Thursday, February 18, 2016

Big M To Host First NHC Qualifier Since 2008

In a first in eight years, the Meadowlands this Saturday will host a handicapping tournament for 3 seats to next January's National Handicapping Championship (NHC) at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

The entry fee is $400 ($200 live bankroll, $200 entry fee) and walk-in signups are from noon-2 p.m. 

I caught wind of this NHC qualifier within 24 hours of returning to Jersey from NHC 17 and, immediately, a few questions came to mind, but primarily surrounding the Big M's motivation for returning to the thoroughbred handicapping contest circuit after such a long hiatus and potential to cannibalize New Jersey's on-track tournament circuit, now dominated by Monmouth Park. 

"The majority of our simulcast bettors are thoroughbred-only players and we wanted to give them a contest with a strong prize pool," emailed Rachel Ryan, Marketing Manager at Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, which runs North America's top standardbred track and boasts five consecutive (live harness) cards surpassing $3 million of all-sources handle.  

Speaking of the prize pool, the $200 non-refundable entry fee will fund a cash-prize structure that, according to the contest brochure, will pay the winner 40% of the pool, then 20% for second, 10% for third, 7.5% for fourth, 5% for fifth and 3.5% each for sixth through tenth.  

The top 3 finishers, of course, also win the grand prize -- a berth to NHC 18, including the 4-night stay at NHC host TI (but not airfare). 

NHC T-bred Simulcast Tourney 
returns to Big M, Sat. Feb. 20
EQUI-Photo, Bill Denver
"We know all the major players want to play in NHC qualifiers for a chance to win a seat," continued Ryan, in her 12th year working for the Meadowlands racetrack.  "Running a NHC qualifier just made sense.  It would attract new players to our track and also get our regular T-bred players involved."

The payout structure and format are not too different for those familiar with NHC qualifying tournaments at Monmouth Park, which postponed Simulcast Series Challenge #3 to February 27 to accommodate the Big M and remains the top NHC qualifying track in the U.S., with at least 25 NHC berths up for grabs on its 2016 handicapping contest slate.   

The biggest differences for NHC regulars who would otherwise have played the SSC tournament originally scheduled for this Saturday are the $20 minimum bet per race (instead of $10), the ability to make "show" wagers (Monmouth scaled back its SSC slate to just win and place; Big M is using win, place, show and/or WPS -- a plus, in my view), and using 4 simulcast tracks instead of 3.  

Saturday's tournament will feature Aqueduct and Gulfstream, but also Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, which according to Ryan produce the larger handles for the Big M.  Plus, the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds adds appeal as a Kentucky Derby prep with a deep field highlighted by the much-ballyhooed Mark Casse prospect Airoforce.

After visiting the new Meadowlands last October for the first time to take in the thoroughbred turf meeting, I can attest to the quality of the facility itself and its aesthetic.  The last time I had visited the Meadowlands before that was for a Horseplayer World Series contest at the cavernous and dank old monolith in 2011. The atmosphere was cold and the turnout small (less than 100 players).

The new building, to the contrary, is absolutely gorgeous, swanky and should easily accommodate NHC Tour players in the tri-state area looking to qualify for Vegas early in the 2016 calendar.  

Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, according to Ryan, is hopeful that months of in-house advertising to core on-track customers, plus press releases, social media and placement on the NHC Tour website could yield 200 entries this Saturday -- potentially a key determinant to whether the Meadowlands eventually dips back into the NHC pool. 

A lot is at stake for the Big M this Saturday, as I see it.  

According to my sources, the cost to host an NHC qualifier is steep for brick-and-mortar or Internet-based venues outside the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA runs the NHC) and who pay double the roughly $4,000 per NHC "seat" cost to NTRA members (e.g. Monmouth Park). 

"If we have a strong player turnout and a big handle figure on Saturday, I am positive we will make the NHC qualifier an annual event," said Ryan.

As I see it, with no cap on number of entries per player, reaching 200 should be no problem if NHC Tour members with deeper pockets come out in droves and fork over, say, $2,000 on 5 entries.  

The question then becomes whether lower-budget scrubs like me know about the Big M's fresh bid as an NHC qualifying hub, or if the $400 price point, absence of airfare as part of the package and/or selection of contest tracks are potential deterrents.  

Admittedly, I was on the fence at first, if for no other reasons than the price is a bit outside my comfort zone and my lack of familiarity with the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn circuits; to be sure, I generally avoided playing those tracks (save for the mandatory contest races) at NHC 17.  

However, I intend to make the trip north on Saturday and reinvest my Vegas side-bet winnings for a shot to return to Las Vegas for a third-straight season and a potentially sizeable cash prize pool, and hope the turnout is strong enough to add more live qualifiers in the New Jersey market and increase interest in the NHC Tour.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

NHC 17 Recap: Some Consolation

Save for my outcome in the tournament and flying home without an oversized cardboard $800,000 first-place check, National Handicapping Championship (NHC) 17 was a wonderful experience in every regard for me as a weekend warrior.

I returned home with a bit more cash than when I left, which is good for any Vegas trip.

In between the mentally taxing (and it IS, more than my professional work perhaps) handicapping tournament, I took in Mountain West hoops (UNLV vs. Boise State), caught up with fellow Scarlet Knight and ESPN and Sirius radio personality Steve Cofield, and had a blast with my cousin and her husband over Hot N Juicy crawfish and, later, a great 80s hair-metal tribute act on Fremont Street.

Recapping NHC 17
Onto "business" was great seeing Monmouth-area friends Terry Flanagan and Jennifer Prince in the Top 10% at the end of Day 1, plus ally Dan Camoro (Oregon) in second-place heading into the championship round.

And, as is the norm in all courses of travel, I sat with even more New Jersey people (Pete Rogers, Caitlin Findley and Frank Gryboski), plus Delaware Blue Hen alum and SF Bay area qualifier Dan Fischer, scribe and Laurel Park-area resident Lenny Moon, and aspiring stand-up comedian and professional horseplayer James Timinck from Suffolk Downs.

Aside from some gut-busting antics, getting to pick my colleagues brains on handicapping and tournament play was invaluable.  Anyone who has visited a racetrack knows there's lots of free but bad info or "tips" available, but the NHC offers a treasure trove of good info for the open minded who continue to work at the handicapping craft.

The reality of a weekend player competing against full-timers and some of the best in the game who've been at it far longer is even clearer for me than my first appearance last year, but a few things happened along the way to confirm that I am getting closer to my goal, first to score a Top 10% finish in an NHC and, ultimately, make it to the final table and score that big check.


It did not necessarily show on the state sheet, but over the first two days of the tournament I handicapped the tournament races far better, coming away with a handful of winners after only scoring once (a $16.60 place runner) in 30 races during the first two rounds of NHC 16 last January.

There's no consolation for finishing the 2-day play-in to the Championship round tied for 519th-place (of 626), but I had some longer-priced horses that were game and finished 3rd or 4th at high odds and outperformed some "logical" horses in deep fields.

Last year, I went long too often and, in some cases, on illogical horses.

A strong ending to Day 2 was a confidence booster entering Day 3's consolation tournament.

Now, the notion of consolation sounds anticlimactic when the $800,000 championship is the Holy Grail, but the NHC puts $50,000 up for grabs in the college hoops equivalent of the NIT tournament.

As a weekend player, however, I now have a greater appreciation of the value of teams still wanting to compete in the post-season, albeit for lesser rewards.

In the case of the consolation tournament, top prize is $10,000 cash plus a $10,000 entry to the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge and, candidly, just as lucrative as finishing 15th place in the NHC (a $20,000 cash prize).

After ending Day 1 with a mere $21.20 bankroll, I saw value earlier in the Day 2 card in some races at Aqueduct and Tampa and came away empty.  Far behind the leading pack, I took some big swings mid-tournament on Friday and missed, then decided to use the final few mandatory races to simply notch a victory or two to gain some momentum heading into Saturday's consolation tourney.

The final "mandatory" was on perhaps my favorite course to handicapping - the 6.5-furlong downhill turf at Santa Anita Park.

In contest play I landed on 8-to-1 Behest, a sprinter trying the course for the first time and trained by Phil D'Amato.

Now, I make very few cash "side bets" when competing in tournaments, but I liked the horse's chances enough against a suspect field and put Behest atop 7-to-2 Q'Viva in a $10 straight exacta and cashed that, as well as a straight win bet, for ~$500 of profit, so Friday ended on a high note.

Friday's late score gave me added confidence in making a run on Saturday, where everyone started with a clean slate and the option to play 10 of 29 races carded for the consolation round.  (Players in the Championship bracket also played by the same rules.)

Third lesson learned, perhaps, is that racing luck is at least part of the equation.

Much as I heard from a reliable source that the NHC runner-up benefited from three horses being "put up" to first after another horse in the race was DQ'd (including horses around 45-to-1 and 14-to-1....basically $100 of tournament bankroll), I on the other hand ended Saturday's consolation round a nose from finishing around 15th-place (worth a $1,250 prize)...and a length from probably taking down the $10,000 cash and $10,000 BCBC top prize.

The leaderboard showed me tied for 34th-place in the end with a $109.90 bankroll.

I could go two ways here -- discouraged that I finished out of the money even after one of my best afternoons as a tournament handicapper, or realizing that next time back to Vegas for NHC that I can put up as big a day as the rest of 'em.

The silver lining to Saturday was that I stuck to my initial strategy to merely sprinkle in (rather than largely rely upon, as happened in NHC 16) long-shot picks, even as a few "cap" horses padded rivals' bankrolls by the maximum $64 of winnings in the contest's earliest stages.

I missed on 3 of my first 4 (of 10) selections, scoring just $6 of place money in the other.

NHC 16's NJ Horseplayer would have swung for the fences, but not so at NHC 17.

In the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, I picked up $13.70 of win-place money on 7-to-2 (ironically) Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge in just a 6-horse field.

Finding additional value in another short field, with my next (6th) selection I took a shot on horse-for-course J.R.'s Holiday in the Kitten's Joy Stakes from Gulfstream. Jockey Emisael Jaramillo rode to perfection to score for me at 19-to-1 and run my bankroll to $72.90 with 4 "bullets" remaining.

This is merely speculative, but based on an otherwise quiet ballroom with no one else seemingly rooting for my horse, my next selection was the one that likely would have put me up top to stay.

Race 6 from Gulfstream set up as a paceless turf race with just one true front-runner, Thinking of Mom, a local (NJ) horse trained by Eddie Plesa that I figured could dictate tempo and lull the others to sleep.  The horse was totally dismissed by the bettors and sent off at 48-to-1, or 2x-3x the morning line from what I recall and so offered great value.

Now, (and can verify this) I gave heavy consideration to ultimate winner Sawyer, but viewed him as a consummate hanger who would not pass Thinking of Mom in the lane, which is entirely what happened, even though Thinking of Mom set dawdling fractions conducive for this slightly "lower class" horse to wire the field.  She was courageous, but just tired in the end.

Even knowing the outcome, I still would make that selection again.

My next selection, in hindsight, was the aforementioned "nose defeat" that kept me from coming home without around a $1,250 NHC prize check. 

Although I generally eschewed maiden races during the entire tournament and opted as a pre-contest strategy to stick with the caliber of races more in my comfort zone, I used my 8th pick on a first-time starter, but on the downhill turf at Santa Anita.  

The field in Race 1 (link to the Bloodhorse video) was middling at best, but 9-to-1 Algorhythmic drew a favorable outer post position and the services of accomplished turf rider Brice Blanc and I thought had a shot.  

If the race goes another 50 yards, Algorhythmic passes the winner and nets me roughly $20 of win bankroll to complement the $7.40 place payout, but them's the breaks when running off the pace. The horse flew late, but ran out of time.

I remained in the hunt with my next pick, nailing 8-to-1 gate-to-wire winner LaInesperada in Race 7 at Aqueduct for $29.60 more of winnings to get to a $109.90 bankroll with one selection to go, but my need-the-lead pick in Race 2 from Santa Anita was sluggish and did not factor.

I am not one for moral victories, and was equal parts "bummed" finishing just out of the money, but as a weekend scrub against stiff (and often full-time) competition, nearly a week later the 34th-place finish of 450-475 consolation tournament entrants is quite the morale builder.

For whatever reason I performed my best in NHC 16 and NHC 17 in the consolation rounds.

Perhaps those who miss out on the Championship round mail it in and play half-heartedly, giving an upstart like me an opportunity to pounce on peoples' indifference.

Maybe everyone's sort of worn out from pouring so much preparation and emotion into the first two rounds of the NHC, leaving little else for minor spoils.

Or, maybe I am simply better "on the fly," spending less time analyzing races and talking myself off of winners and sticking with my gut instinct on who can win.

The latter theme is not a magic formula, but one that I'm finding more useful in my broader contest play, and one that I'll consider in my bid to qualify this season for a third-straight NHC berth.

It's a long road to get back to Vegas and my expectations are generally realistic if not tempered, but having done it in back-to-back years I expect to test my mettle at the Treasure Island in January 2017 and use this space about 12 months from now about coming home with prize money.