Saturday, October 27, 2018

Groundwork for NHC19: Two-Minute Drill

Wrapping up a berth to the 2019 National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) almost a year in advance certainly has its advantages, including fresh perspectives on how part-time contest players can approach the run-up to the $3 million tournament in Las Vegas on Feb. 8-10.

If you lack the time for regular contest-circuit play, it's important to pick and choose spots to experiment with different strategies that can simulate the NHC environment.

Whether your goal at the TI in Las Vegas will be a pie-in-the-sky first-place finish, or a scaled-back expectation of a Top-50 finish -- either an admirable feat vs. top-flight competition and several professional players with multiple entries -- use the next 100 days to experiment.

As it's NFL season, I'll call this one the "Two-Minute Drill."

As a third-time NHC qualifier, I'll focus largely on quick-trigger selections, reinforcing the notion that it's important to be impulsive once in awhile in a handicapping contest. Anyone who has made it to Vegas can attest that the sheer volume of races is overwhelming.

It's impossible to handicap 150 races run over 30 hours across two days. And that's before you potentially reach that final table on Day 3!

With 6-8 tracks and about 75 races a day to select from over Days 1 and 2 of the NHC, you'd have to be an insomniac, speed-reader and/or bring an army of associates to absorb the nuances of each race.

Admittedly, I don't use subscription services, so if you've got third-party research or data that you think improves your analysis and provides an edge, by all means stick with your approach. 

Keep in mind, however, that those services won't improve your reaction times or be able to rush to the contest terminal at times to make a split-second heads or tails decision that's needed with four races about to go off all at once. 

Information overload can lead to selection paralysis, a key to avoid.

I tend to handicap more from experience and on feel, and stick to a handful of angles -- front-end speed in maiden races (especially with two-year-olds) and playing top-circuit (e.g. NYRA) shippers to largely home-bred fields at Woodbine -- that help me to make decisions when time is short.

The October 13 live-money contest at Monmouth Park provided such a venue, featuring $15 win, place and/or show minimums and action from Belmont, Keeneland and Woodbine. 

At times, races went off simultaneously, and knowing that I had to miss the last 10-12 to take my son to see Gorillaz in Brooklyn, I kept to the first 7-8 races at each track and stuck to my key angles, with moderate real-money success and what would have been a decent start in an NHC notional $2 win-place format. 

Two-Minute Drill: Oct. 13, 2018 NHC Qualifier at Monmouth
Now, live-money contests are a completely different animal than mythical $2 win-place events such as the NHC, but the takeaways were positive. 
  • Two winners, including 11-1 (3-point overlay) Goldtown in non-winners of two at Woodbine, where David Moran took a horse that had faced tougher at Belmont and Gulfstream right to the lead and held off short-priced favorite Silent Respect, a stakes-placed runner who'd never raced outside of Canada. MTO-entry Magnetron was the other in the third at Belmont; paid $8.50.
  • Five top-two finishes out of 13 races. 
    • Two of them were killers (both 7-to-1), including a neck loss for Yorktown in the Nearctic and a three-quarter-length late defeat for Fear No Evil in the Floral Park Stakes at Belmont. (The third was a loss by a head for Curlin's Honor in the Ontario Derby.)
From a real-money-contest perspective those three tough beats cost me $641 of potential win money that would have put my bankroll at $792 ($641+$151.50) based on the last two bets in the above spreadsheet -- ultimately good enough for tenth-place. Surely it sucked to miss on those.

Yet in an NHC contest format, with a little luck (e.g. those three horses win instead of finishing second) I'd have picked up another $43.60, which when added would bumped up my notional bankroll to $100.70 -- a solid one-day score with about five more plays to go (assuming an 18-race format).

A few points from this experience that I hope you'll find useful for NHC:
  • Accept the fact that not all of your selections will be perfect and based on analytics.
    • After 10-15 minutes of viewing the past performances, I didn't have a great feel for the Nearctic, other than Yorkton was extremely playable at almost 3x his morning line and as the main (and perhaps lone) speed in a race where Lady Alexandra was grossly over-bet to 3-to-2 favoritism (from 5-to-1). He almost got there (even with jockey Jesse Campbell seemingly dropping the whip in the stretch); Alexandra finished 9th of 11.
  • Avoid tracks where you lack feel and stick with those you know.
    • As much as I revere Keeneland Race Course and key races there were what helped me in April to qualify for the NHC, I've found the fall meet totally vexing. Wins in my first two Monmouth contest plays padded my bankroll, but equally funded me to fish in races 3 and 4 at Keeneland -- ones where I lacked the discipline to sit out as I should have done. I have plenty of time to correct those types of poor decisions.
    • Oaklawn Park and Golden Gate are two such tracks I anticipate will be on the NHC wagering menu and ones I'll likely avoid outside of the mandatory contest races.
  • Seek value in short rather than enormous fields.
    • Simple logic suggests it's a lot easier to find a playable overlay in a 6- rather than 12-horse field when you can only play one horse in the NHC format. The Ontario Derby (Woodbine, Race 3) is a great example.
    • IMHO, it was a coin-flip between Curlin's Honor and Lookin to Strike, sent off at a respective 5-to-1 and 4-to-1. The two long-shots (9-to-1 and 38-to-1) were unplayable, and I thought 3-to-2 Mr. Ritz was over-bet. My pal RedRockOrBust went the same way, and after the fact we were both disappointed by the outcome but satisfied with our selection of Curlin's Honor. The horse was dead game but just didn't have enough. 
    • On the other end of the spectrum, my $15 win play on 14-to-1 City Siege in the 7th at Keeneland was extremely ill-advised and in retrospect a clear gamble or search for "action" in a field featuring several first-time starters. I'll look to avoid these sorts of plays at the NHC.
In sum, the $250 entry-fee Oct. 13 cost my $100 entry fee as I recouped my $150 bankroll and decided to avoid going "all-in" and accept that it was OK to have some fun with friends on an autumn Saturday and walk away with some money while gaining valuable experience ahead of the NHC.

Yeah, I'd have loved walking away with another $800 or so of additional winnings and prize money, but them's the breaks, and I picked up some valuable experience to take with me to Vegas in February.

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