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 docsports.com.

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.