home and play a tournament online through or another non-NTRA venue, where no money is placed into the betting pools (players pay, for instance, a $155 fee to play in a tournament where no cash prizes are paid or money is bet into the pools) but, rather, tournament outcomes are based on mythical $2 win-place wagers.

In this scenario, entry fees go to the tournament host, who has operating costs and pays double the fee (around $7,500) to NTRA to buy the NHC "seats" to Las Vegas to award as contest prizes.  NTRA-member venues, such as Monmouth Park, pay half the rate.

Proposal for a Workable Solution to Protect an NTRA Affiliate

I contacted NHC Players' Committee chairman Christopher Larmey to express my concern that the SSC is scored only as an 80-player contest instead of considering that there were around 800-900 paid entries at $200 each across the four rounds (players are allowed to buy 2 entries per event).

One can theorize that only 100 individuals each bought 2 entries to each of the 4 SSC qualifiers, thereby making the 800-900 entry figure appear grossly inflated, but several people I know (myself included) only buy 1 entry per SSC qualifier.   So, if I had to guess, across all four rounds of contests leading up to the SSC championship, there were somewhere between 300-400 unique entries.

Edward Lambert, the 7th-place finisher in the SSC Invitational on April 25, won only 772 Tour points for finishing in the same spot in the standings as I did in my 280-player contest on Preakness Day.

And, unlike simply forking over a $155 entry fee as I did to enter the HorseTourneys contest, Lambert had to make it through nearly 200 entries to the January 12 SSC pre-qualifier just to make it to the SSC Invitational, comprised of the top 20 finishers of each of the 4 qualifying rounds invited to play in late April for 1 of 2 berths to the Vegas championship.

By comparison -- 1 tournament for $155 and 2,341 NHC Tour points, vs. 2 tournaments for at least $400 of entry fees and a mere 772 NHC Tour points in what is without question a harder format.

On paper, and setting aside that the SSC pays some meaty cash prizes (with a 0% takeout on entry fees) to the Top 10 finishers in each leg of the SSC, it gets me thinking that the SSC is a riskier, less-valuable cost AND points proposition.

"Monmouth (Park) has a great schedule of contests this year with all sorts of formats and opportunities for players," emailed Larmey. "The sort of variety is exactly what we are hoping to promote and we certainly don't want to do anything to discourage Monmouth from continuing to provide such great opportunities to Tour players."

Monmouth Park offers the most
on-track tournament seats to the
2016 National Handicapping
I expressed to Larmey and will reiterate to the Players' Committee when rules are drafted or reconsidered for next season that the Tour needs to at least return to the system whereby NHC Tour points are allocated based on the total number of entrants throughout the SSC Series, similar to when I finished 13th in the 2013 SSC Invitational and earned 1,000+ Tour points since 300+ entries were factored into the scoring methodology.

My concern is that SSC on-track tournament players such as Edward Lambert got shortchanged and may contemplate NHC Tour points values in determining whether to compete on-track; in this case, at Monmouth Park, where contest organizer and marketing manager Brian Skirka has clearly stamped the Oceanport, NJ track as North America's leader in on-track NHC qualifying contests, offering nearly 30 spots (of 600) to Las Vegas in January 2016.

Monmouth Park, in my view, should be able to leverage this stronghold to protect the SSC, which is as close as any tournament I have played as the National Handicapping Championship itself, melding the need to analyze several dozen races from multiple simulcast tracks in a 5-hour window down to 10 or so contest plays, but (contrary to the NHC itself) at the same time managing a live-money bankroll that goes into the real mutuel pools in a quiet winter racing season where there's no live racing in Oceanport (an implied benefit to the NTRA and an NTRA-member track).

The fact that 2015 NHC champion John O'Neill and 2015 NHC runner-up Kenny Jordan (who, coincidentally, as I understand from a friend qualified for Las Vegas by scoring enough Tour points to barely finish in the Top 150 in the year-end points standings) practically dominated Las Vegas in January signals the value of their handicapping experience garnered from the difficult Simulcast Series Challenge.

I would encourage the NHC Tour Players' Committee to revisit the scoring of the SSC, since sitting today around 300th (of 5,000 members) in the Tour standings I'm thinking I would have been better off from a points-building perspective just sitting out of the January, February and March SSC qualifiers and entered an online tournament sponsored by host that's not an NTRA member or contributing money into the real parimutuel betting pools of North American racetracks.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Preakness Preview: Perception Again Trumps Reality

The May 3 Bloomberg Business postscript to the Kentucky Derby headlined "American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory" was as low as they come and better reserved for the Animal Times of the media, not a presumably distinguished newswire, and no less from an acquaintance I have spent a few pleasant afternoons alongside at Saratoga.

Ironic that, the morning after the $100-a-head Mayweather-Pacquiao mockery of boxing where no one sustained so much as a hangnail, thoroughbred racing exited its own ring the next morning with a major shiner and sent the industry into damage control mode.

Bloomberg author David Papadopoulos, whether by design or sabotaged by a headline editor with a vengeance or ax to grind against thoroughbred racing and/or riding crops, sparked a mini controversy over American Pharoah's winning ride in the Derby by Victor Espinoza, whose "use of the crop fell within (Kentucky) regulations," according to a subsequent ruling by Kentucky racing steward.

End of story, right?

Certainly not from the PETA set, nor from the perspective of handicapping the Preakness Stakes, where American Pharoah drew the rail and is the 4-to-5 favorite in Saturday's reunion with Kentucky Derby runners up Firing Line and Dortmund, and facing five "new shooters" potentially as fabulous but just as unknown as the Third Tenor.  Heck, there's one named after a Steely Dan song who was 115-to-1 in the Remsen Stakes and is a juicy 20-to-1 in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

Odds that American Pharoah wins
the 2015 Preakness Stakes: 4/5

Odds the average American can
name the Third Tenor: 99-1
In all likelihood, I will not bet the Preakness as a singular race as I did with the Kentucky Derby, where my money was mostly on Frosted over American Pharoah (in my view, Frosted could have won had Joel Rosario recalled that he, too, had a riding crop to prompt Frosted - 4th-place finisher and by far the best late runner of the bunch - sooner than he had in the stretch).

The only value on American Pharoah as a straight bet in the Preakness will be the 3-to-2 "odds boost" on up to a $25 win wager through the TVG mobile betting app from noon-1 p.m. ET on Friday.

Maybe if American Pharoah drifts up to 1-to-1 or 6-to-5 and I'm atop the leaderboard in Saturday's NHC-Big Game handicapping contest at he might get my pick (huge favorites generally are not worth playing in notional-dollar handicapping contests, since the win-place points are too low), but otherwise I am not sold on the upstarts in the field merely to fish for a price and will be urging American Pharoah on verbally in front of a TV.

In the wake of the riding crop sidebar that has sapped my interest in extensively handicapping the Preakness, I am hoping for a Secretariat-in-the-Belmont-type 30-length rout by Pharoah that silences the riding crop debate.

Namesake of Steely Dan B side
gets shot against the big boys
in 2015 Preakness Stakes
Nonetheless, from a research sense, I wanted to delve a little more into the riding crop issue and whether Victor Espinoza's heavy "encouragement" of Pharoah on the Churchill Downs oval was a) as much an eyesore to others in the industry and/or b) compromises the horse's Preakness chances.

From the humanitarian perspective, the ideal might be for a governing body to ban riding crops from thoroughbred racing, but humanizing an equine animal does not seem rational.

"(The) focus on the whip, while understandable and appropriate, is at times exaggerated.  Horses being whipped and whipped and whipped is not good for horses or beneficial to the racing outcome," said Robb Levinsky, lifelong horseman and the founder, co-managing partner and racing manager at Kenwood Racing, a growing NJ-based partnership. "People sometimes relate horses to themselves, but the horse is a very different physical and physiological being than a human."

Levinsky relayed two stories to corroborate this theme.

The first involved a Kenwood horse named Long May You Run, a 5-year-old gelding with 4 wins in 12 tries and nearly $100,000 of earnings.

After an easy victory in a $25,000 claimer at Penn National last June, Levinsky said trainer Mark Salvaggio, in a rare move, encouraged Levinsky to wheel Long May You Run back a week later against tougher company, citing the horse's peak form. True to form, the horse won a $33,000 state-bred allowance by nearly five lengths and was not physically taxed.

The second involved an unnamed 9-year-old horse in training at Calder in Florida.

Levinsky noted that the exercise rider ignored the trainer's instructions to refrain from any encouragement or use of a whip on an older horse merely out for a gallop.  The rider used the riding crop twice on the horse and returned to a disgruntled trainer.

Now, on the surface, an outsider could look entirely differently on these seemingly unrelated scenarios (to each other and American Pharoah), all without understanding the context.

One could say that a race horse should never run two races seven days apart, and even Levinsky admitted some apprehension about the notion, since Kenwood puts the welfare of its horses above all else.

In the latter scenario, a clocker could simply take notes on the workout and be indifferent to the two whip taps of the exercise rider on a horse out for a breeze but be totally unaware of the trainer's dismay over the rider ignoring explicit instructions to not use the riding crop on the horse.

Point being...most of us, whether a horseplayer, part-time blogger, seasoned member of the thoroughbred racing media, supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or casual observer, have zero clue about the intentions of a race horse's owner, trainer, jockey and handlers, which is what makes handicapping (and judgement of others) so difficult, and fun.

"Sometimes you have to trust (a horse's) connections running the animal," said Levinsky, who as the recent astute buyer of a pair of 2-year-old fillies by Pioneer of the Nile (sire of American Pharoah) has a clear rooting interest in Pharoah this Saturday; a Pharoah win makes his stables purchase of Makanow Pharoah and Sonny's Pharoah that much more compelling.

Of utmost importance to most of us that follow thoroughbred racing is the horse's welfare, but a respectable media outlet's use of a shocking headline focused on a jockey's use of a legal racing tool in a major race is rash and irresponsible, in my view.

Espinoza, who clearly rode American Pharoah hard in the Derby and six days later was fined by Santa Anita Park stewards for causing a "break in the skin" with a riding crop in an unrelated race on April 4 in California (a state that last November toughened its riding crop restrictions), did not break Churchill Downs' "house rules" on riding crop usage, according to Kentucky race stewards.

The replay of this year's Kentucky Derby could be picked clean and lumped together with aggressive rides of Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet in the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby,

To the contrary, consider this from Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye in an October 19, 2011 Jay Hovdey column in Daily Racing Form. "One year I got fined here in California for not hitting a horse. It was on a bad track, and he was sore. But I got fined anyway. Go figure."

Hovdey ended that column with a Delahoussaye quote - again, from 4 years ago - that best encapsulates where insinuating through a headline that Espinoza abused American Pharoah is askew.

"You can hit a horse only five times and cut him up bad, or you can hit him 20 times in the stretch, keeping in rhythm, and the horse will be fine," Delahoussaye told Hovdey in the 2011 column.

"It's up to the racing officials to know the difference between abuse and proper use."

A 4-to-5 morning line on American Pharoah suggests the betting public will be undeterred by the grueling Kentucky Derby effort.

But, will feelgood story (back-to-back Derby winner) turned media whipping boy Victor Espinoza think twice in the Preakness when in another stretch duel with Dortmund or Firing Line (or one of the five Jose know, the Third Tenor)?

It'll be interesting to see what impact the riding crop has on the outcome of the 2015 Preakness.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Kentucky Oaks: Birdatthewire A Clear Single

Offering picks is usually not my theme with this blog, but Oaks-Derby weekend is a must, since everyone tosses their hat in the ring and acts all "expert."

I still have some work to do with Saturday's Derby, but give Birdatthewire the nod over Include Betty, Condo Commando and I'm a Chatterbox in my exacta and trifecta for today's Kentucky Oaks.

The trip that Birdatthewire got in the Gulfstream Park Oaks sold me.

Birdatthewire appeared to be headstrong and basically strangled by jockey Irad Ortiz down the backstretch, ran into the heels of horses approaching the second turn, and blew by the field (and that same horse) in a race with a dawdling pace.

In the Oaks, I like that she drew an outside post and think she'll get enough speed to run into and mow down front-runner Condo Commando, who looked hand-ridden to me in her win in the Gazelle at Aqueduct but I'm not sure has been challenged by credible foes just yet.

Include Betty has an outside shot, as I see it, at 20-to-1, but my only hesitation with putting her on top is that she's the deepest of closer types and I'm not sure the pace will be frenetic enough for the others to wear down.  This, of course, is contingent upon I'm a Chatterbox reverting to her form two back, where unlike the easy front-running score in the Fair Grounds Oaks, she rallied clear late to win.

Anyway, I'll likely invest between $30-$40 in the race, using:

  • Top pick (single): 13
  • Second: 3, 5, 8
  • Third: 3, 5, 8, 10, 11
  • Fourth (possible superfecta): 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, 14
  • Oaks-Derby Double: 13 with 2, 15, 18