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.


  1. Tragic, but excellent recap. I need to spend more time thinking about the "prep time" angle, which I have mixed feelings about. I've gone into tourneys having doped out all races but then went on without a win, and done better in others on the fly (i.e. online fare).

    In general, as you have experienced, I think the contest winner ultimately comes down to who can score with a nice price in final stages. OK, maybe Mike E. reserved his double on purpose for that 18-1 shot, but otherwise I think late picks like that come down to mathematics (i.e. can I win this thing playing the chalk, or do I need to take the best of the 3-4 horses at 10-1 or higher in order to have a shot at winning?). It's a difficult balancing act either way.

  2. It's tough to put back to back great handicapping days together. With all the longshots that came in Sunday the contest was ripe for a novice to win. The BC qualify contest winner Sunday finished with $145, which is high for a 10 race contest, especially considering there were only 63 of us competing. Eventually you will put it all together, just keep plugging along.


  3. I've mulled things plenty over the past 2 1/2 days and I'm feeling better. Re-creating how it all went down via blogging helped.
    I'm still disappointed of course, but I'm not in the self-flagellation mode I thought I might be.
    There are two parts to this game, stuff you can control (decision making) and stuff you can't control (what happens on the track). I didn't do a perfect job on the first part, but I did a pretty good job overall, and that's all I can ask. The second part went my way for 80% of the contest, but the pendulum swung the other way for the last 20% of the contest, which was my undoing. C'est la vie.