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!