The tournament belonged to Pete Puhich, whose two entries were third and seventh after Day 1, and first and second after Days 2 and 3.
As I chatted with him—once after Day 1 and several times during Day 3—he kept reminding me of someone, but I couldn’t figure out whom.
After I returned home, it hit me.
NBA Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson.
GROUNDS FOR SEPARATION?
Despite the large field of entrants, I think there’s always a loosey-goosey feel to the Horse Player World Series. It starts with the ability to pick all your own races rather than have to play mandatories. But it goes well beyond that, even with something as seemingly central as contest tracks.
On Friday morning, many players showed up in the morning unaware that Fair Grounds had been put back into the menu of eligible contest tracks for the day.
HPWS had earlier communicated on its website that Fair Grounds would not be part of the Friday lineup due to a late post time. The problem was that the Fair Grounds Friday post was the same time as that of the day before. And once it was noted that the Friday post time was not out of the ordinary and the track was restored to the menu, it was too late, according to HPWS officials, to alter the web page in question.
They did have a handout sheet up at the front of the room that correctly listed Fair Grounds among the eligible Friday contest tracks, but it was sitting amongst stacks of those Vegas-style program sheets for each track…and Jon Lindo’s free, exclusive value-line picks from Santa Anita (retail value: $10.00). So…sort of easy to miss. I thought there would be a riot when a verbal announcement about Fair Grounds’s reinstatement was made, but the players seemed to take it in stride. Maybe a lot of people weren’t aware that Fair Grounds had been taken out in the first place. Just another day at the HPWS…
The original plan was for me to simply work at The Orleans, covering the HPWS for HorseTourneys. But then, on March 19, I won an NHC entry at a rival contest site. (We don’t feel it is right for people on the HorseTourneys payroll to be playing on our site…bad optics.) So now I had the pleasant duty of juggling work and play.
I didn’t feel like I did all that well on the first two days. I had 747 points on Day 1 (all accumulated after my first four plays), and another 910 or so on Day 2. Most of the points were amassed via one bomb each day, including 24-1 Cash First on Friday at Fair Grounds. You just knew something significant was going to win at FG that day given all of the uncertainty about whether it was a Friday contest track!
It turns out my 1,600 points was better than I had realized. I was now entering the final day in 15th place, and allowing myself to wonder just a little bit, “What if I can put together a really good day tomorrow?”
Saturday was ugly, though. I played with my preferred aggressive style and blanked on my first nine picks. I didn’t make any memorably bad decisions—I just picked a bunch of underperforming, slow horses. Bad day for that to happen.
Finishing in Puhich’s zip code was now out of the question, but cashing wasn’t. My next four plays contained no winners, but three of them ran second.
Like any shrewd contest player fighting for a win or a spot above the money line, I faithfully, prudently reserved a bullet for the last contest race. And that last race was…an Arabian race??!!
Yes, Virginia, an Arabian race.
And, truth be told, I was okay with that. I don’t know much about the Arabians other than they are slower than Thoroughbreds and have funnier looking tails. But I had seen enough of them at Delaware to know that they are pretty formful. Some friends said that Saturday’s nightcap 11th race at Santa Anita (the Arabian race in question) surely wouldn’t be included. It was, after all, an ARABIAN race. One HorseTourneys regular quipped, “Why not just toss in a harness race or something then?”
I figured it would be left in because it was easier from an operations standpoint to leave it in, and the first thing I did when entering the Esplanade ballroom (I find the lighting much better in there…and it’s closer to the bathrooms, which is always a good thing when I’m in contention) was to head straight up to the contest machines and check how many races were available from Santa Anita. Sure enough…11. (Later a verbal announcement was made confirming the Arabian race’s status as the final race of the tournament.)
Having saved a bullet for a final-heat Arabian race is a bit like having a nice retirement IRA that’s fully invested in D. Wayne Gertmanian-managed securities. Better than nothing, but not very solid.
I studied the Arabian race, a Grade I event called the HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak Darley Awards Stakes. If the race has a rich history, it was lost on me. But at least it was a Grade I…which I took to mean that these Arabians would perhaps be even more formful than Lynn Ashby’s at Delaware…and confidently concluded that the only horses that could possibly win were the #1 and #5.
Heading into that race, I knew I needed at least $6.80 in $2 win and place returns to move past the then 60th place entrant. I did have my friend Jason Ige double check me on my math because — like anyone whose weekend success suddenly hinged on picking a winner in an Arabian race — I had started drinking.
A look at the odds board showed that #1 was 5-2 and #5 was 3-5. The 3-5 shot obviously wasn’t going to get me where I needed to go, so I played the 1 horse. And it seemed like I was the only one up at the contest self-service machines, making me think that few had saved a play for this race…which, for me, was a good thing.
One of the funnier moments of my tournament happened next. Word spread in my little area that I was smart (dumb?) enough to have saved a play for the Arabian race and so about a dozen friends and table neighbors gathered round to try and root home a horse in a race that would have otherwise held no interest to them. The fact that it was an Arabian race gave the whole exercise an almost campy feel that accentuated the humor of it all. It was like an NBA bench yukking it up when the game is all but over and the last five men on the bench are all in the game at the same time.
Long story only slightly shorter, my 5-2 shot made an inside middle move under Edwin “I Prefer Thoroughbreds” Maldonado, only to be run down late by the 3-5 favorite piloted by Victor “I Also Prefer Thoroughbreds” Espinoza.
I wound up with insufficient place money that left me in 72nd place. My three-day running line might have read, “Prominent early, middle move, flattened.”
Sure my dreams of a six-figure payday were dashed on Day 3. Sure my dreams of a four-figure payday were dashed as well. But how many contest players can boast that they missed out on cashing in a major only because of an Arabian race. That’s worth something, right?
Don’t answer that.