Thursday, November 1, 2012

Want a FREE* $375,000?

Steve Martin had an old stand-up routine that started with
"You can have a million dollars and never pay taxes.
You say to yourself, Steve (which is a funny thing to say to yourself), how can I have a million dollars and never pay taxes?
First, get a million dollars..."

In that spirit, I invite (some of) you to participate in the Red Rock or Bust/HorseTourneys Free* Breeders' Cup Handicapping Contest, which could result in you winning $750,000 (and bringing home $375,000) in the DRF/NTRA 2013 National Handicapping Championship, to be held in Las Vegas in January.  

Here are the specs:

Contest is open to all NHC Tour members who have not yet qualified for 2013 NHC.

Minimum five players.

You must make your selections in the comments section of this blog post by 2:00 PM Eastern time on Saturday, November 3.

This is a bit of a freeform contest -- simply submit your best six plays (plays=single horses) from Saturday's nine BC races, specifying one of the six as a best bet, and one of the six as an alternate.
The horses may be from any BC Saturday race. You may select more than one from the same race.

Each player gets a notional $4WP bet on his/her best bet, and $2WP on each of his/her other four non-alternate selections. The alternate will only be used in the event of a scratch and will always be a $2WP bet -- if your best bet is scratched, the first selection after the best bet will move up to be the best bet. In the event of more than one scratch, the post-time favorite will be used after the alternate.
If a best bet and/or alternate is not specified, the first horse listed will be the best bet, and the last horse will be the alternate.(This contest is really simpler than I'm making it out to be, I'm just trying to cover all bases.)

It's BC day, so let's go with high payout caps -- $75 to win ($150 for best bet) and $30 to place ($60 for best bet).

The winner gets a credit to an upcoming $30 HorseTourneys contest (thanks to HorseTourneys for generously providing this purse). The credit must be used soon, as there aren't many weeks left to qualify for 2013 NHC, especially via HorseTourneys.

If the winner advances to a $140 HorseTourneys contest through the $30 event (1/5 chance), and advances to 2013 NHC via the $140 event (1/60), my oh my won't that be a good story. And it gets better, as the final rule of Saturday's contest is that if the winner of Saturday's RRoB/HT contest gets to the 2013 NHC via this path and goes on to win the 2013 NHC (1/450ish chance), the winner must donate half of the pot (which is $750K I believe) to charity (seriously -- hence the $375K in the headline). Honor system.
So say we get five players on Saturday, add it all up and each player has a (1/5)*(1/5)*(1/60)*(1/450ish) chance of winning the NHC via this path.

That may be microscopic but it's a lot better than the 0% chance you have if you don't play. Good luck!  

*This opportunity is "free" for those who have paid $50 to join the NHC Tour, so in good faith I had to asterisk the word.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rich Nilsen Wins Red Rock or Bust Handicapping Contest

Rich Nilsen parlayed winning selections of Flashy American at 8-1 and Alaura Michele at 6-1 to win Red Rock or Bust's inaugural handicapping contest, which was held on Sunday, July 29.

Rich wins $20 for his troubles. Rich has already qualified for the 2013 NHC so he won't be winning it all via the very nontraditional Red Rock or Bust route, but he reports he will pass along the 20-spot for his wife Marta to take a crack at a preliminary NHC feeder in the near future. They will keep us updated regarding progress (or lack thereof).

The official final standings are:

FunkyMonkey 38.00
Donna 37.30
NjHorseplayer 23.90
Steve S. 11.30

Rich, who calls Tarpon Springs, Florida home, was previously profiled on Red Rock or Bust. He has qualified for the NHC nine times in the past and is the only person to finish in the top 10 twice, but he reported than winning Sunday's Red Rock or Bust contest was hands-down the highlight of his handicapping career (okay he didn't really say that, but he might be thinking it).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Announcing Red Rock or Bust's Free Handicapping Contest!

I'm off the handicapping contest trail this weekend but I wanted to try something different and play contest venue rather than player.

So I invite all NHC Tour members to play Red Rock or Bust's free handicapping contest.

Here are the rules:

-By 12 noon on Sunday July 29, post in the comments section your picks for each of the 11 Saratoga races to be run on Sunday July 29. One horse per race, $2WP notional bankroll, pick-and-pray format, you get the favorite in the event of a scratch, payouts capped at $50 for win and $20 for place.
-Minimum 3 players.
-Submit your picks as cleanly as possible, with numbers only, no names.
-The winner wins $20 (I will mail it to you).
-The winner must then use that $20 to enter a NHC prelim feeder event in the near future. (honor system)
-Hopefully you will qualify for a NHC qualifying contest via that NHC prelim feeder.
-If you do, hopefully you will qualify for the NHC via that NHC qualifying contest (OK, we're at about a 1/500 chance here, but stranger things have happened.)
-If you do qualify for the NHC via this route, and you just happen to win the NHC (can you say 1/250,000 chance?), you must give half your winnings to charity (honor system).(seriously).

Good luck!

Friday, July 20, 2012

What's an NHC Seat Worth?

As a National Handicapping Championship aspirant, I've sometimes wondered what exactly is the value of this thing I'm chasing. I've seen various assertions of a seat's value, but generally they are unsupported and thereby unsatisfying, so I thought I'd take a closer look and crunch some numbers myself.

I'll start with the premise that the economic value of a NHC seat is simply the amount of the total pot divided by the number of players, which from what I understand is $1.5 million/500=$3,000.

But cites the value of an NHC seat at $6,500. When I asked McKay Smith about this via e-mail, he said

"That's exactly what we pay the NTRA per seat. That's the standard pricing for the online sites that are authorized to move NHC spots, such as ourselves, NHCQualify and Twinspires."

I then asked Michele Ravencraft of NTRA. She replied:

"NTRA members pay $3333 per seat and non-members pay $6500 per seat. Most qualifiers also receive free airfare and hotel in Las Vegas.

The value of a seat to a player is a more difficult to measure. Unlike the World Series of Poker, where anyone can buy a seat for $10,000, a spot in the NHC must be earned through successful participation in a qualifying tourney. To some, a seat is priceless. To others, it may be an investment of a certain amount of dollars over the course of a year in an attempt to qualify. It varies by individual."

When I followed up and asked about the discrepancy between my calculation of the economic value of the seat ($3K) and the $3333 and $6500 numbers, her reply was:

"There will be between 450-475 participants. More than 50 of those seats will be comped (part of the NTRA Tour, sponsorship agreements, etc.). NTRA pays for the airfare and hotel of the majority of qualifiers."

I appreciated the responses and the helpful information but I take any $6-7K estimates of a seat's value with a boulder of salt. That may be what an online site pays the NTRA, but that's a different animal than the value to the end player, which bottom-line remains an economic value, or $3,158-$3,333 based on the 450-475 player range NTRA told me. That begs the question of where exactly the additional money goes and where is the transparency, but I didn't expect answers to those questions so we'll call them rhetorical.

What does all this pontificating mean? Well for the Joe Average NHC Tour players such as myself, some of the effective 'take' numbers for online contests aren't pretty.

For example, the July 22 NHC qualifier has a $195 ante -- 4 of 200 players qualify for Vegas (which includes hotel but not airfare), and 20 players receive $195 credit. Assuming a $3,333 economic value of an NHC seat and $500 for hotel, by my calculations the base economic value of an entry to the HorseTourneys event is $96.16 (total pot of [($3,333 + 500)* 4] + ($195 *20) = $19,232, divided by total number of players, 200).

There is some but not much economic value to NHC Tour points that are awarded to the top 10% of finishers; I'll be generous and bump up my estimated economic value of a HorseTourneys entry by about 10% to $105. Even so, a $105 economic value on a $195 ante implies a takeout rate of 46% -- yeesh.

The input numbers at are different, but notably the output (takeout rate) is virtually identical. $160 ante, 300 entrants, 5 NHC seats plus hotel and airfare, 12 players win back $160 credit. Estimating the value of airfare at $500, The total pot is [($3,333+$1,000)*5] + ($160*12) = $23,585, and the base economic value is the total pot of $23,585 divided by 300 players, or $78.62. Bump it up by 10% for NHC Tour points and we get an estimated economic value of $87; apply that to the $160 buy-in and you get a 46% take. Again, yeesh. That 46% is two to three times typical takeout rates on standard wagering at your friendly neighborhood racetrack!

I'm not criticizing HorseTourneys or NHCQualify, both of which are sites I like, have used and will use again. The grimness of their takeout numbers seems to be a function of the NTRA's $6,500 per-seat charge, which is just way out of wack with the economic value of a seat.

So what's an NHC aspirant to do? Well for starters, it helps to be aware of some of these numbers. I know there is a cache and brass-ring aspect to the NHC quest, and a (however remote) chance of a life-changing score, and this has a certain (yet indeterminate) premium. But in my view there is a general lack of transparency with some of this contest stuff for the ~99.9% of players who won't win the NHC, so buyer beware for sure.

Live contests can be great value (as I blogged about recently, the NYRA essentially gives away NHC seats, not to mention lunch and beer, for free). HorseTourneys' feeder games are economical and can work out great from an ROI perspective, provided of course you can 'feed through' to an NHC-qualifying game for less than the price of an NHC-qualifying game. For non-NHC online games, DerbyWars' take is usually about 13% and can be lower or even negative if games don't fill.

I was kind of vaguely aware that some NHC contests were tough propositions on an ROI basis, so hitting out to the numbers opened my eyes some but it didn't shock me. I'll still dabble in HorseTourneys and NHCQualify, especially for the rest of this year given I'm chasing NHC Tour points and I have sunk costs involved in that quest. But going forward into next year, I'll try to be more discerning regarding contest costs, and adjust my play accordingly.

And I'll also hope NTRA improves the value proposition offered to NHC Tour players.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chinua Achebe Was Right

Things do fall apart.

Rewind to 3:52 pm this past Sunday, when Bob Can't Jump drew alongside Strasbourg at the top of the lane in the 7th race at Churchill Downs, and looked like he would go by. The 6-1 Steve Margolis trainee would be my 2nd reasonably priced score of the day, and with five (5) winners under my belt from Saturday, it would firm up my top-5 position in the Belmont handicapping contest. With five bullets (bets) left including my double, a top-20 finish felt pretty safe, top-10 was very doable, and top 3 was within reach. Blue skies ahead!

But Bob Can't Jump couldn't get by the chalk. I didn't realize it at the time, but the turn-back proved to be a seminal moment for me in the contest, as it touched off a rapid late-day swoon that ended in a very disappointing 32nd-place finish.

After Bob Can't Jump proved he can't win either, there were 12 contest races remaining: 8-10 at CD, 7-10 at Belmont, and 8-12 at Monmouth. My experience went as follows:

4:07 p.m., 7Bel: I went with Winged Venus (10-1) to win based on a very wide last-out trip and the fact that trainer Badgett had won earlier in the weekend. She had another wide trip and did nothing at all, finishing next to last; 5-2 chalk Speedy's Gal won the race. Four bets left, including double.

4:15, 8Mth: Didn't have much of an opinion and no real harm done when 2nd choice Lucky James ($9.20) won.

4:22, 8CD: I went with Bluegrass Shoes at 18-1 on the premise that trainer Sharon Ritter won a race on Saturday and some fundamental things to like, such as a Bluegrass Cat progeny getting more distance. Bluegrass Shoes flashed some speed but others did too, and he was cooked by mid-turn and finished 7th. Much worse than my loss was Halon winning at 16-1. Ouch -- in retrospect the horse wasn't a total throwout but he was tough to like with any confidence. The loss left me down to three bets left including double.

4:39, 8Bel: I was skeptical of the 3-5 Baffert chalk but ultimately didn't bet the race. I probably would have bet Lemon Splendor, who finished up the track at 10-1, but in retrospect, $12.60 Beautiful but Blue was very playable and not a bad price either.

4:46, 9Mth: I was rewarded for having no opinion when 6-5 Catalan beat 6-1 Poppa's Pick by a nose. Bonus entertainment value in watching some guy who apparently had Poppa's Pick celebrate when they hit the wire only to slump his shoulders in defeat when they posted the numbers. (Schadenfreude baby!)

4:51, 9CD: The wheels really started to come off the bus when 18-1 Gaelico went wire-to-wire amid plenty of hootin' and hollerin' around me. I liked Splendiferous but I didn't like his 9-2 price, so I passed on the race. At 18-1 Gaelico was no slam dunk of course, but in retrospect, the War Front colt/Dale Romans drop-down from MdSpWt was a playable longshot.

5:13, 9Bel: I was again skeptical of the Baffert chalk but I just couldn't get behind anyone else, so I passed on the race. 1-2 Brigand did in fact lose, but 5-2 second choice Willy Beamin won, so no real harm done.

5:20, 10Mth: I liked Cheer N Shout a bit at 5-1, but not enough to bet. South Beach Hottie won the race at a $27.80 mutuel, but the room was way quieter than when other longshots won which leads me to believe that few if any folks had this one. I suspect Shannon Uske isn't a preferred jockey among handicapping contest players.

5:23, 10CD: Man the CD late pick 3 killed me. I went with Shot an a Goal (8-1 ML, off at 24-1) based on trainer Michael Tomlinson having won Saturday's finale, plus stuff like a recent bullet workout and a drop from MdSpWt. But unlike Gaelico, this dropper didn't do much of anything, and American Legend won at 12-1. The winner was OK, a Wayne Catalano firster by Smart Strike, but not an especially compelling play, so I can't lament missing it. Down to two bets including double -- this is starting to suck.

5:48, 10Bel: Played my precious double bet on Sasta Go Lucky at 8-1 based on a no-chance trip in her previous race and just a hunch that Rosie Napravnik would bounce back off a tough weekend with a win in a cheapie claimer. SGL ran decently and was coming on strong at the end but too little too late, as she only managed 3rd. I did not like $19.40 winner Jolienne, but apparently numerous others did.

At this point with only Mth11 and 12 left in the contest and only one bet left, I was in 21st place and a minor award was my ceiling. I was in a bit of a tizzy from the previous two hours and the last westbound LIRR train was leaving shortly, so...

5:53, 11Mth: ...I made my worst bet of the weekend when I expended my last notional $20 on Harbor Breeze, who ran well but lost by a neck. The bet wasn't bad because it lost, but rather because Harbor Breeze was only 7-2 (4-1 when I bet it), which would have done me no good at all -- the $98 I would have 'won' would have moved me up a meaningless 6 spots to 26th place. This was really indefensible, inexplicable and just plain stupid, but...

6:17, 12Mth:...I was saved from my own idiocy when my erstwhile selection Simeona ran 2nd at 8-1. A winning $20 bet would have meant another $198 and 14th place -- not great, but good for my money back and then some, plus some glory. So I totes should have bet Simeona rather than Harbor Breeze, but no harm done, luckily. 16-1 winner Black Ana Splash was at least a little playable in retrospect, and she would have jumped me up to 6th place, but I highly doubt I would have landed on her had I stayed.

Michael Emanuele did land on Back Ana Splash, with his double no less, so congratulations to him. NYRA reports it was his first-ever handicapping contest, wow that is remarkable, also kind of depressing for grizzled vets like myself who have never won such a big event.

I've been stewing not just due to losing, but because I had an out-of-my-head day on Saturday, that went 100% for naught. I had five winners, 3-1 (Sailmate, 7Bel), 5-1 (Rogue, 5Mth), 6-1 (Zo Impressive, 10Bel), 7-1 (Attractive Ride, 2CD), and 9-1 (Bailey Park, 6Bel), and I was in position to take down the $1,500 first-day prize when 11-1 Seal Rock made the front at the 3/4 mark in the CD finale. Admittedly I was lucky, as Sailmate won by a nostril hair, and Bailey Park most likely would have been beaten had the chalk not tragically broke down in the stretch. But 5-for-10 days don't grow on trees, so it's difficult to have one and have it mean nothing.

A few other observations:
-I did materially more prep work for Saturday than I did for Sunday, and Sat night/Sun morning I looked at Sunday's earlier races more closely than the later races. Did this cost me? Maybe. In the past there hasn't been a clear positive correlation between the amount of my night-before prep and my contest results, so maybe it was just random chance that my worst stretch was the races I was least prepared for. And looking back, the only real shoulda-bet I can point to is Beautiful but Blue in 8Bel, but the $126 would have only bumped me up to 21st place. I miiiiiiiiight have landed on Gaelico had I studied that race more, but that's very speculative.

-My divergent results in lower-priced versus higher-priced plays was remarkable. With horses less than 10-1, I won 6 of 13 bets, with a couple close-call losers. With horses 10-1 or more, I went 0-for-7, with a distant third pitifully the best of the bunch. I like big prices and I think I'm decent at finding them, but geez Louise I couldn't buy a double-digit odds winner in this contest, and ultimately this was the difference between finishing in the top 20 and not doing so.

-Kudos to NYRA for hosting an excellent contest. The Bel and Aqu events are my favorite contests, as they're the best value I'm aware of (essentially a negative take, as all entry fees are paid out in prize money and they give away NHC seats and lunch), plus the price point is reasonable, the format is good, the venue is comfortable, and the vibe is fun.

-It was good to meet fellow contestants Steve Fitzpatrick and Scott Carson (Public Handicapper founder). It was also good to see Arjune Harripersaud finish 2nd -- as a young guy on a computer, he certainly breaks the mold of the New York contest archetype, which remains a 60-ish guy who's corpulent, sartorially substandard, and verbally communicative at unnecessarily high decibel levels.

Oh well, onward and upward as they say. Or maybe just onward.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Some Points About Points

I've been an NHC Tour member for four years now, for reasons such as a T-shirt, eligibility for the annual National Handicapping Championship (that hasn't come in handy for me yet), and of course the glamour and glory of it all.

During this time period I have also been vaguely aware of the existence of something called NHC Tour points. While I imagine I finished 1,791st or the like on at least one year's point scorecard, if only for my good looks, I always figured points were for the real hardcore NHC guys, you know the ones who show up in most online contests with two or even three entries, and who fly around to live events. I'm not that good of a handicapping contest player and I don't have the capacity to be more than a semi-regular contest player, so   I've always felt like the 15-1 shot in the points race, going up against top outfits with multiple-horse entries and 8-5 morning lines.

But some fringe success (a very lucky 10th place in an online free-for-all, 27th place in a full-field NHCQualify, and 12th-place finishes in a game and a recent Monmouth live event) so far this year has me at 2,816 points, good for 56th-place in the points standings. Given that the top 100 points finishers at year-end are guaranteed spots in the NHC, I've come 'round to the notion that this may be a viable way to punch my ticket.

Full rules of the NHC Points competition are here, but the important details are: Top 10 in first-half points and second-half points win cash prizes, Top 20 in full-year points win cash prizes, and Top 100 at year-end go to Vegas. Half-year points are awarded based on a player's top 4 finishes, one of which must be from a live event; full-year points are awarded based on a player's top 6 finishes, one of which must be from a live event.  

I'm not concerning myself with the Top 10/20 stuff, at least at this juncture, as I concede that turf to the Ken Seemans, Paul Shurmans and Sally Goodalls of the world. But last year's 100th-place points finisher, Donald McNeil, had 4,309 points, which is certainly within striking distance of my 2,816.

Of course, I'll need to do better. Four point placings is pretty solid for a semi-regular player at midyear, but 10th, 12th, 12th, and 27th ain't exactly the stuff of greatness, either. I reckon I need at least one Top-10 finish to give me a real chance at year-end.

Of course I'm hoping for a Top 3, 2, or 1 contest finish that would get me to Vegas by itself and make this points discussion moot, but until then, I'll be tracking the standings.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

DerbyWars Steps Up in Class has been a welcome addition to the online handicapping contest landscape since its launch last year. For the most part I agree with the plaudits previously offered by fellow racing bloggers including Equinometry and NJHorseplayer; I won't offer my own detailed review, but suffice it to say I like DerbyWars quite a bit, mostly for its clean and streamlined functionality, lower takeout rates vis-a-vis standard wagering at the track, and wide variety of games offered. My only real quibble is that they distribute prize money a bit too evenly for my tastes, i.e. the payout structures don't reward the top finishers as much as they should.

DerbyWars is now raising the stakes considerably by offering a $25k "Monthly Shootout," the first of which will take place this Saturday, March 10. I say raising the stakes because up until now, I've considered DerbyWars as a niche player in the handicapping contest space -- lots of contests, but smaller contests, some with as few as 2 or 4 players, and antes as low as $4 to $6. Their weekend "Big Games" typically have had antes in the $25-$40 range, with $1k-$5k pots. DW did offer a handful of NHC seats through contests last fall, but otherwise they've been going after smaller-bankrolled players who are looking for a little action. So in my view they haven't really been competing directly with the NHCQualify.coms and HorseTourneys.coms of the world, whose games involve $100-$400 antes and NHC spots, or smaller antes and feeder routes to the NHC.

The DW Monthly Shootout will have a $175 ante, with the winner collecting $10k. They seem to be doing well generating buzz and interest, as the contest is already 68/165 filled as of Sunday morning March 4, six days before the event. But can DerbyWars compete on an ongoing basis at this higher weight class?

In my opinion, the answer is a qualified yes. DerbyWars has done a good job getting its name out there, and the site itself is better than their sometimes-clunky competitors. Additionally, DW is probably the most nimble and customer-service-oriented online contest venue out there, so it's reasonable to assume they have a good pulse of the market and their read that there is a demand for this bigger game is correct.

However, my reservation about DW's step up in class pertains to the lack of an NHC tie-in. The NHC is the Holy Grail for this contest player (and I assume many others), and given the unfortunate reality that contest-playing can be an expensive hobby, I'm not super keen on allocating significant dollars to anything without the NHC on the other side of the rainbow. I won about $3,150 net on racing in 2011 (my first plus year in a while), but I'm already down $1,300 in 2012; in an ideal world I'd already be qualified for NHC2013 and would be much more inclined to play a $175 non-NHC game, but for the time being I don't see myself putting up that ante. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to play the Shoot Out and I may well try a smaller DW game that offers a qualifying spot, but $175 for a non-NHC game is a bit rich for my blood.

Add it all up and I think DerbyWars can pull off these bigger games, but they'll have to pick their spots carefully and minimize direct competition with NHC events. To firmly establish themselves in this higher weight class, i.e. to have demand consistently meet or exceed supply, some NHC tie-in will be needed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I'm Not Going to Vegas (After All)!

Kind of old news but I wanted to update the blog.

To recap: I was gonna go to the Last Chance NHC Qualifier in Vegas on Wed. Jan. 25 because I won what I thought was a $500 entry into the contest and a $500 travel voucher in a Dec. 26 contest. I was totally there.

But the $500 entry + $500 "travel voucher" (is there such a thing?) showed up in my mailbox in the form of a plain old $1,000 check, which prompted me to reassess my plan.

I was still gonna go, last week I even went as far as booking a flight ($340 r/t, Newark to Vegas). BUT just a couple hours after I booked, I learned that NHCQualify was having a last chance, $400 online contest on Sunday Jan. 8, that offered about the same or a slightly better chance to qualify compared with the Vegas Last Chance.

So at that point I said ah screw it, cancelled my flight, signed up for NHCQualify, and tucked the $600 into my proverbial pocket to deploy for future contests.

Ultimately I opted out because the Vegas trip just felt like a goose chase. As I said previously, I totally would be in if they signed me up and told me to just show up. But when it turned into a discretionary decision, my thinking went along these lines:
1. The specs of the last-chance Vegas contest-- $500 ante, 5 NHC spots, max 150 field, 30% back in prize money 70% to NHC pot -- are nothing special.
2. I dislike flying, so the idea of night and redeye flights was not appealing. Granted there would be some adventure to going to Vegas, but for me that would be trumped by (probably) losing in the contest followed by a 7-hour full flight in the middle seat, culminating in a 6am arrival at Newark airport. I would be dirty, tired, and cranky -- no thanks!
3. When I won some coin back in March at a Monmouth contest, I didn't use the money to start flying to contests all over the place, so why would I do it this time (with just 1/6 of my March winnings)?

So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. There will be no NHC for me in 2012 (I finished up the track in the NHCQualify Last Chance this past Sunday).

I am looking forward to the long journey towards the 2013 NHC, which I hereby GUARANTEE I will qualify for. If I fail to qualify, I will give all readers a free one-year premium subscription to the RedRockorBust blog.

The fun starts next Saturday at Monmouth Park.