Saturday, April 21, 2018

When Contest Handicapping and Trainer Intent Collide

Trainers are willing to lose a race from time to time.

Well, except for Chad Brown, at least when I "bet against." 

At those points, it's best for you to the sprint to the window and bet his entries.

Your house will be safe, so feel free to go "all in" and bet it on the Chadster when I'm chilly.

Seriously though...

"Trainer intent" has become a bigger angle in my handicapping, and can be for you, particularly in assessing today's "free" NHC Tour qualification tournament.

I have zero inside knowledge, but often consider why a trainer will picks a certain spot to run his or her horse. Once in awhile you'll get bits of information from an on-track interview on TVG, a track's in-house feed or on social media.

Yet otherwise, we're often left to speculate.

In the context of a handicapping contest, I usually try to identify the most-vulnerable favorites on the card and reasons behind those vulnerabilities, since the only way to make waves in a handicapping contest with over 2,000 entrants -- many shooting for huge long-shots -- is to find a credible few.

This morning was no different in preparing for the 12-race card, with one horse in particular meeting my core parameters -- an over-rested horse that's likely to be overbet and is using the current race to prep for an even bigger one.


This accomplished mare is making the first start of her five-year-old campaign in the Dahlia B at Laurel Park -- Race 7, scheduled to run at 4:10 p.m. ET.

This $100,000 stakes race will go one mile on the turf and has scratched down to 8 runners.

In my opinion, Hawksmoor will be sent off below her 7-to-5 morning line, probably in the 2-to-5 or 3-to-5 range. So bettors and contest players alike will be lucky to get about a dollar of profit for every two on a win wager.

I'm not averse to playing favorites in contests or in cash betting, but in this case I'll speculate that this race checks off a few boxes for trainer Arnaud Delacour:
  • Really soft field
  • Preferred surface (turf)
  • "Paid workout," e.g. a chance to pick up an easy $60,000 winner's share for owner Lael Stables, perhaps best known as the owners and breeders of the late, great Barbaro
  • Easy prep for a graded stakes race
Key "knocks": 0-for-5 in North American races outside of Belmont Park,
1-for-5 at the 1-mile distance on turf, and prepping for a bigger future race

Hawksmoor is entirely capable of a rout, even if not 100% on her game.

We're talking about a three-time graded stakes winner (Grades 2 and 3) who is three lengths shy of back-to-back Grade 1 wins last autumn at the prestigious Keeneland and Del Mar Bing Crosby meets. The last time we saw her was in late November, a length behind Off Limits in the Matriarch.

Rested...and Ready?

Hawksmoor was given more than two months of rest before returning to training on February 9, and she has consistently worked well leading up to today.

Her front-running style should play favorably under Julien Leparoux, one of the best turf riders in North America, and especially more with the scratch of 5-to-1 I'm Betty G, another gal who was sure to pressure the early pace.

There's a cheap sprinter shipping in from Penn National, but doesn't belong on the same track with Hawksmoor, who's nearing the $1 million mark in lifetime winnings in just three years.

One could argue that all of the other runners fit the same profile, though I'm willing to bet the connections are not as concerned with winning today's race so much as Hawksmoor coming out of it healthy and ready for the Grade 3 Gallorette at Pimlico on Preakness Day, as she's been nominated for that one along with several other top runners -- certainly better ones than in the Dahlia.

Broken Bridle Is Worth a Look

Figuring that Hawksmoor and the 6, 30-to-1 Tanya's Gem (the aforementioned Penn shipper), set the tempo, I'm playing a horse that should sit just off the pace, has been in the winner's circle before...

...and whose connections probably want to win the race.

Broken Bridle, the 7, fits the bill at odds of 12-to-1.

This five-year-old mare also is making her 2018 debut. She hasn't run since late August at Laurel, but has hit the board in 9 of 10 starts at that track and sports several snappy works in preparation for today's stakes try. 

She finished ninth of 10 in her lone stakes attempt, the Grade 3 Commonwealth Oaks in September 2016, but ran gamely and I sense is tuned up enough for local trainer Gary Capuano. 

And this is no Grade 3 field, except for Hawksmoor.

Broken Bridle is not only the kind of horse worth playing in a notional-money handicapping contest, as she'll likely draw minimal attention based on a so-so background, she's also a use on my Pick 3 and 4 wagers on the side.

No matter what happens in the Dahlia, I think it's important for horseplayers to think a little bit more about trainers' motivations for entering their horses and to consider that, often, the goal for today's race may be more about a better opportunity down the road. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Something Funny Happened Along The Way To Vegas

Hey, there's a lot of time to kill over a guys' weekend away from our families.

On the 75-minute drive last Friday from Cincinnati to Keeneland Race Course with @RedRockOrBust, trainer D. Wayne Lucas came up as one of our far-flung subjects of discussion.

You know, the type of exchanges you'll never hear at the dinner table or on the long, daily train or bus ride commute from work.

Anyway, horse racing was the center of most discussion, considering our plans for two straight days at the illustrious Lexington, KY, track and a visit to the Thoroughbred Center.

I had noticed in preparation for last Saturday's NHC qualification tournament on that the Hall of Fame trainer with 14 lifetime Triple Crown wins -- Oxbow, the last, at 15-1 in the 2013 Preakness -- entered a few horses at Keeneland over the weekend.

Our discussion speculated on his motivations at age 82 after an immensely accomplished career, as well as those of owners who hire trainers (and there are few in the octogenarian ranks)...not to mention why tournament players like us would jump to play his runners.

The latter, especially so, considering Lukas' mere 2-for-90 in stakes tries since 2017 and that he's not winning at nearly the breakneck pace of his glory days of the 1980-90s.

Yet as fate would have it, Lukas' 23-1 Warrior's Club -- the second-longest shot in the nine-horse Grade 3 Commonwealth Stakes -- was the key to my earliest qualification ever to the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship.

I've earned my way into the 19th-annual NHC next February in Las Vegas, largely courtesy of Warrior's Club, but also 10-to-1 winner Spiced Perfection in the Evening Jewel Stakes at Santa Anita just 12 minutes after, and two short-priced favorites in the later stages of my contest.

My third-place finish among 219 entries was good enough to get a shot at the $3 million NHC 19 and to put to rest any concerns about missing out for a third-straight year after qualifying for NHC 15 and 16.

Hey, Nothing Wrong With a Little Luck

"KEE 6" Contest Selections:
5, Conquest Windycity
4, Warrior's Club
The funny part is that Warrior's Club was merely an alternate contest selection after 15-1 Shut the Box, my top pick and a key in my contest preparation, was a pre-race scratch.

Yet, I had to make Warrior's Club a main contest play after subconsciously punching him as a single in the final leg of my separate Pick 3 ticket -- one that was worth $497 if he miraculously won the race.

In all honesty, I intended to use another horse -- one that ultimately did not hit the board in the Commonwealth Stakes. My contest card proves that, as I used Conquest Windycity in one of my two tournament plays.

Instead, Warrior's Club got a perfect trip under jockey Luis Contreras to pay $48.80 to win (capped at $42 for contest purposes). Not too shabby.

Karma Continues

The next (of 12) contest races vaulted me to the top of the leader board, as Spiced Perfection edged out vulnerable 2-to-5 favorite Show It N Moe It to win the Evening Jewel three time zones away.

The combined $29.60 of win and place earnings proved powerful, as several shorter-priced horses for the duration of the contest made it difficult for people to make up ground.

Among them were two that I had, including 3-to-10 Monomoy Girl in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and 9-to-10 Justify in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, a key Kentucky Derby prep.

Combined, those two winners provided me just $10.70 of winnings, but that proved enough to stave off the competition and lock up an NHC 19 berth.

So, Now What?

NHC 19 is still almost a full year away.

You may recall that my last post assessed the new NHC Tour points accrual structure and how it favors high-volume players.

Contemplating what I should do now that my NHC spot is assured, yet 10 months from now, I'll revisit that theme next time around.

A deeper reading of the rules structure uncovered some interesting opportunities, even for the weekend player like me who generally lacks the volume of play as full-timers on the NHC circuit.