Saturday, November 28, 2009

Last hurrah for '09

I partook in some handicapping contest action this weekend for the first time in a while, and for the last time of 2009. I had my moments, but it is now official: my sorry ass will not be in Las Vegas in late January for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship.

I tried the "free" (for NHC Tour members) online contest on Friday. I didn't really have the energy, time, or motivation to come in cold and adequately handicap races from Woodbine, Churchill, Fair Grounds, and Hawthorne, so I just took stabs, hoping I might get very very very lucky and win an NHC seat. Predictably, I didn't -- I finished with one winner, a bankroll of $6 or somesuch, and a bottom-decile placing.

More seriously, I then tried the contest at Monmouth Park on Saturday. $100 entry fee, $100 bankroll, top 3 finishers qualify for 2010 HWS (not NHC). Races from Aqueduct, Calder, and Woodbine. I focused on Aqueduct being that I don't follow Calder or Woodbine worth a hoot.

Of course the best way to win a handicapping contest is to pick winners, but beyond that my strategy was to be more patient than I have been in previous contests, and hope to still be in contention late in the afternoon. Kind of like a basketball coach might say when his team is on the road against a tough opponent: let's do what we can to stay in the game and have a chance to win in the last two minutes.

I started slowly and about halfway through the Aqueduct card, my bankroll was also halfway through, at $50. But I then strung together three consecutive winners: $10W on Buddy's Saint (chalky, but at least it got me on the board), $15W on Flashing (I liked her better at the 5-1 she was when I bet her rather than the 3-1 at post time, but what can you do), and $40W on Kodiak Kowboy (not half bad at 3-1, I thought). So after the Cigar Mile, my bankroll had increased to $240 and I was in 16th place (of 167).

I then took my big shot in the Aqueduct finale, a state-bred allowance race. I was between Fortissi More at 6-1 and Key Victory at 9-1 - landed on the latter mostly because of the price differential. Key Victory isn't the fastest horse in the world, but I thought he looked decent enough for this so-so field and could improve first-out off the trainer change to Bruce Brown. I slapped down $100 to win, which would have put me in the top 3 easily, and maybe on top.

Key Victory got a fine stalking trip and at one point around the far turn I liked my chances, but alas, the speed fought him off and he weakened late to finish third. @%#* me! That was that. I was down to $140 and back to 23rd place or somesuch. I then proceeded to blow most of that on stabs in the last couple races at Calder and Woodbine. Phooey! What looked so promising at 4 p.m. turned into crapola by 5:30.

I can't say I have a lot to regret in my post-contest autopsy, at least as far as going for the prize. I put myself in a position to win the damn thing late in the day. I took a big shot, the kind of shot that wins contests. And I liked the horse I took the shot with. But sometimes it just don't work out - in basketball parlance, you get an good look at a three-point shot for the win and it rims out. C'est la vie.

I can't decide if I should regret blowing my last $140 on stabs from Calder and Woodbine. Clearly, walking out with $140 after taking my shot would have been much better than walking out with 25c, as I did. But on the other hand, if you're alive that late in the day, you have to try to make a splash. I'm sure lots of contests have been won with lucky picks, as mine would have been, and the absolute worst outcome would have been missing a contest win or placing because you want to save your last few bucks. If you're in a contest, you should be in it to win it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Qualifier Q&A: Rich Nilsen

(This is the third of an ongoing RedRockorBust series profiling qualifiers for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship.)

Rich Nilsen, 38, qualified for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship courtesy of finishing 3rd in a Keeneland contest in April. Nilsen, of Lexington, Kentucky, spoke to RedRockorBust in a July 10 telephone interview.

RedRockorBust: You qualified for the 2010 NHC at Keeneland in the spring. Tell me about the day.
Rich Nilsen: It was pouring rain all day, just a miserable day. It was an unusual day and a disappointing card by Keeneland standards. This was a real money contest, sometimes in these contests you grind it out with a slow and methodical approach, and dive in when you have a good feel. But I didn't think there were any solid show bets on the entire card, so I thought I had to attack each race individually -- think to myself, "how can I take this $200 and make a profit?"

I liked a few horses Julien Leparoux rode, and he had a couple double-digit winners. But one of my key races was in the middle of the card, a horse named Final Count was exiting a key race at Gulfstream that was won by eventual stakes runner Afirmatif. There had been a few horses who came out of that race and ran well. Final Count was well-beaten by Afirmatif, he came in 10th, 14 3/4 lengths back, but he had legitimate excuses. So I thought there were a lot of positive factors. I played him to win and in exactas and trifectas, and he won at 17-1 with Rene Douglas aboard.

I kept cashing all day and was in 6th place heading into the last race. I figured I needed to make about $1,000 to break into the top 3 and qualify. In the last race, the horses I liked best ran 1-2. I had the exacta and trifecta. Leparoux rode the winner, a horse named Cross Village, he was 5-1 on the morning line but he went off at 13-1. I made a couple thousand dollars on the race, and ended up with about $5,200 from a starting bankroll of $1,800. I finished 4th, but one of the top 3 finishers had already qualified, so I got the spot.

RRB: What is your history in handicapping contests? Have you made it to the NHC before?
RN: I've been playing contests for more than 10 years. I have qualified for the NHC seven times. I finished 8th in the 2001 event after being a co-leader on the first day. That was my best performance -- $9,000 in total winnings. Other years I've finished mid-pack or up the track.

RRB: How long have you been playing the horses?
RN: I started playing horses in New York around age 7 when my dad used to take me. I watched the Harvey Pack show as a teenager. I then decided to go to the University of Louisville for their equine business degree. I have worked in the industry ever since, serving as director of marketing for, and previously for the account wagering sites BrisBET and I am currently the tournament director at both and

RRB: Will you approach the 2010 NHC any differently than your previous Vegas experiences?
RN: I'm going to try to treat it more like any other contest. I have "overthunk" the NHC in the past, putting too much time into it while trying to do too much. I'm not going to kill myself in the days leading up to the NHC event or at the event itself. A few years ago I would try to handicap every race at every track. I couldn't bear to think that maybe a $40 horse would come in at The Fair Grounds and I didn't have it because I didn't look at the race! But I think it's an impossible task to handicap every race at every track. I'll just watch how the tracks are playing, be familiar with who the hot jockeys and trainers are at each track, and hope that the cards I'm dealt are the types of races I excel at.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Qualifier Q&A: Dennis Decauwer

(This is the second of an ongoing RedRockorBust series profiling qualifiers for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship.)

A 22-1 shot prevented Dennis Decauwer from winning all the marbles in the 2009 National Handicapping Championship. Still, finishing second and taking home $150,000 wasn't too shabby, and he will be back at the Red Rock in 2010, courtesy of his qualifying via a Santa Anita contest in March.

Decauwer, 59, is a "mostly retired" CPA who has been a horseplayer for 40 years, a horse owner for 20 years, and a handicapping contest player for 10 years. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., resident answered RedRockorBust's questions via e-mail.

Red Rock or Bust: Have you had any success in contests before this year?

Dennis Decauwer: Success in contests can come and go. The last couple of years have been good for me including a 2nd place finish in the most recent NHC at Red Rock, a win in the very recent Las Vegas Hilton Pick the Ponies and a 2nd in last October’s Pick the Ponies.

I am a 5-time qualifier for the NHC and they have come in various ways, although my favorite formats are the live money contests such as Santa Anita’s. I have qualified twice there and once in a similar contest at Del Mar as well as at “monopoly money” contests (Fairplex Park and TOC—Calif. owners contest).

RRB: What is your general (or specific) strategy/approach for handicapping contests?

DD: I feel strategies differ significantly in different types of contests. If all races are mandatory, you must find as many winners as you can. When races are optional, finding price horses is critical as all players will be looking for opportunities to do the same. In live bankroll contests, betting is often more conservative as players might treat their own bankroll differently from “monopoly money”.

Setting targets for tournament totals is, generally, a good thing before you start, because most tournaments will end up in a predictable range of a multiple of starting bankroll. The best advice I can give is not be afraid of playing price horses and do not pay much attention to leader boards until late into contests.

RRB: The 2010 NHC is a long way off, but how are you thinking about it now (if you are at all)? Will you go in with any expectations or goals?

DD: As far as tournament goals, I always think I can win (that is a MUST attitude)! In preparation, my essentials include knowing how each track has been playing and watching as much video as I can. Having said that, one still needs to be lucky to win any contest—you need to win the photo finishes and get the right trips with your horses.

RRB: Dennis Decauwer, thank you.

DD: Good luck and let me know if I can answer anything else for you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lottery Ticket at the Shore

My next endeavour toward attempting to qualify for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship begins this Saturday, when Monmouth Park kicks off its "Survival at the Shore" online challenge.

In "Survival", players pick a horse in each of the three races the track selects for that day -- usually, the feature and maybe two of the other races with relatively big fields. As long as at least one of your horses hit the board, you "survive" and move on to the next day, and whatever your horse(s) pay to win, place and/or show is tallied in your mythical bankroll. You get one "life preserver", or mulligan, where you can not hit the board on one day -- the second day you don't hit the board with any of your selections, you're out. The last one standing wins the contest, or if (more likely) there are multiple survivors at meet's end, the survivor with the highest bankroll goes to the Red Rock.

"Survival" is fun and free, and the winner qualifies for the NHC. However, there already 2,283 people signed up three days before the contest starts, so it's a bit of a lottery-ticket proposition and I'm certainly not packing my bags for Vegas just because I'm registered.

I've tried this contest in a few previous years. Once about 4 years ago I was one of about 300 people still alive through mid-June or so, but that was as far as I got. Other times I either forgot to make selections or finished off the board twice in the first week or two. Advancing on any given day sounds easy, but I have learned that it is surprisingly not difficult to have your three selections finish off the board.

Anyway, the first days are the biggest elimination days as people who signed up forget to make picks -- I'd guesstimate that a starting field of 2,500-3,000 gets whittled down to half that by the end of Memorial Day Weekend. I plan to remember to make picks every day this year, and of course I plan to hit the board every day, but as Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until they get hit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Preakness Preview

I'm in the camp that believes Mine That Bird is a throwout. I swear, I think he will go down in history as a mammoth Kentucky Derby fluke, the likes of which we haven't seen since Lil E. Tee won under Pat Day in 1992. Of course, if I'm wrong I'll be eating crow.

Rachel Alexandra looks formidable, but I'm willing to give Friesan Fire a pass for his no-show Derby, and he is my pick on Saturday. I don't think Friesan had the worst trip in the world at Churchill, but Derby history is littered with top horses who didn't run a lick in the Derby and came back strong. I haven't seen any morning lines yet but I'd guess Friesan may go off at 5-1 at least, which would be decent-enough odds.

And for Preakness Stakes Odds, Preakness Picks, or Preakness Stakes Results, head on over to

Monday, May 11, 2009

Qualifier Q&A: Richard Goodall

(This is the first of an ongoing RedRockorBust series profiling qualifiers for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship.)

Richard Goodall, 65, is not your garden-variety NHC qualifier. You see, he happens to be one of only 10 people on the planet who have won the whole shebang. That's right, in 2008, Goodall topped a NHC field of 277 to win the big kahuna, and it was no squeaker -- his $272.30 bankroll set an NHC record for largest margin of victory. Goodall punched his ticket for the 2010 NHC via a Santa Anita contest back in March.

Goodall, a former attorney, estimates he has been playing the horses for 50 years, and he has played handicapping contests since their inception, approximately 25 years ago. He spoke to Red Rock or Bust from his Las Vegas home.

Red Rock or Bust: What is your strategy for handicapping contests?

Richard Goodall: I am a longshot player. I'm either very good or very bad. Most times I'll either be on the leaderboard or finish with $0. I rarely finish mid-pack. Finishing 32nd is no better than finishing last.

Every contest has its own rules -- cap or no cap, real money or mythical wagers, and so on. In order to win, you have to have at least one big-priced horse. I remember one contest at the Orleans Casino about three years ago that was all chalk, but that is extremely rare. So somewhere you have to step out of the box.

The only time I'd ever consider playing a favorite is if you think you're ahead in the contest and want to preserve capital. I'll never bet a 2-1 shot in an early race, I'd rather eat the ticket. You have to have the mindset that you're going to win, and you won't win by betting 2-1 horses.

In real-money contests, I'm fairly conservative in that I try to make a 10- or 20-race contest into a 2-race contest. On the last day or in the last race is when you play the horse you want to play, rather than spreading out.

RRB: It sounds like that approach can be linked to turf racing, where jockeys typically try conserve their mount and stay in the hunt before sprinting the last quarter-mile.

RG: Yes, that's a good analogy. The smart thing is to conserve and then make a big push toward the wire.

RRB: What if the horse you like best on a contest card is entered in an early race? Wouldn't you bet big early?

RG: That horse doesn't exist for me. No matter how much I love the horse, if it's not time to love a horse, I won't play the horse big. I will be cognizant that I like a horse more and maybe play $30 rather than $20, but I'm not going all in.

If you make a big score early in a contest, everybody knows their own math as to how they get to where you are. There are no tourists off the street in the big-money contests.

RRB: What is your strategy for mythical-bankroll contests?

RG: In mythical-bankroll contests you always want to save one bullet for the end. Contest strategy can be more important than handicapping. I always try to handicap later races first, always try to find a bailout horse, a 15-1 shot, a 6-1 shot. Whatever it would take to have a chance to win.

RRB: You qualified for the 2010 NHC via a contest at Santa Anita in March. What was your key score or scores?

RG: In the last race a horse was third-choice on the morning line, but my software rated him as the first choice. I put about $1,200 of my $5,000 on him, he won and paid about $12.

RRB: Will you do anything different in the 2010 NHC, or stick with what works?

RG: I'm too old to change. I do think the common advice to take shots in races that are not mandatory and score points in the mandatory races is wrong. That may keep you from being on the bottom but it keeps you from getting to the top. If you can hit longshots in the mandatory races, you can separate yourself.

Also, if you're betting a longshot at Santa Anita or Aqueduct, you can be sure than 40 others have that horse too. Fewer people will have longshots from Tampa, Fairgrounds, or Oaklawn, so a good strategy is to play those tracks.

Around November I start getting ready for the NHC. I try to be all over Tampa and Fairgrounds, I think that gives me an advantage. If you can be a contrarian in any way, you can beat the crowd.

I'm just an OK handicapper. I'm a contest player. I think I understand the makeup of contests better than most players.

RRB: Thank you, Mr. Goodall.

RG: Good luck.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Contest Day #2

I'm tied for 208th after day 1 of the NHC Tour Kentucky Oaks/Derby online contest, with a $13.60 bankroll.  The current leader has $90.60, and there are 15 players with at least $64, so needless to say I have some catching up to do.

My picks are as follows:
Contest Race #6, Eight Belles S.: Warrior Maid (10-1 ML)
Contest Race #7, Churchill Distaff Turf Mile S.: Sugar Mint (6-1)
Contest Race #8, Humana Distaff S.: Game Face (2-1)
Contest Race #9, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic S.: Zambezi Sun (10-1)
Contest Race #10, Kentucky Derby: Hold Me Back (15-1)

I leaned towards picking prices rather than the most likely winner of the races because if today is chalky, I have no chance even if I run the table.  Realistically, I probably need Hold Me Back to win the Kentucky Derby, and win at least 3 of the other 4 contest races to have any chance.  I imagine that improbable outcome would put me in the top 30 (where I'd earn some NHC Tour points), but it's highly questionable that it would put me in the top 2.  

Friday, May 1, 2009

Contest Day #1

Off and running on day 1 of the NHC Tour Kentucky Oaks/Derby online contest. I'm not exactly expecting to be 1 of the 2 (of ~650, I think?) contestants to qualify for Vegas, but someone has to win, right? Plus, I started out with a winner, as Chamberlain Road ($5.60 and $3.20) came from off the pace to win the Aegon Turf Sprint. Looks like 156 players had the winner and another 99 had the second-place finisher (paid $3.80 to place).

My other contest picks for today are:

Contest Race #2, Edgewood S.: Abbott Hall
Contest Race #3, Alysheba S.: Dr. Pleasure
Contest Race #4, American Turf S.: Bittel Road
Contest Race #5, Kentucky Oaks: Rachel Alexandra

I'm hoping I can still be in the hunt at the end of the day, which means I probably need at least one decent-priced winner plus a decent-priced placer. Rachel Alexandra won't count towards that, as she figures to be 3-5 or so.

Races 6-10 are tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NOW things get started...

Besides the Kentucky Derby, this Saturday marks a sort of unofficial start to the real racing season, in this NJ-based blogger's view. The Triple Crown segues into summer racing at Monmouth Park, Belmont, and Saratoga, which peaks in July-August, then things wind down with a nice Belmont fall meet and conclude with the Breeders' Cup.

Things start to perk up on the NHC Tour contest schedule as well. By my very unofficial count, so far 53 lucky folks have qualified for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship at the Red Rock. Assuming a 275-person field, that means there are still more than 200 spots up for grabs.

This weekend's main event is an online NHC Tour thingamabob that spans Friday and Saturday. The contest qualifies 2 for Vegas, but I'm assuming the field will be 800ish (as was the Feb. 28 NHC Tour Fountain of Youth event), so it's sort of like a lottery-ticket proposition. Beyond just the top 2, the top 30 finishers earn points that can help qualify you down the road.

The other contest thingamajig that starts this weekend is Public Handicapper, which I could swear used to qualify folks for the NHC, but now I'm seeing it qualifies people for the Horseplayer World Series. Public Handicapper is free so maybe I'll try it for fun, but to me, the HWS is to the NIT what the NHC is to the NCAA Tourney, so I'm not that interested.

Monday, April 20, 2009

New T-Shirt

My NHC Tour t-shirt came in the mail today. I'd prefer the back to be a bit less of an attention-grabber, but it is clever.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Early Derby Thoughts

The crux of this blog is my quest to qualify for the 2010 National Handicapping Championship, but I figure there's no harm in occasionally weighing in on other racing topics. To that end, I'd like to offer my preliminary 2 cents on the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

I believe the Kentucky Derby is the most over-analyzed horse race in America, and largely a crapshoot. From a handicapping perspective, it’s tough to have much confidence that your horse will win, as 20-horse fields create traffic jams and brutal trips that just cannot be predicted. Other variables such as the 1 1/4-mile distance, and the pageantry and madness of the day itself, just add more uncertainty to the mix.

All that said, for those of us who still plan to bet on the Kentucky Derby, I think Quality Road is the real deal. At the moment, it looks like there may not be a lot of early pace signed on for the Derby (this assessment is subject to revision, of course), and QR has proven versatility in either going to the front or sitting just off the early leaders. The recent quarter crack that caused him to miss some training is a concern, but I think there's plenty of time left before Saturday, May 2 for Jerkens to get him right.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Back in Action

After a six-week layoff from handicapping contests, I'm looking forward to trying my luck in Saturday's event. I'm still mourning my Feb. 28 non-qualifying (why on earth did I bet Beethoven over Quality Road in the FOY?) for the Invitational they're having at Monmouth Park this Saturday -- dang I wanted to be at that thing -- but NHCQualify it is.

If I understand the rules correctly, I'll be one of 300 contestants on Saturday, which is a "Round 1" event. The goal is to finish in the top 30, which moves you on to Round 2, to be held on the last Saturday of the month. Assuming 90 players in Round 2 (30 from each of the three Round 1 contests), the top 9 then qualify for Vegas. So the percentages seem reasonable enough, but of course, making the top 10% in two consecutive contests is much easier said than done.

Of Saturday's 10 contest races, 6 are from Keeneland and 4 are from Santa Anita. I've not developed any real feel for the synthetic KEE surface, and I never have followed California racing closely, so I will need more than my share of luck. The format (1 mythical $2WP bet on each race, odds capped at 20-1 on win and 10-1 on place) will also be new to me, as the NJ contests I have played offer more leeway on wager size and do not cap odds.

At any rate, all that stuff is noise really, my focus on Saturday is to be in the top 30 after Santa Anita's 7th race is made official. This will require some good handicapping, and some better-than-good luck.

I'm hoping to live-blog my contest experience in some way, shape or form on Saturday.

Monday, March 9, 2009

What's Next?

It has taken a little time to banish my disappointment from the Feb. 28 contest. I felt like a NFL offense that had 1st-and-goal on the 5 yard line but couldn't punch it in after 5 attempts (we'll say I had one extra attempt on a defensive holding call). But I am now moving on, at least as far as mapping out what might be next on the NHC Tour.

A revised contest schedule is now up on the NTRA site. It seems the biggest change is the addition of four "super" qualifiers, offering a combined 21 spots out to the Red Rock next January. For this New Jersey-based NHC Tour member, the good news is that the August 29 super event will be held at Monmouth Park. The bad news is that these "super" qualifiers apparently call for "super" antes -- the Monmouth contest is a $600 affair, quite a bit more than than the usual contest price tags of $100-$400.

Six Benjies is definitely high in absolute terms, but it does send six to Vegas, so it actually sounds pretty decent in terms of qualifying bang-for-the-buck. Depending on how my finances shape up heading into the day, I may well give it a try.

For now, I'll focus on much-cheaper ($100) contest next month, and then the next free NHC Tour online event on Kentucky Derby day.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Loomed, faded late

It was a good, full day of handicapping contest action yesterday at Monmouth Park. I was patient early on; picked a few nice winners that had me in the hunt until very late in the afternoon; and I have no real gnawing regrets or shoulda, woulda, couldas. But unfortunately, I still came up empty.

My winning bets were $20W on Ghost Hour (paid $13) at Gulfstream; $10W on No Questions ($13.80) at Aqueduct, and $50W on Barrier Reef ($6.40) at Aqueduct. The winners increased my $100 starting bankroll to $200, $259, and then the high-water mark of the day, $329. They also put me on the contest leaderboard, mostly bouncing around between 12th and 24th place (of 237 participants) -- not half bad.

But the wheels fell off late. $329 wasn't gonna get me in the Top 10 -- needed at least $600-$650 for that, as of the last standings I saw -- so I had to take some shots to try to punch my way in. So, I played

-$30W on Senor Freddie (~15-1) in the Aqu finale. It was a speculative play but closers had been sucking up speed all day and this horse looked like he could come from the clouds. Alas, he didn't do much of anything.
-$40W on Rogue Victory (~8-1) in the Canadian Turf Handicap. Was stepping up in class but I thought perhaps he could manage a rail-skimming trip and prove good enough. He did make a run around the far turn, but got fanned wide and never really fired in the lane.
-$50W on Beethoven (~5-1) in the FOY. Got ran off his feet early and fell too damn far back, and could rally only for 3rd. No regrets here, as my second choice in this race was Break Water Edison, who didn't even finish.
-$40W on Our Ace (~10-1) in the Tampa finale. Looked in decent shape while gaining around the turn but flattened out late. I don't follow Tampa at all so this was admittedly a stab, one I never would have made on a non-contest day, but it was another chance to get in the Top 10 so I had to take it. And lastly,
-$150W(!) on first-timer Virsito (~5-1), in the GP finale. This was a full field of mostly first-time starters going a mile on the grass, so it was tough to be real confident about what the outcome would be, but I did think Virsito was the most likely winner. Nice pedigree, favorable post, the Goldberg-Marquez connections had at least one other debut winner at the meet, and the tote board said he was live (bet down from 8-1 ML). Turned out none of that meant anything, as the horse really didn't pick up his feet and finished 7th.

I was out the door after that, and my once-mighty betting card got me back less than $20.

What lessons can be learned? You know, I can't really think of any. Other post-contest times I thought maybe I had been overly aggressive, or bet the wrong horse, or didn't bet enough, etc. This time, I really think I did right by contest strategy. After all, all you can ask for is to be in the thick of things late in the afternoon, and I was. I took FIVE shots after my bankroll had reached $329, any ONE of which would most likely have punched me into the Top 10, but nothing came through. I have to think that next time, maybe one (or heavens, even two?) will come through.

P.S. Nothing doing in the NHC contest, where I tied for 357th or something, a midpack finish.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Day Tomorrow

Tomorrow I plan to try my luck at the Simulcast Series Challenge #3 at Monmouth Park. I will also be participating in the NHC Tour online contest.

My focus will be on the Monmouth contest, with the goal of finishing in the top 10 of an estimated field of 200 (being that this is the last SSC of the season, the previous SSC attracted more than 200 players, and tomorrow's weather is supposed to be decent, I suspect more than 200 will show). This would qualify me for a 30-person invitational contest in April, where the top 2 finishers go to Vegas next January.

I will make picks in advance for the online contest, possibly revising here and there over the course of the day if I'm able to, but I'm not putting many eggs into this basket. Only the top 2 qualify, out of a guesstimated field of 800ish. 2-of-800 is much less attractive than 10-of-200, so the latter proposition is where I'll devote my mental energy.

I won't get into specific horses, not for any competitive reason or anything, but rather because I haven't really reviewed the races yet. After a couple recent early flush-outs, I am thinking I may try to be a little more patient earlier in the contest, so I have a better chance of still being kicking around late in the afternoon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A $125 T-Shirt?

After exhaustive analysis and deliberation, as well as consultations with family, friends, financial and spiritual advisors, and my apartment-building maintenance man, I went ahead and plunked down $125 to join the NHC Tour. At the very least, I figure how legit is a blog about trying to make it to the NHC if the blogger isn't on the NHC tour?

Aside from the considerations I outlined in my previous post, I'm thinking that even if I don't get anywhere on the NHC tour, membership can end up saving me money. This is because on the five free-contest days over the course of the year, I will be able to not go to the track in person and still catch some Saturday racing action. Being that my in-person track trips are more likely to put a hole in, rather than stuff, my wallet, even 1 or 2 non-trips can save me back more than the $125 tour outlay.

And plus, membership gets me a NHC Tour T-shirt, which I wasn't aware of until I signed up. Howza bout that!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

NHC Tour: To Join or Not to Join

So I'm thinking of joining the 2009 NHC Tour.

I'm definitely intent on making it out to Vegas next January (heck, I have a blog dedicated to the quest), so the decision could appear to be a no-brainer. But as I've previously indicated, discretionary funds are not unlimited, so I want to carefully vet each dollar spent for what chance it gives me to qualify. In other words, if there's a $100 contest in my backyard that qualifies 3 of 100, sign me up; if there's a $400 contest across the country that qualifies 1 of 300, I'll pass.

It costs $125 to join the NHC Tour. As I see it, the primary benefit is the five online contests free to Tour members over the course of the year, which offer a total of nine spots to Vegas. The NTRA's Fritz Widaman told me there were about 800 or 900 (he said one or the other, I just forget which) in the Tour last year, and he expects 1,000 or so this year. So, $125 for a chance to be one of 9 qualifiers out of 1,000 isn't bad, as far as contest probabilities go.

Tour members also earn points based on contest placings, and it looks like the top six in the final standings also go to Vegas in 2010. I personally don't see much value to this qualifying route, though, as it clearly favors more regular players with deeper bankrolls. Final points are determined based on a player's top-five finishes, not just cumulative points, but still, you're much more likely to show a strong top five if you played in 30 contests rather than 10.

There's also a $2 million bonus awarded if the NHC winner is an NHC Tour member. This is kind of an abstract concept to someone who's scratching and clawing just to get in the tourney, let alone win it....but still, wouldn't that be a pisser if missed out on the two mil because I was too cheap to buck up $125?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2nd Monmouth Winter Contest In the Books

Good news: I didn't lose in last Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge #2 at Monmouth Park. But the bad news is: I didn't win, either. My neutrality is explained by a previous commitment that precluded my attendance.

So I have no post-contest sob story to offer up, nor can I regale my loyal readership with a proud and dramatic tale of victory.

But I always look forward to seeing the results, as there are usually some insights to be gleaned. As the Monmouth Park link shows, Jim Wasserson of Washington Crossing, PA beat 212 rivals with a final bankroll of $920. Ricky Zimmer finished second with $682.90.

A couple observations:

1. I am surprised that Monmouth attracted 213 players in these tough economic times. Usually these winter contests seem to get 160-180 or thereabouts -- I'd have figured if anything Saturday's number would be lower, with presumably fewer people willing to ante up $200. I guess the strong attendance is a testament to the growing popularity of handicapping contests generally, and Monmouth's continued capable management of their contests specifically. In fact, I daresay that in this era of declining attendance, field size, and caliber of horseflesh at the Oceanport Oval, the handicapping contest program is the track's one growth area.

2. I am not surprised at the $920 and $682.90 1-2 finishers, which are quite low bankrolls by historical contest standards. With a full field of 213, usually you need at least $1,500 to have a shot at winning, and I've seen $2K-$4K winners. I think prices tell the tale as to why nobody cracked four figures.

Aqueduct, which I suspect is the most-bet track in the contest, was ridiculously chalky on Saturday -- aside from the $16.40 first-race winner, the other 8 winners paid between $2.90 and $6.50. Tampa was not much better -- one 54-1 bomb came in, but 8 of the other 10 winners paid less than $9. Gulfstream had several prices in the $16-$20 range, but apparently no more than a few contest participants put more than one of them together with any firepower.

Risk taking is what wins handicapping contests, but when chalk rules the day like it (mostly) did on Saturday, risk taking is punished.

At any rate, I am looking forward to the Simulcast Series Challenge #3 on February 28 at Monmouth. I imagine it will be a large field given last week's attendance and the fact that this will be the last qualifier for the invitational contest in April.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Will I Have to Make the Bed?

Station Casinos is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy. I'm reportedly considering whether to be troubled by this news, as Station Casinos just so happens to own the Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas, where I plan to stay on January 28-29, 2010, as I compete for the National Handicapping Championship. Rather than a comfy stay as a pampered guest in the lap of luxury, I am picturing stained sheets, threadbare carpets with cigarette burns, and day-old room-service leftovers festering in the hallway.

But realistically, a bankruptcy filing would be a capital-structure reorganization to get Station Casinos out from under its massive debt load and should not have any meaningful impact on the day-to-day operations of the facility. In the service industry, any competent management team knows that cutbacks are dangerous and can quickly lead to a no-return downward spiral in revenue. Who knows, the potential bankruptcy is supposed to be a "prepackaged" arrangement, which typically moves quicker than an out-of-the-blue filing, so Station Casinos may well have already emerged from bankruptcy come next January.

So while my fears of the Red Rock deteriorating into a roach motel were stated tongue-in-cheek, the turn of events goes to show how times have changed. As the Wall Street Journal reported, just a couple years ago Station Casinos sought to "carry out ambitious expansion plans to upgrade its profile from middling casinos for Las Vegas locals, to luxury properties that lured out-of-towners." Surely, landing the NHC was part of those expansion plans -- wonder if either side will have qualms about renewing the deal when the time comes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Early-season musings

Due to a previous commitment, I will not be participating in the handicapping contest at Monmouth Park this Saturday. I wish I could make it, especially as this is one of only three pre-qualifiers (top 10 of ~200 move on) for an April invitational contest that sends the top 2 of 30 to the 2010 NHC at the Red Rock. But c'est la vie, there will be other qualifying opportunities, I only hope that I can look at the results on Saturday evening and not get the sinking feeling that I may have missed something big.

I did take a crack at the Jan. 17 pre-qualifier at Monmouth, with no luck (I realize this is old news by now, but being as this blog didn't exist then, I figure it's worth a quick recap). I had $30W on an 8-1 horse on the Tampa turf that led all the way before being caught late by a 17-1 shot, which would have put me in the early-afternoon top 5, but nothing doing beyond that -- 4 losing bets and I was out the door.

I was amazed several days later when I read that the contest winner was down to his last $10 before parlaying 7-1 and 23-1 winners in the final two races at Gulfstream. I usually feel hopelessly behind the eight-ball when my $100 bankroll is down to $30 or $40 (at which time the leader may have $400 or somesuch). If I have $10 left, I'm pretty much putting on my jacket. Indeed, Nick Fazzolari's win was no mean feat: by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the odds of hitting back-to-back 7-1 and 23-1 winners are approximately 1 in 192 (1/8 x 1/24).

Just goes to show that you always have a puncher's chance in handicapping contests, or at least those with no max bet.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


And welcome to the inaugural post of my blog, Red Rock or Bust!

Today is Thursday, January 29, 2009. It is a mere 365 days, aka one year, until the 2010 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) is held at the Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas.

For those of you not familiar, the NHC brings together about 300 of the finest handicappers in the land for a shot at $1 million in prize money. It is an invitational tournament -- to earn a seat, you must qualify through one of the many "feeder"-type contests held throughout the year, at various tracks around the country or online. I liken it to the NCAA basketball tournament -- it's a long season, there are many different ways to get in, and when the time comes, it's where everyone wants to be.

I have"mixed" (to put it graciously) record so far in handicapping contests. I have probably entered 20 or so contests over the past five years, mostly at Monmouth Park, with buy-ins ranging from $50 to $300. I finished 10th one time a few years ago, my only prize-money placing. Several other times I've been on the leaderboard, once as high as 3rd of almost 200, only to crap out by day's end. The other times I finished off the board, either breaking evenish or (more often) going bust.

But I have confidence my day will come, for a few reasons:

1. I like longshots, I think I'm decent at finding live longshots, and I'm not afraid to play aggressively when I find them. This formula will bounce me out of most contests early, but on days when I'm on, it gives me a real chance.
2. While I see more than a few familiar faces on the NJ contest circuit, the names in the top 10 are almost always different. That tells me that even the best handicappers finish off the board in these contests much more frequently than they finish on the board. Good handicapping is important, but so are persistence and luck.
3. Recap articles often describe the contest winner as a frequent or semi-frequent player, but a first-time winner. So prior to winning, those folks were in the same classification I'm in now. Persistence pays off.
4. Ron Rippey of the Newark Star-Ledger not only qualified for the contest in 2006, but he WON the whole damn thing! He's been around for a long time and is an established and respected handicapper, but I find his published picks generally on the chalky and conservative side, with boring, odds-on "best bets". So if Rippey can win the NHC, it tells me there is no magic formula to break through other than solid handicapping, judicious risk taking, and a big ol' dollop of luck.

There are constraints to my quest to qualify for the NHC. First and foremost, antes. Unfortunately, contests can be expensive to enter, contests can be expensive to travel to (I can cheaply get to Monmouth, The Meadowlands, Belmont, and Aqueduct), and my discretionary funds are hardly unlimited. Internet qualifiers can be cheap or even free, but such contests are generally poor "lottery ticket" propositions, with maybe one NHC spot for 1,000+ contestants. So needless to say, I will have to pick my spots carefully.

Add it all up and I hope to make this a fun and interesting narrative of my attempts to qualify for the 2010 NHC. Wish me luck!