Friday, February 01, 2008

Contest Players Deserve Respect, Not Intolerance

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 30, 2008In the aftermath of Americas two largest handicapping tournaments, the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association- sponsored National Handicapping Championship, and the Horseplayer World Series presented by the Coast Casinos group, this is the word that best describes my feelings on the subject: Conflicted.

I dont believe that my wounds are self inflicted. What I see is a disconnect between the games practitioners the best of whom were battling for a lot of money and prestige last weekend in Las Vegas and those observing the action from beyond the fringe of the contest area. Its as if the handicapping community was split right down the middle.
Ive been around plenty of pressure-packed gambling action. From the trainer expected to win a million-dollar race with the favorite, to the would-be buyer of a seven figure yearling, to the whale who routinely bets a significant percentage of my annual income in the course of one afternoon, to licking the wounds from my own self-inflicted opinions.

A handicapping tournament is a little different, and its not because theres a potential life-changing score at stake. Well, maybe a little. But, the fact is theres no greater pressure than the kind a top handicapper puts on himself. Combining positive expectations with an exceedingly laborious exercise is enough to raise crazy to a whole new level. Analyzing seven tracks daily for two or three consecutive days is nothing less than mind-numbing.

The best handicappers always play to their strengths, whether it is turf routes or dirt sprints, allowance horses or maidens. The games big enough for everyone. You can find the answer in a speed or pace figure, a tough trip or suitable pedigree, a bad post position or fast workout. All the elements are there. But no matter how smart you are, or think you are, sometimes the hardest thing to remember is that you cant be right for the wrong reason. Like Zito might say, right is right.

So, finally, after all the pre-game, players are set to begin. The juggling of different races from different tracks and the irregular post times created by the occasional gate malfunction or obstreperous run-off can be very confusing, rendering focus nearly impossible. And last minute odds fluctuations negatively impact the decision-making process, especially when the goal is to accumulate the most money.

Sharp focus? Fuhgedaboudit!

Of course, racetracks could easily address this serious, everyday problem by throwing money at it, bringing wagering code up to twenty-first century standards. The only thing preventing horse players from betting in real time now are the dollars tracks dont spend in their own self interest. Thats the gambling business; governed by the criminally myopic.

Finally, theres tournament wagering strategy. In the HWS, last years winner accumulated mythical earnings of $2,929 by making 11 $20 win-place wagers, by rule.

Thus, players we spoke with were shooting for $3,000. In the NHC, contestants must make 15 $2 win-place bets on eight mandatory and seven optional races. Handicapper of the Year Richard Goodalls horses earned a record $272.30, or 31.60 more than the previous highest total in the events nine-year history.

You cant worry about striking out, said resident handicapper and NHC qualifier, Cary Fotias. Pete Ross doesnt win handicapping contests. Mickey Mantle does. Or, if you prefer, and in keeping with the weekend theme, its not Unitas to Berry. Its Montana to Rice, Brady to Moss.

Good handicapping doesnt guarantee victory, of course, but perfect handicapping and sound strategy does. After hitting the first mandatory wager of the day at 8-1, the eventual winner sat near the lead and watched his 276 rivals fire their bullets. His first optional play, producing a 23-1 winner, didnt come until the 9th at Fair Grounds. Then, with two contest races remaining, he took 7-5 on the winner of the finale at Golden Gate. The 11th at Santa Anita would not stand between Goodall and a half-million dollars.

To my point, the only responses weve seen, relative to the one weekend in 52 when a horseplayer can be king, were negative, which was a little disconcerting. Nary a wow or nice goin in the bunch. Coming from loyal friends of the sport, it was a slight to almost anyone who ever placed a bet.

Are horseplayers unworthy of a day in the sun? Its not as if Goodall or HWS winner, Ken Hopkins, pushed a button on a VLT ding-ding. Actual thinking and figuring and strategizing were involved. The reward for being right is a huge part of what makes this engaging, participatory pastime into something Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud calls the greatest game played outdoors.

The atmosphere in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans and the Race and Sports Book at the Red Rock would be described best as laid back intensity. You could feel it even as the handicappers, all of whom had either earned their way in or placed significant wagers on themselves via a sizeable entrance fee, pored over their data.

But when the handicappers got up between wagers to stretch their legs and visit with relatives and friends gathered around the venues, the karma changed. It was as if everyone exhaled at once. The contest area was transformed into a warm and fuzzy place. You wouldnt know there was a competition going on.

When they met, the 960 horse players acted as if they had nothing to prove to each other, because they didnt, unusual for such an ego-driven pursuit. Each player there survived and advanced to the final round, only for the process to begin all over again. And theres nothing like the fresh scent of a new set of past performances and the infinite possibilities contained therein.

The horseplayers that had the passion to try, the skill sets to achieve, and the character to work the program, can take pride in knowing they make this whole merry-go-round spin. Certainly, they have nothing to apologize for and, in fact, should be held in some esteem by not only a grateful industry but by the sports fans. Unless you believe that people just come for the show, and enjoy the pomp despite the circumstances, not because of it.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 18, 2008

About More Than Money in Las Vegas

Next weekend in Las Vegas, the week between the conference finals and Super Bowl, there will be two national thoroughbred handicapping championship tournaments.

For an entire weekend, Las Vegas will be the handicapping capital of the world, playing host to the worlds best horseplayers. A horseplayer that would be king or, perhaps, a queen. Elvis would be proud, as would Priscilla.

On one corner; the Coast Casinos Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans. On another; the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championships.

A little reminiscent of the old NFL and AFL. But those championships werent played the same weekend. Wheres Joe Willie when you really need him?
One way to look at it is that thoroughbred racing had a chance to dominate the Las Vegas storyline for an entire weekend but decided to step on its own toes. Again.

Would someone please get me the racing commissioner on the phone?

This will be the fourth year of the HWS. The Orleans will host over 800 qualifiers at their big dance, using three ballrooms in its convention center. This years contest dates were scheduled in 2005.

A handful of talented handicappers qualified for both contests. Because of the scheduling conflict, the HWS for the first time will allow proxy contestants, qualifiers sending representatives while they play in the NHC.

Not as glitzy as some other venues, the Orleans has a reputation for being horseplayer friendly. Having spent a long weekend there in 2006, it occurred to me at the time that their reputation for horseplayer hospitality was deserved.

Im looking forward to visiting the new Red Rock Resort & Casino, too, and hearing an explanation from DRF/NTRA sources as to why they didnt choose another weekend to avoid a dates conflict.

One spin has the NHC choosing the weekend of the 26th to coincide with the popular Sunshine Millions program run concurrently at Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, one of the few Magna bright spots.

Ironically, the Santa Anita portion of the program might have to be rescheduled at Golden Gate Fields, the Magna track in Northern California, should heavy rains wreck more havoc with synthetic Cushion Track.

The real reasons might be that with so many DRF and NTRA people in Los Angeles for Mondays Eclipse Awards festivities, theyre just a short helicopter jump over to Sin City. That, and because the NHC just might want to kick down the HWS barn door.

In a Thursday press release, the NTRA announced the creation of a satellite program patterned in a fashion after the Breeders Cup special stakes program, a series of traditional races to which Breeders Cup lends its prestige and promotional support.

The NHC Tour is a year-long series of qualifying contests offering prize money and seeding into the finals. The Tour is opened only to registered contestants for a $125 annual fee. Contestants earn points based on a Top 20 finish in the qualifying rounds.

There are cash awards for the Top 50 finishers. The winner gets $100,000; the fifth-place finisher $5,000. The Top 3 gain entrance into the finals. Should the Tour winner also win the finals, he or she would earn a $2-million bonus.

The most significant aspect of the NHC Tour might have nothing to do with winning money. Registered contestants are automatically enrolled in a group called the Horseplayers Coalition. Still in its formative stage, the group would support the NTRAs lobbying efforts at the federal level.

Ironic how lobbyist has become a dirty name during this primary season of change, just as horseplayers may be finding their voice. Like the old joke: theyre off, you lose.

The Horseplayers Coalition can support NTRA initiatives that seek to find legislative and regulatory remedies to tax and business issues that impact pari-mutuel racetracks and their customers. Might turn out to be a futile exercise. But it cant hurt, and its promising that industry people of good will are bringing horseplayers kicking and screaming into the Halls of Congress.

Cmon Anybody!

I must admit to a certain amount of contest bias. Resident HorseRaceInsider handicapper Cary Fotias of Equiform is one of 278 players chasing a million dollars in the NHC next weekend. He qualified last year in New York, when racing was still a given on a daily basis.

But theres a hand I want to shake, a man I want to thank for his service. An 11-year Army veteran, Sgt. Chris Lavezza, qualified for the NHC on-line while stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, hell fly from Frankfurt, Germany to Atlanta, connect with his dad and brother, head for Las Vegas, where his mom and his sister will join them at a dinner reunion Friday. Lavezza, the NTRA release said, will stay up all night to handicap if he has to. Ill be ready for day two he promised.

So it seems theres something happening here. What it is aint exactly clear.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Fair Grounds, Santa Anita Begin Derby Prep Schedules

A pair of very good Kentucky Derby preps and two excellent racing cards from Fair Grounds and Santa Anita highlight the Saturday schedule. And those one-mile Grade 3 preps, Fair Grounds Lecomte and Santa Anitas San Rafael, each feature some very promising colts. Races like these make it a great time of year for fans of young, developing racehorses.

Saturdays Fair Grounds program, featuring six stakes races, has been billed Kickoff to the Kentucky Derby Saturday. The 11-race program drew 111 entrants; obviously an attractive wagering card.

Although it has no official billing, Santa Anita hosts After The Deluge Saturday which, in addition to the San Rafael, includes the rescheduled San Pasqual and G2 San Fernando. That 11-race card has a special post time of 11:45 a.m. WST and has drawn 108 entries overnight.

But the focus will be on the newly turned three-year-olds and, if you believe this is all about the hype, theres a revealing poll on the Daily Racing Form web-site in which fans were asked to vote on which of last weekends eight stakes races were the most exciting.

Do you think it a coincidence that the Hutcheson and Count Fleet, the only two stakes for Derby-aged runners, finished 1-2, and attracted 32% and 16% of the response, respectively? Me neither.

Parenthetically, it was unknown at posting whether or not the polling had been conducted in the state of New Hampshire.

The Lecomte attracted a field of nine, in which Texas Fever (7-2), Z Fortune (5-1) and Blackberry Road (6-1) figure to reap the most pari-mutuel support.

Texas Fever is a tepid morning line favorite. Leaving from post position one, he was beaten 3- lengths when last seen in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf. Previously he won the G3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park on Polytrack, earning an Equiform performance figure of 69.25, slow on the speed scale.

Making his sixth start, and first in 11 weeks, it will be his dirt debut, which he seems to like if recent workouts are the measure. Four of his last five have been best of the day moves and his five-eighths in 1:00 4/5 on New Years Eve, termed breezing, was best of 58 at the distance.

Hard to tell if Steve Asmussen is simply lowering expectations or is trying to tell us something about the undefeated New York-bred, Z Fortune. He talks about him being long and leggy with lots of developing to do, but his figures belie that assessment.

Z Fortune received a 73 winning his 7-furlong debut, with excellent energy distribution, then earned a soft but good 70.5, winning his two-turn debut and showing improved late energy and strength. That 73 is among the fastest figures in the race and Asmussen has won six of the 10 stakes run at Fair Grounds, four in one day.

Blackberry Road is interesting. In a six-race career his two best efforts have been around two turns, the scenario here, and he has been seasoned by four graded stakes. Following a good third behind Texas Fever at Turfway, he was a fast finishing second behind well regarded Anak Nakal in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill.

His 72.5 last time out was a lifetime best but hes had seven weeks to recover. Trainer David Carroll won with two of his last five Fair Grounds runners and is 4-for-14 at the meet. The colt has gotten stronger with each recent start. Calvin Borel rides.

The big three out west are El Gato Malo, Massive Drama and Indian Sun. Throw in recent impressive maiden-sprint winner Talk Of A Cat for Todd Pletcher and Garrett Gomez and youre likely to get a pretty good show.

El Gato Malos next loss will be his first. After a dazzling open lengths romp in 1:09 on Hollywoods Cushion Track, he shipped north to Golden Gate and was no less effective over the Tapeta track. What really impressed was that El Gato Malo was wrestled back off a slow two-turn pace, made a strong turn move, continued somewhat greenly approaching midstretch before drawing away to win by nearly five.

El Gato Malo ran fast in his debut, obviously, then earned a soft win two-turn figure of 71.5 while going from a pull to a drive, showing improved energy distribution; not easy for a young horse. David Flores replaces suspended Patrick Valenzuela and note trainer Craig Dollase is 40% effective with horses making their second start around two-turns.

Massive Drama is a logical favorite. After winning the G3 Hollywood Prevue, he was a game change-of-pace third in the G1 Cash Call Futurity behind promising Into Mischief and Colonel John. Since the Cash Call, Massive Drama worked yet another bullet five furlongs, in :59 3/5, best of 58 at the distance.

The Bob Baffert colt has the best route figure in the race at 72.75, showing improved late energy. The mini turn-back to a mile figures to help, as does the switch to speed savvy Rafael Bejarano. He does, however, come back a little quickly in three weeks time.

Indian Sun finished well too late from far back in the Cash Call, placing him less than two lengths behind Massive Drama. Considering it was his first start on synthetic dirt following three starts on turf, it was a sneaky good effort. Showing good late energy, he earned a highly competitive performance figure of 72.

Although hes never been two turns with only a maiden sprint win to his credit, Talk Of A Cat has impressed. After finishing third to well regarded Racecar Rhapsody in his debut, he shipped cross country and stopped the timer in 1:14 2/5 at 6- furlongs. Thats rolling, even over the rapid Hollywood Cushion.

Written by John Pricci

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