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.

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