Monday, December 26, 2011

I'm Going to Vegas*!

*but probably not for the NHC

That's right. I didn't qualify for the 2012 NHC, but I did qualify for a play-in contest to the 2012 NHC via

Here's how it went down. After being pretty much resigned to my fate of not qualifying for the 2012 NHC because I failed to qualify in the first 11 3/4 months of 2011, I received an e-mail from William H. at that mentioned he would be participating in today's contest, which I had been unaware of. I wasn't crazy about the specs, i.e. 1/3 takeout and seemingly a wild-goose chase to Vegas, but given the low $50 ante and with me nursing a Christmas cold and half a box of wine to kick, I figured I'd give it a whirl and sign up.

I didn't spend much time on the PPs, but the planets aligned for my tried-and-true short-cut angles. Trainer recency landed me on American Blend at 5SA ($23 to win, $9.40 to place) and Voce de Leone in 9GP ($10.80, $5), while an odds-movement pattern pointed me to Gorgelicious in 7GP ($10.60 to place). Throw in a few logical chalks (What a Rush in 2SA, Bernster in 3SA, Tiz a Theme in 11GP), and I had enough notional bankroll to finish in 6th place of 240 contestants.

So along with the five folks who finished ahead of me and the two who finished right behind me, I won a free entry to the Treasure Island play-in on Wednesday Jan. 25 ($500 value), plus a $500 travel voucher to Sin City.

I'm not sure what the specs are for the play-in, but given the fairly steep $500 ante I'm assuming it'll come with a reasonable chance to qualify, perhaps 1/15 or somesuch. I'll plan to go to Vegas on Tues Jan. 24 and return late-night Wed. Jan. 25; I'll try to fly Southwest (no change fees), so on the off chance that I qualify I'll stick around for the NHC, which is Fri Jan. 27-Sat Jan. 28.

I kind of feel like a middling college team heading into its conference tourney on a hot (or at least warm) streak, hoping to win at least a couple more games to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

I probably won't qualify, but it will be fun.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Whad Up Wit Dat? The Future of Monmouth Park (Part III)

Is Oceanport, N.J. the new Flint, Michigan?

OK granted that is a stretch, but there are some real similarities.

A declining industry that is a big part of the tax base. Government mulling what if any support is warranted. Erstwhile white-knight investors kicking tires, but not biting.

Whereas the U.S. auto industry seems to have at least stabilized, albeit in a much smaller form, the future of horse racing on the Jersey Shore can only aspire to that outcome right now.

I have previously weighed in on the future of Monmouth Park here and here. In Part III of Whad Up Wit Dat?, I offer my 2 cents on the latest developments.

According to the most recent report, the state of New Jersey will continue to operate Monmouth Park in 2012 while a private investor is sought. While that is decidedly good news compared with the stone-cold closure that seemed to have been on the table, the indicated purses are Grim City: about $150-175K per day, or whatever is supported by betting handle. In other words, the state will run the track but will not be on the hook for any losses, which from what I understand have run into the millions of dollars in recent meets.

How grim is $150-175K per day? Well I took a gander at for a cheapie track as a frame of reference...landed on Penn National, Dec. 17 card....added up the purses of the 9 races...and hit out to $167K. So just two years after Monmouth Park's "Elite Meet" lured jockeys John Velazquez and Garrett Gomez from New York and California, the 141-day "Shit-Ass Meet" beckons, with lots of short fields and lunchpail $10K-$20K races. Blech.

A few observations:

-I'm not sure how they hit out to the $150-175K range -- I wonder if that's overly optimistic, because I see clear potential for a negative cycle: crummy racing leads to less betting, which leads to lower purses, which leads to crummier racing.

-Toughest job in sports in 2012: marketing Monmouth Park.

-Second-toughest job: NJ thoroughbred breeder. Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how thoroughbred breeding in New York is on the rise, buoyed by money from the new Aqueduct casino. Horse breeding in NJ is no doubt moving in the opposite direction, amid seemingly never-ending uncertainty about the future of racing in the state and now a withdrawn private-investment bid and the specter or harsh purse cuts. I suspect you can probably get a nice NJ-bred horse these days for very cheap.

-I imagine finding a private investor will be very difficult. Nothing about the economics of Monmouth Park will change in the near-term: horse racing is still in decline and the economy is still lousy, so the place will continue to lose money. And Gov. Christie has picked Atlantic City over horse racing, so any sort of casino/slot development at Monmouth or the Meadowlands is pretty much a pipe dream. One guy (Morris Bailey) has already walked away from leasing Monmouth Park, why would anyone else sign on without a game changer?

Personally, I hope Monmouth keeps its handicapping contests, especially its winter Simulcast Series Challenge. But beyond that, I'm more or less apathetic. In a way I lament the demise of Monmouth Park, and I disagree with Christie in his choice of AC over the tracks, but at the same time I agree with Christie conceptually that the state should not be in the business of subsidizing money-losing sports like horse racing. The fact that horse racing can't make it on its own is the free market saying that it should go away. Lord knows horse racing needs consolidation, so in the worst-case scenario of a Monmouth closure, presumably the product at NY and some mid-Atlantic tracks would be strengthened.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Swing, and a Miss

We'll pick up the action from today's Monmouth/Woodbine Handicapping Contest at about 5:45 p.m.: after a 'meh' handicapping day in which I had only one 3-1 winner at Monmouth from eight bets, my initial bankroll of $100 was down to $30 and I was ready to go home, so I put down a win-or-go-home bet: $30W on Heavenly Pride in the Woodbine 10th. She wins by a neck at 4.60-1, putting me back in the ball game with a $168 bankroll. I followed that with a $40W$20P bet on Mint Maker in the 11th at Monmouth; he finishes 2nd to the chalk at 22-1, pushing my bankroll up to $236 and about 20th in the contest.

But the fat lady could have started warming up right then. I couldn't pull the trigger on anything in 11WO, which was just as well because I never would have had the 31-1 bomber Paidrag. (Apparently at least one of my rivals did, as the leading bankroll went from ~$1K to ~$4K after that race.) This left only the Monmouth finale, a grim bottom-of-the-barrel heat, to make or break my day.

I went all-in (that's right, $236W) on Mo's Mini Skirt, a first-time starter that took a little early money before drifting up to 5-1. She showed some early speed but weakened to finish 4th, so I was out the door with $0.

Putting aside the merits of Mo's Mini Skirt specifically (of which there were precious few), that last-race situation I found myself in re-raised a question I continue to struggle with as a handicapping contest player: is there ever a time when you should fold 'em and go home with a couple hundred bucks? Or do you keep swinging until the bell rings, whether or not you like a horse, on the premise that late-contest swings don't grow on trees and must be seized?

I lean towards the latter, and my track record supports this -- I can't remember the last contest I went home with unused bullets. But is this the right strategy? Something about putting down $236, or more than 10x my average bet earlier in the contest, while holding my nose in that finale today struck me as absurd -- it just flies in the face of ROI principles that would dictate picking your spots. Would it have been wiser to tuck the $236 in my wallet to deploy for another day?

I don't think there's an easy answer in this debate -- if I walk away and my erstwhile selection loses, I made a great call, but if he wins, I'm a dunce. And vice versa if I go for it. Vexing, but also part of the beauty of handicapping contests, in my view.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Treasure Island or Bust? Naah...

Earlier this week I was jolted by the news that the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is moving its act from Red Rock Casino Resort to Treasure Island. This is effective immediately, i.e. for the January 2012 NHC, which will just so happen to coincide with my (planned) first NHC appearance.

What!??!?!? After all the work I've done in creating and building up the Red Rock or Bust blog, they go and change the name without even consulting me? So I proceeded to sink into a deep depression, emerging from my darkened, shades-drawn bedroom only for a sandwich run over to the Big M for delipalooza, where I ran into NJHorseplayer dot com.

After that pick-me-up I pondered my options and proceeded to conduct exhaustive market research and focus groups regarding Red Rock or Bust. I was pleased to learn that my blog has built such a strong name-brand value that it transcends the name brand of the NHC, and even the NTRA and DRF themselves! So I have decided to stand pat.

(Actually I'm just too lazy to change the name of my blog, but I thought it would be fun to tell this tall tale.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Whad up wit dat? The future of Monmouth Park (Part II)

Is it me or is there a disconnect between reality and Monmouth Park's posted racing dates?

Earlier this weekend I caught this interview of Jeff Gural, the prospective white knight of the Meadowlands. I was impressed by the dude -- seems like he knows his stuff, he is ready to make sweeping changes at the Big M, and at the same time he came across as very realistic and pragmatic about the whole situation (I was struck by his "I don't mind losing $10 or $12 million for 18 or 19 months" quote). Gural has been in the picture for about three and a half months from what I understand, he has arranged $100 million funding, and he is now in the nitty-gritty phase of dealing with the unions.

So, sounds pretty far along and promising, and they're still saying best-case scenario is for racing to resume at the Big M by June or July.

Meanwhile, Monmouth Park is still soliciting bids through the end of the month, "prior to the due diligence process"! And Monmouth is planning to open its meet on Saturday, May 14?

What happens if all bidders (eight so far, from what I have read) decide to not move forward beyond their initial interest? What if the erstwhile bidder isn't qualified or cannot reach agreement? What if something falls apart during due diligence? Even let's say best case, something moves forward, how long will due diligence take? Monmouth Park ain't no lemonade stand -- any entity considering sinking millions into the track and operating it for a five-year period is going to want to make sure everything is right.

Add it all up and unless I'm missing something here, simulcast signals will be the only racing seen and heard at Monmouth Park on May 14. I suspect there will be some semblance of a Monmouth meet this year, but I'd guess it will some abbreviated job, perhaps starting around July 4 or maybe even a few-week deal centered around the Haskell.

Maybe I'm just Gloomy Gus, but I think no live racing at Monmouth this year is a more likely outcome than starting on May 14.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It Was a Very Good Day

Proving that reports of my demise as a competitive handicapping contest player were greatly exaggerated, I placed 2nd of 262 in yesterday's Simulcast Series Challenge #3 at Monmouth Park.

The wager-by-wager recap:

1. GP1, $5WP Vini Vidi Vinci. I thought Brad's Kitten was a bad even-money favorite, plus trainer Tammy Domenosky had won within the previous day or two, so the trainer recency angle was a factor. But apparently the Latin translation of Vini Vidi Vinci is "I came, I saw, I didn't lift a hoof." $100 starting bankroll down to $90.

2. Tam5, $10WP Who is Lady. Trainer-recency angle plus odds-bounce angle at work here, as Derek Ryan had recently won and Who Is Lady took substantial early money before drifting up to 9-1, near her ML. I figured the double angle warranted a double bet, and lo and behold WIL went to the front and held on, ending my 26-race schneid in live contests. Bankroll: $209.

3. Tam7, $10W Doctor Carina. The 6-5 chalk looked vulnerable to me, and 9-2 seemed like a reasonable price to speculate that trainer Thomas Proctor would have Doctor Carina ready to run off a long layoff. But as they say, even the best laid plans of mice and men go awry: chalk wins, DC does nothing. Bankroll: $199.

4. GP7, $10W Mongoose Gold. Another Tammy Domenosky horse -- this was pretty dicey but at 20-1, I thought it was worth a shot. No dice. Bankroll: $189. (Aside: Domenosky won a later race with a 6-1 horse, but I had given up on her by then and passed.)

5. Tam7, $20W Doubles Partner. I usually turn up my nose at 2-1 horses, especially in 10-horse fields, but this Todd Pletcher horse looked like a standout to me. Julien Leparoux gave me more anxious moments than one should have with a solid chalk, but he does have impeccable timing and ice water in his veins, as he managed to get up by a neck in a blanket finish. Bankroll: $235.

6. GP8, $20W Sligovitz. I had a hunch this horse was live at 10-1, and sure enough he was, though due to a wide trip and a bland ride by an over-the-hill Edgar Prado he only managed 2nd. "Shoulda" done a WP bet on this rather than just straight W. Bankroll: $215.

7. Tam8, $10W Bay of Wicklow. Crazy odds bounce on this one, as he was 1-1 in the first click I saw before drifting (and drifting and drifting) up to 27-1 (!). Alas, he ran like a 27-1 shot (dead last). Bankroll: $205.

8. Aqu9, $10W Roman Treasure. This Hushion-Hill horse looked like the speed of the speed, and I thought he was decent value at 5-1. But he had to duel early and faded to 4th. Bankroll: $195.

9. 11Tam, $50W$20P Nehalennia. I had seen Graham Motion win with so-so looking horses off layoffs too many times in my day to pass on this one at double-digit odds (went off at 17-1). I dug this horse a bunch, and she validated by faith by running a nice second. Bummer that I missed the win, but I was glad I got a few shekels back and very glad I scaled back from my original bet of $100W. Bankroll: $277, and it was now crunch time with just 3 contest races left.

10. 10Aqu, $70W Missysmoonlitmagic. Thought the 2-5 Linda Rice chalk was worth a bet-against, so I landed on Missys -- more of a hunch play than anything else really. She ran a creditable 3rd, but that didn't do me any favors. Bankroll: $207.

11. 12Tam, $50W Double Revival. I saw a trainer recency angle with Anthony Pecoraro in this bottom-basement race, and 16-1 was plenty of price. But trainer recency, trainer schmecency I guess, as Double Revival ran a non-threatening 5th. Bankroll: $157.

12. 11GP, $150W Rules of Honor. In 16th place with one bullet left, it was time to hang some fire, and lo and behold Rules of Honor came though at 9-2. This race went off while 12Tam was still going, so things were a bit frenetic, but once I saw Double Revival spinning his wheels I turned my attention to GP, where I was thrilled to see Kent (The Kid) Desormeaux work out a nice trouble-free, ground-saving trip, swing wide into the lane and win fairly easily. Final bankroll: $862, good for 2nd place.

Everything went right for me in this contest, really. I believe to do well in any given contest you need to have at least some measure of three things on your side: good race handicapping, savvy contest strategy, and Lady Luck.

I picked some live horses over the course of the afternoon, so check on good race handicapping. I was 4-for-12 in my bets (though one winner was just 2-1 and another was just the P of a WP bet), a .333 batting average I will take any day. And I did everything right with regard to executing my contest strategy: I was patient, I kept the total number of my bets down, I allocated the capital I had late in the afternoon to maximize my number of swings (I got three good swings out of $277), and I was not afraid to lose.

And I am the first to admit that I got freaking lucky with Rules of Honor. I didn't especially like him -- he was reasonably plausible, but at just 9-2 in an 11-horse field, he wasnt a big value play by any means. In fact, when there were three contest races left, I even said aloud to NJ Horseplayer dot com that I was thinking of betting the Aqueduct and Tampa finales, but not Gulfstream -- that was how tepidly I felt about the race. But when my Aqu and Tam shots failed, I needed to do something at GP -- I looked up at the screen and saw Rules of Honor warming up and I thought damn he looks good. So with that five-second body language read and a just-decent-enough price, I went all in.

I was very gratified with the result, but I'm not getting too high/full of myself about it, just like I tried to not get too down and discouraged about my recent drought. I'm not as good as I was yesterday, and I'm not as bad as 0-26; I'm somewhere in between with plenty of room for improvement.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Whad up wit dat? The future of Monmouth Park

We interrupt this regularly scheduled handicapping contest blog to shout out "whad up wit dat" regarding the future of Monmouth Park. reported that the powers-that-be are looking for a lessee for Monmouth Park, but only if they run 141 days. In other words, sure you can come in and run the track, but only if you return to the pre-2010 model that the track itself acknowledged wasn't working: modest purses that barely keep up with slots-fueled competition elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, tired five-horse fields running in front of 3,000 people on summer weekdays, tumbleweed after Labor Day, etc. Blech.

And I reckon a 141-day meet would be even worse than 2009. How could anyone get excited for ~$325,000 in daily purses after they were one mil last summer? Hamburger Helper isn't terrible thing by itself, but when you go from Hamburger Helper to a real burger back to Hamburger Helper...ugh. Plus, NYRA is on the upswing with its slots thingamajig coming up, so wave goodbye to Todd Pletcher's 'A' and 'B' teams and to John Velazquez and Garrett Gomez, say hello to Pletcher's 'C' team and Felix Ortiz and Luis Rivera.

Unless I'm missing something here, good luck in finding a lessee who will sign on with the 141-day stipulation.

Would you lease a retail store if you had to stay open 16 hours a day in February?

Would you lease a boardwalk concession stand if you had to stay open until November?

Would you lease a church if you had to hold service on Tuesday afternoons?

(OK that last one doesn't really make sense, but it's been a long week, cut me some slack.)

You get the point.

I think the horsemen who are now saying a 141-day meet is "etched in stone" will be ready to compromise if and when there are no qualified bids and they are faced with a 0-day meet.

And now back to our regularly scheduled handicapping contest blog.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What is My Edge?

I went to Monmouth Park a couple times early last summer. I stayed for full cards and I watched the toteboard, post parade and races closely.

From those couple days I came away with a three-horse watchlist: Lucky Evening, who took early money in his debut for no apparent reason and made a decent rail rally to finish midpack; Bella D'Oro, who had some sort of jock/equipment issue for a few strides out of the gate and lost all chance; and Farmer Jones, who took early money in his debut but then acted up before loading in the gate and didn't do much running at all.
Bella D'Oro and Farmer Jones came back to each run solid seconds at about 10-1 or 12-1, and then subsequently win at chalky odds. Lucky Evening didn't pan out at all, and last I saw he was running for $5K at Penn National.

My point is not to rehash specifics about those eight-month-old races or to say I'm still looking out for the horses to run back; rather, my point is that I believe my analysis of those race days gave me some live horses to come back with (as Meat Loaf sang, two out of three ain't bad). In other words, my analysis gave me an edge.

Having an edge is absolutely critical for a horseplayer to have any chance of making money or even breaking even on a consistent basis in this high-takeout game. Having an edge also means everything in determining success in handicapping contests, in which the waters are deep and competition is stiff.

I think all successful handicapping contest players have some sort of an edge. Hesham Regab, who won the Aqueduct handicapping contest in November, cited horse physicality. Tom Noone, who won the 2010 NHC Tour, said parsing race conditions is a big value-add. And 2011 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship winner John Doyle is a professional horseplayer, so it's reasonable to assume he has an edge somewhere.

So in this winter of my discontent (and amid a vicious 0-for-18 schneid in handicapping contest races spanning two live days, Nov. 14 and Jan. 15), I have been pondering an existential question: what is my edge?

As evidenced by my opening anecdote, I truly believe I am good at ferreting out important pieces of information by closely watching the toteboard, post parade and the races. And when I say information, I'm talking stuff that others don't see and that doesn't show up in the PPs.

However, I do not follow the races anywhere close to regularly enough for this to be a consistent edge, so the best I can do here is catch-as-catch-can and try to find stuff here and there.

In the absence of a steady pipeline of watchlist horses, I often fall back on angles, or shortcuts. A few of these angles are:

1. In certain situations, when a horse takes early money inexplicably and then drifts up to near its morning line odds.
2. Following lower-profile trainers who have won or come close in the previous 24-48 hours.
3. Extrapolating subtly bad trips in the absence of watching replays, e.g. if a horse had an outside post in a turf race and ran just a few lengths behind a slow pace for much of the race.

As is the case with any angle in horse racing, sometimes these work and sometimes they don't. But I think angles such as these are the next best thing to having a legitimate, hard-earned edge based on following the races closely and consistently over time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


In my view, much of what determines success or failure in handicapping contests comes down to the delicate balance between boldness and conservatism. The push and the pull.

The ultimate aggressive move would be laying down your entire bankroll on a price play in the first contest race. The ultimate in conservatism would be making minimum-bet plays on favorites throughout the card. The first approach could win you a contest once in a blue moon, but most days it would have you broke and out the door at 1:05 p.m. The second tack could have you on the fringe of contention sometimes, and likely would get you at least some of your bankroll back at the end of real-money contests, but realistically it would never win you anything.

Of course, neither of those strategies is optimal; like most things in life, the way, the truth, and the light lie somewhere in between.

I've had a number of contest also-ran finishes over the years that I attribute at least partly to being overly aggressive -- either making a big bet early on or too quickly squandering a leaderboard position with substantial bets. I don't recall ever kicking myself afterwards for being too conservative, which I believe would sting more than being too bold.

But the challenge, and the beauty, of finding the sweet spot on the safety-risk spectrum is that it is a moving target, and you don't know where the sweet spot was until after the Official sign lights on the toteboard after the final contest race. If the chalk won a bunch of races on a given day, conservatism was rewarded, whereas risk takers won if there were prices. Similarly, you don't know which of your selections will win beforehand, so having only $10 on that 15-1 winner looks pretty pansy-ass at the end of a losing day, while putting $150 on a 15-1 loser would probably seem foolish and overly risky in retrospect.

In my view, a contest player's best approach is to operate within a band of the safety-risk spectrum and be ready and willing to adjust on the fly. So say on a scale of 1-10, 1 is super conservative and 10 is as ballsy as you can get. I like to think I operate in about the 6-to-7.5 range on balance, and I'm willing to go anywhere from 1 (when capital preservation is needed) to 10 (when a Hail Mary is my only hope).

One application of this may come in this Saturday's Simulcast Series Challenge #1 at Monmouth Park. From what I understand the only rule change is that the top 15 finishers qualify for the invitational tourney in April, up from 10 last year. I think this may make many players a bit more conservative, simply because you don't got's to do as good to come in 15th place as you do 10th place. Based on that theory, I may decide to up my risk taking, because as Warren Buffett says, be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.

But we'll see, it will be an on-the-fly call, and of course I have to pick some winners for any of this mumbo jumbo to matter a hill of beans.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 Kickoff

I am participating -- kind of -- in the 2011 NHC Online Kickoff Challenge, set for tomorrow, Sunday January 2.

I say "kind of" because I only scanned the PPs as the basis for my submitted picks, and most likely I will make no additional effort tomorrow beyond checking to see if any of my picks are early scratches.

My tepid interest can be attributed to a few factors:

(1) In general, I'm not a big fan of online contests. Not only do they lack the competitive 'feel' of live events, but many online events are so big that placing in them is akin to winning the lottery. Online contests often have ~800 participants, which means that a very very good day will most likely be not good enough, you need to have a transcendent day. I prefer contests where a very very good day is rewarded.

Don't get me wrong, online contests do send people to Vegas, so it's worth tossing my hat into the ring. Maybe one of these days my lottery number will come in.

(2) As a semi-regular, semi-serious horseplayer, I typically am in a dormant phase from around Breeders Cup to mid- to late-January or thereabouts. Being that I haven't really been following the sport, I'm kidding myself if I think I'm gonna jump in cold and add value in trying to pick a winner in the $5K claimer at Fair Grounds.

(3) NFL is on tomorrow. 'nuff said.

I've circled Saturday, Jan. 15 on my calendar for my first real contest endeavour of 2011. In the meantime, my picks tomorrow are as follows:

Race 1 / (2) Manchild
Race 2 / (10) La Belle Gabrielle
Race 3 / (3) Rightuplynn'salley
Race 4 / (9) Roaring Belle
Race 5 / (1) D'oro Princess
Race 6 / (5) Devil's Hammock
Race 7 / (8) Cajun Sky
Race 8 / (6) Devils Afleet
Race 9 / (3) Thunder Chop
Race 10 / (2) Matamor

Good luck!