Thursday, March 31, 2016

Honing In On A Tour Championship

As I languish toward the bottom of the NHC Tour standings in the wake of awful performances to start the 2016 handicapping contest campaign, my friend Eliot Honaker from NHC 16 is on fire thus far, locking up the maximum two berths to NHC 18 next January and just 630 points off the Tour points standings lead.

The winner of the year-end Tour points standings receives a $75,000 cash prize and automatic qualification into NHC 19 in January 2018; plus, Eliot already has a good jump on the field on the first-half standings prize of $10,000 cash or $10,000 entry into the Breeders Cup Betting Challenge that goes to the first- through fifth-place leaders as of July 31.

Even from the sidelines, I check in on live online handicapping contest competition to gauge how friends are faring in contest play, and on February 13 on I found "Eliot H" of Louisville, KY far atop the leaderboard of that afternoon's NHC qualifier and happily saw him cruise to victory.

Little did I know as my professional and personal schedule gave me no time for voyeuristic pursuits over the next five weeks that Eliot ran roughshod over competitors in three more online handicapping contests, finishing second in the March 19 event to lock up his second NHC 18 berth and picking up 3,000 points in two other online tournaments to tally 10,299 thus far.

Eliot came out guns ablaze after missing out on NHC 17, and so I wanted to catch up with him to discuss not only his recent success, but to glorify his pursuit of the Tour championship as a guy who's not a full-timer on the circuit, but rather a full-time job in sales for an investment firm and is married with two boys, ages 6 and 3.

Eliot & Sarah Honaker at
the '15 Travers
Perhaps there are some tidbits from our discussion below that other weekend players can find valuable.

NJ Horseplayer: Eliot, clearly you've taken no prisoners since missing out on NHC 17.  Is there something new in your diet...spiking your coffee or Kool Aid with something different this season?

EH: Nothing new in the diet, although I could use one. I have been more disciplined in my approach. Over the holidays I started watching videos of races each night for that day's races of Santa Anita, Aqueduct and Gulfstream. Also I started taking trip notes and using the notes function in DRF Formulator. Also, checking Trakus each night to incorporate in my trip notes.  Actually when you wrote your blog last year (A Front-Runner To Vegas) after you qualified you had a piece on how a friend of yours said you reached too much in some of your prior contests.  I was guilty of this as well and said to myself just pick logical winners and go with what you think will happen. This sorta woke me up, so thank you Bill!  I was upset I wasn't able to make it back to the NHC last year so I was dedicated to getting back!

NJ Horseplayer:  Take me back to Valentine's Eve.  I took a peak into that afternoon and saw you atop the leaderboard with 5 of 7 winners early, including a $29 winner.  You were far ahead of the pack from the jump.  What were the keys to wrapping up your first berth to NHC 18?

EH:  I got out to a great start and really stayed the course.  In the past I have reached for my B's and C selections too soon if I was behind, but getting off to a great start was vital to my confidence. When I got the tweet from you I knew I was close to clinching it.  I couldn't believe it and I was pumped to be going to back to Vegas!

NJ Horseplayer:  As if one berth wasn't enough, you picked up 3,000 more NHC Tour points in subsequent and DRFBets contests, then a second NHC 18 berth with a second-place finish on again on March 19, but with a slightly different tactic, yes?  A near-capper in the 10th contest race and a shorter price in the finale...

EH:  I thought, well, I am clearly playing well, so I should play as much as I can, so I played in the weekend tournaments.  In the NHCQualify tournament for my second seat, I really like the new race flow feature in the DRF PPs, and it helped me take a closer look at the capper horse that day (Emotional Drive, Santa Anita Race 7).  It drifted up to 25 or 26-1, but I loved that horse and it won rather easily. I looked over at my wife and said, "damn, I may have another seat."  I really liked Cupid in the Rebel and even though he was a short price, I went with gut (I had a trip note and a good Trakus # on him in his prior race so I went with him.  I don't think my wife knew I could get another seat.
NJ Horseplayer: Now that you're atop the NHC Tour Leaderboard, how do you anticipate mapping out the duration of what's still a long handicapping contest season and your pursuit of the Tour points crown?

EH:  Unfortunately as I write this I fell to 2nd place.  Is your Blog like the Sports Illustrated cover curse?  I need to work on some live events and will play in the Keeneland Big One Gamble in April. I really look forward to it, but it will be a huge challenge as I expect to see the heavyweights and professionals there.  There a few other local live ones at Kentucky Downs and Indiana Grande that I may play in as well.  I love the contests, so I will play as much as I can.  I am just having a lot of fun and enjoying the ride!

NJ Horseplayer:  I still view the NHC as a rather insular theme, where a lot of track regulars still have no idea about the benefits of the circuit or membership; but have you been bombarded with more "press" or been asked to advocate more as a result of your resounding success in the early stages of this season? 

EH:  I have been on the DRF players podcast and really enjoyed it and love Pete's (Fornatale, of write-ups on a weekly basis.  I am all for promoting the contests as I think there are still a lot of handicappers that don't know much about it.
NJ Horseplayer: What type of handicapper do you consider yourself -- pace-focused, turf, sprint over route?

EH: I guess I am a hybrid, I have really tried to focus #1 on pace and I love Turf races and have had some big scores on them at Gulfstream and at SA (hit a 5K Pick 4 at SA a few weeks back) in the last few weeks. I love handicapping, as it is like solving a different puzzle every time you look at race. 

NJ Horseplayer:  As a guy like me with a full-time career and family, how do you go about rationing your time to be able to prepare for handicapping contests? 

EH:  Great question.  When the kids go to bed I print my forms and get to work.  It is tough and it will be tougher now that family will be getting more active with the weather getting nicer outside.

NJ Horseplayer:  And any new elements of your contest preparation that you wish to share? I know you've mentioned to me in sidebar a greater use of video replays, for instance. 

EH:  As mentioned prior, the notes function in Formulator has helped me tremendously, as has Trakus.  Another thing I did over the break was watch the Dan Illman DRF DVD on trip handicapping so I could watch replays and what to look for and this helped a lot. 

NJ Horseplayer:  In your view, what's been the single-most gratifying part of your success this season, and now that you've already locked up two NHC berths, will your dabble in new tactics or tracks, or tweak your preparation in any way? 
Accustomed to the winner's
circle (with Keen Ice); is an
NHC 18 win in the offing?!

EH:  Having 2 NHC berths before the end of the first quarter is a huge relief and makes me crave even more success. I consider myself a student of the game and will always try to learn about ways to improve my game and continue to soak up as much as I can.

NJ Horseplayer:  In closing, tell my readers about your experience as a horse owner. You were part of a pretty significant win last season if I recall and have a big prospect on the trail this season, yes?

EH:  I have been blessed to dabble in being a small partner in Donegal Racing and my first partnership experience was being a part owner of Keen Ice.  Living in Louisville and having a very small piece of a horse in the Kentucky Derby (finishing 7th) was an absolute dream come true. Getting to do the walk over from the barn to the paddock before the Derby was surreal. My wife and I were lucky enough (also) to attend the Travers, where arguably the greatest upset in horse racing history occurred when Keen Ice defeated AP (American Pharoah).  I love all aspects of it from the stable updates to attending the sales at Keeneland, it's truly a unique and rewarding experience!