Player’s Diary–The BIG One at Laurel

By John Gaspar

(John Gaspar was one of 56 contestants at the 2017 renewal of The BIG One at Laurel Park. Shortly after the competition, Gaspar wrote a lengthy recap of his experiences and thought processes during his three days in Maryland. We thought veteran players might enjoy another player’s perspective–and that those unfamiliar with contest play might find it interesting to follow along with John through the great many decisions he was faced with over the two-day contest. What follows is John’s unabridged, 8,000+ word take on The BIG One.)

A little about myself, I’ve been competing in handicapping tournaments for the past year and a half. I started innocently enough at DRF Qualify in 2016 and did fairly well. I had a bit of beginner’s luck and qualified for the NHC in November 2016 for the contest in January 2017. I finished 104th out of 656 entries at the NHC. In 2017, it has been an obsession to play in more and more tournaments and return to the NHC. As of September, that hasn’t happened.

I qualified for “The Big One” in June 2017. The tournament is hosted at Laurel Park and contested in September 2017. For those of you unfamiliar, The Big One runs weekly qualifiers at HorseTourneys.com to win an entry to the tournament. Each week, 2 players qualify. It would be my 1st time to Laurel and 1st time competing against such an elite field. I arrived in Baltimore from Boston on Friday afternoon. Unbeknownst to me, George Chute, a fellow competitor was on the same flight.

Friday night was the first chance to meet some of my fellow handicappers and competitors. For the handicapper, contest player and horse racing fan these types of dinners are great. A room full of people with similar interests talking about horses, family, gambling and life.

I met Jamie Ough at the hotel waiting for the shuttle to the event. A former race caller at Detroit Race Course and Sunland Park, held jobs at Suffolk Downs and at Bay Meadows, a life built around horses and broadcasting and uniquely qualified to bet on the races. He was waiting for his compadre, Vic Stauffer, who was flying in from the west coast, with similar credentials and a history of racetrack jobs.

At the dinner, I sat with a group of folks and their families that I had not met. Anthony Trezza, a name I often see in feeder tournaments at Mountaineer and Parx on Mondays and Tuesdays, was on my left. Anthony had won a tournament earlier in the day for a BCBC seat on the drive to the hotel. This crew is hardcore. Across from me was Michael Beychok, past winner of the NHC. Soft spoken but a good storyteller. The 3rd of the trio was Jon Hurd, a name I had seen on the list of tournament entries but didn’t know anything about. He had won 2 seats to The Big One, but is only allowed to play one. Michael Beychok was playing the 2nd entry. It was entertaining talking tournaments, sharing stories and meeting new and interesting people. There is something to be said about putting names to faces. It makes it much easier to root for them, even when competing against them.

Saturday morning comes early for those who stayed up handicapping and trying to put together a strategy. A bagel for breakfast and back at it. Shuttle leaves for the track at 10:00. The contest area has 15-20 round tables set-up for the contest. Most tables had 2 or 3 competitors per table. I randomly chose a table that had one other person at it. Brendan Fay was originally from the area but now lives in Arizona. He was a good table mate. We didn’t talk much during the day as we were both feeling our way through the tournament but we warmed up to each other as the day progressed.

Saturday tournament tracks are Belmont, Gulfstream, Laurel and Parx. I’m most familiar with Belmont as I follow that circuit regularly, fairly familiar with Parx due to the shippers and they had a pretty spectacular card for their Pennsylvania Derby Day. Laurel and summertime Gulfstream are a bit unknown to me. Unfortunately, after handicapping, Laurel and Gulfstream seem to be the tracks I will probably bet most often. I’m beginning to see a flaw in my Saturday strategy.

I use a mix of performance figures and speed and pace figures to handicap. I look for bad favorites, horses that may be circling back to a good performance figure or multiple price horses in a full field where the favorite is no better on figures than the 3rd or 4th choice in the wagering. Of the 40+ races on Saturday, I find 21 possible plays.

A bit about the contest. You begin with a 1,000 bankroll. There are 5 mandatory races selected by the tournament hosts on Saturday and Sunday and you are required to wager a minimum of $50 on each of the mandatory races. You must also wager $50 on each of 5 additional races of the player’s choice on Saturday and 5 more optional races on Sunday. At a minimum, you will have had to wager on 10 races on each day. Acceptable wagers are WIN, PLACE and EXACTA only. This suits my game well. I prefer the win and exacta pools rather than the TRIFECTA pools that are available in some contests. The five mandatory races on Saturday were PRX5, LRL6, PRX10, BEL8, and LRL11. The first mandatory race had a post time of 2:15, the last mandatory was at 6:10.

My strategy was simple, pick some winners and try not to embarrass myself. The goal was to be around $1,000 – $1,200 after day one with a floor of $500 if I pitch a shutout. With $500, you have plenty of money to accumulate some cash on Day 2. I want multiple shots on goal so that you can be wrong more often than right and still turn a profit and have a winning strategy.

A lot of players like to wait and play lots of races later in the card. They can have a better understanding of the leaderboard and know what scores they need. I think it is a sound strategy but I prefer to bet races when I think I have an edge. Try to win with my best opinions but still have a chance later when the leaderboard is clearer and a target has been set. On Saturday, I didn’t have a lot of strong opinions n the whole but preferred to find horses that I thought offered value in wide open races. It doesn’t take many winners to turn a profit if you can beat a vulnerable favorite.

Did I mention that I was least familiar with Laurel and Gulfstream? Yet I had interest in the 1st 4 races at Laurel and 2 of the 1st 3 at Gulfstream. Belmont 1st post was 1:30 pm and I may have 3 or 4 optional wagers before my “home” track even runs a race. Good planning. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I felt the Belmont card was weak on Saturday. Short fields and there weren’t many interesting wagering opportunities. I thought there were 3 or 4 races that I would look at but didn’t expect to wager. My lone wager at Belmont was likely to be on the 8th race, the mandatory selection.

The 1st at Laurel was the first race that I wanted to follow, a 5.5 furlong turf sprint. I liked the #2, Trustifarian. He broke his maiden at LRL 2 back, was overmatched in his last in a 75K stakes race and was now back in a Starter Allowance. He had a M/L of 10-1 and figured to be no better than 5th choice on the wagering in an 8 horse field. I projected his performance figure to be as good as the favorites in the race and he should be value. During the wagering, he fluctuated between 5-1 and 8-1 and his exotics were consistent with the 5th choice in the wagering. I made my first optional play. A $30 win bet and 2 $5 exacta boxes with 2 and 5, the 5-2 co-favorite and 2 and 8, the 5-1 4th choice. Trustafarian went off at odds of 7.9-1, broke well sat 2nd for 2 furlongs and then stopped badly and finished last of 8. Not exactly the start for which I had hoped. Nice to spend 6 hours looking at races and having your 1st wager not run anywhere close to how you saw the race. Oh well. On to the next opportunity.

The 2nd at Gulfstream was next on my list of potential wagers. The #6, Princess Knoll, the 5-2 M/l favorite looked like the most likely winner in a bad field of 9. She was getting back to the dirt after 2 turf sprints and had performance figures consistently better than her peers as well as a pace advantage. I didn’t see any value in a win bet (she was bet down to an underlay price of 3-5) but I did have a secondary opinion. I did not like the 2nd or 3rd choice in the wagering. Alternatively, I thought the #1 and the #3 were offering value in the exacta pool and elected to make 2 $25 straight exactas 6,1 and 6,3. I was wrong twice. The #6 ran well enough but finished 2nd, beaten a half a length. My live horses underneath in exactas finished a disappointing 7th at 14-1 and 8th at 5-1. Down to $900 in the bankroll and we are still an hour and 6 races from the 1st mandatory race.

The 3rd at Gulfstream offered a horse for me to play. The #8, Family Justice was circling back to a very competitive performance figure and fit well with her group. Not that you can ever have any confidence in an 0-9 maiden at the 12K claiming level, I felt that her m/l of 15-1 and her off odds of 14-1 were overlays. I bet $30 on the 8 to win and 2 $5ex boxes using the #1 at 5-2 and the 2, also at 5-2. Family Justice raced close to the pace but when the real running started she did not fire. The #1 won the race and the #2 ran 2nd but I didn’t use each horse with each other. My bankroll stood at $850 and I hadn’t had a sniff of a winner. The afternoon was not looking good.

The first mandatory race was upon us. Looking at the leaderboard, it was apparent that at least half the field hadn’t made a wager yet as their balance stood at $1,000 before the race betting had begun. That is when I noticed a big change to the leaderboard. The leader, Eric Moomey, now had over $4,000 in his bankroll. We found out later that he bet his entire $1,000 on the 2nd at Belmont. A Chad Brown turfer who won by ¾ of a length at 3.2-1. Eric was the new leader and target for those that were shooting high.

The 5th at Parx was the first mandatory race. This was a good race to wager on. The field was scratched down to 11 and the horses were running a mile and 70 yards on the dirt. Kieran McLaughin had the m/l favorite #11, Haul Anchor, who figured to be over bet and wasn’t any faster than lots of others in the race. 2nd choice, #1 Monaco, was a Todd Pletcher charge on the rail who wasn’t any faster than the rest of the field purely on performance figures and didn’t figure to get the trip that he needed. The horse that I preferred was the #10, Hit it Once More. He had run a big figure 2 back at Parx, at the distance. If he could get back to that figure or even his secondary figure, he had a very good chance to win. He was an off the pace type that figured to have some pace to run at, as the speed was in the 8,11 and 12 posts. There were 3 other horses in the race that I considered to be live at prices as well. The #5 J.J’s Candy, the #8, Thomas Knight and the #12 Prince of Hempt. The outside posts at Parx at a route can be death for horses so I tossed the #12 without much consternation. I wagered $20 to win on the #10 at 9-2 and a $5 exacta box using the 10, 5 (at 15-1) and the 8 (at 19-1). Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of cheering when the #12, the horse that I threw out at 19-1, pressed the pace of the 8 and came roaring home to be an easy winner. The 8 held on for 2nd spurring a $191 exacta for $1. Hit It Once More ran a non-threatening 4th and J.J’s Candy an even worse 7th. While disappointed in throwing out the eventual winner, I had no regrets on the wager. The horse that I liked most didn’t fire, a horse that was live at a price ran well. My handicapping was decent, my wagering okay but I was in the hole another $50 and stood with a bankroll of $800.

My next optional race that I considered was the 4th at Laurel. The race was a wide open turf sprint for 16NW3L. In a race like this, I prefer a price and the board was offering me a big one. I preferred the #6, Fantasize, 10-1 on the m/l with an apprentice riding, getting a significant weight break and being ignored at 20-1 on the board with a few minutes to post. I bet $20 to win and 3 $5 exacta boxes with Fantasize and the #1 at 5-2, #2 at 11-1 and the #3 at 5-1. I got the race I wanted from the #6 but he just wasn’t good enough. His final odds were 27-1 and he ran 5th beaten three lengths. The #2 won the race, #3 ran 2nd and #1 ran 3rd. A saver exacta would have been nice at $67.40 for a $1, but it wasn’t to be. Another in the loss column and an ever-shrinking bankroll of $750 with 4 mandatory races remaining.

It was time to reconsider my upcoming optional races. I had an interest in 5 or 6 additional races on the Parx, Laurel and Belmont cards yet, I didn’t have a lot of bankroll to play aggressively. I’d need to hit a mandatory race and pad the bankroll a bit before I went too far. At this rate, I was going to hit my floor of $500. I had 4 mandatory races that took a minimum of $200 of the bankroll and only 1 $50 optional race left to play if I got skunked.

I think it was the highly regarded philosopher Mike Tyson that said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. I felt like I got punched in the mouth and my inexperience was showing. Do I keep firing away and hope to catch a price? Do I sit on my hands and wait for the mandatories and pass up a “good” value bet? I don’t know that there is a right answer but I planned on playing the way I intended and betting when I saw value and passing when I didn’t. If I went through my floor, I better be prepared to fire away early on Sunday, and if I lose, take advantage of the open bar and buffet.

The Parx 6th race was a race that I had a strong opinion. The horse that I liked was a logical favorite, #3 Fast Friar, m/l 3-1 but likely to be bet down to 7-5 or 8-5. I didn’t see how I was going to make money with the horse in the win pool, but I did like 3 horses underneath in exactas, 2 at big prices. The #6, Sonoma Crush, 2nd off a 180+ day layoff, who had figures that compete with everyone but the favorite and was drifting up to 40-1 and the #11, Tairneach, who had competitive figures and was also 40-1. I played 2 $20 cold exactas 3/1 and 3/11 and a $10 saver exacta on the 3/1, the only other horse that I liked in the race. Fast Friar broke alertly, sat just off the pace, took over the lead at the top of the stretch but got run down late by #5 It’s All Relevant, a horse that I did not consider. Sonoma Crush ran a good 4th at final odds of 41-1 and Tairneach ran up the track. The track profile at Parx seemed to favor horses on or near the lead and I hoped I could take advantage of that later in the card. Another $50 lost and a bankroll of $700 with 4 mandatories remaining.

I passed races at Parx, Laurel and Belmont and found myself looking at the 6th race at Gulfstream. Full field of 14 going 6.5 furlongs on the dirt. Claiming 6,500, the cheapest horses at the track. I disliked the favorite and thought he would be over bet. I liked the #4, Gone Jak. He was dropping from a 12K claimer and had past performance figures that could beat this field handily. He figured to be over 4-1 as the 2nd or 3rd choice in the betting. The downside was that his trainer was 0-43 this year, with an 0-23 jockey. Is this the type of horse that I want to bet? At 2-1, of course not, at 20-1 of course, at odds in between, it depends. The horse had a lifetime record of 8-3-3-0, and at 6-1, I decide I can make a wager. I made a $30 win bet and a $10 exacta box with the #2, Lemon Royal, the 5-1 2nd choice. Gone Jak broke well, vied for the lead early for the 1st quarter, dropped back to mid pack after a half, made a menacing move on the turn to contention and then flattened out and finished 7th. Minus $50 and the bankroll stood at $650 with 4 mandatories remaining. I was now left with the prospect of being below my floor for Saturday. The plan has not been well executed to this point in the day. I need to get a little lucky and be a little fortunate.

The 2nd mandatory of the day was the 6th race at Laurel. A field of 11 going a mile on the turf. My preference was the #10, Line of Music. The horse had run a few times on the turf at 5 furlongs, was stretching out for the 1st time. Had competitive performance figures and figured to be sitting a great trip in the garden spot. Line of Music was 8-1 in the m/l. I didn’t care for the 2 morning line favorites, the #13 was marooned way outside and didn’t figure to get a very good trip and the #1 was 1 for 20 lifetime with plenty of chances to win. He was more likely to run 2nd than to win. The #10 stayed at 8-1 as they went in to the gate and I simply played $25 to win and place on her. Line of Music broke sharply and established great position on the 1st turn, got a rail saving trip up the backstretch, tipped off the rail in the stretch, passed the pacesetter midstretch, and held off deep closers at the wire. A WINNER. She paid $18.60 to win and $7.80 to place. I collected a profit of $280 and my bankroll was back up to $930 with 3 mandatories left.

Most players feel like some days they are the smartest players in the world and others they are the stupidest. Today, I didn’t feel so smart but I did feel I was fortunate. I got out of the hole by picking one winner out of the 8 races that I have played. Got myself a bankroll and can continue to play small value bets and try to increase the bankroll and still protect my downside.

I waited an hour until my next wager. Maybe I’m getting the hang of watching races when you don’t have a strong opinion. Unlikely but I’d like to think I had monk-like discipline in the past hour. The 8th at Laurel was a 5.5 furlong race on the turf. It had a heavy favorite in the #1, Monavista Crossing. The horse figured to be odds on and, although the horse could win, I felt he could get beat. I watched her last race at Saratoga. She won a 5.5 furlong sprint on the lead, coming off a 311 day layoff. She ran a huge race, bore out twice and was able to hold on to win at 10-1. I felt her last race took a lot out of her and it was possible that she would not run her race. My choice was the #8, No Love Lost, with a m/l of 15-1 and off odds of 25-1. She was 7-1-2-0, breaking her maiden in her last in an off the turf, sloppy track race. She had run on the turf twice before and had run a well beaten 5th in her debut and a slightly buried 2nd at Laurel 3 back, improving in her 2nd turf start. Getting back on the turf, had tactical speed and could sit a perfect stalking trip if the odds on favorite doesn’t fire. I bet $30 to win on #8 and played 2 $5 exacta boxes using 8/1 and 8/9. The #9, Alexandra Rossi broke his maiden on the dirt in his debut and was now trying turf for the 1st time, in his second start. He was 11-1 as they went in to the gate. The favorite went right to the lead, opened up by 5 and held off the #10 for the win. No Love Lost, broke mid pack, steadily gained into the turn, made a 4 wide into the stretch and was out of gas. She finished 6th. I had the right idea about the favorite but the wrong horse to beat him. The favorite was just too good today but I liked the bet. Bankroll was back down to $880 with 3 mandatories remaining.

My look at the remaining races on the card didn’t offer me a lot of value, there was some good races to watch, including the PA Derby but I didn’t see a lot of chances to bet on horses that I liked and were a decent price. I made a conscious decision to watch the tote board in the big races but to protect my bankroll for Sunday. I knew that I had a couple of horses that I liked on Sunday more than today and that I was going to want to have bullets to fire. The worst my bankroll could be going into Sunday was $730, after the final 3 mandatory races were played.

The 3rd mandatory race of the day was the 10th at Parx, the Grade I Cotillion with #9 Abel Tasman as the heavy favorite. My choice was #3 Actress, a good winner on Preakness Day, a fast closing 3rd to the #5 It Tiz Well at Delaware Park 2 back and a midpack finish at Saratoga in her last at 1 ¼, a distance likely too far for her. She figured to be 12-1 to 20-1. I played a simple $25 to win and place on Actress at off odds of 16-1 and watched her run to her odds. She ran a nonthreatening 6th from the back of the pack. No one made any headway in the stretch. I got lured in by the price of Actress but, according to my notes on the track for the day, that I conveniently ignored, she was going to have to run spectacularly to win as the pace scenario and the flow of the track was really against her. The bankroll stood at $830 with 2 mandatory races remaining.

The 4th mandatory race, the 8th at Belmont, went off shortly after the Parx race had finished. A 1 ¼ mile on the turf allowance race. The horse that I leaned to, #10 Aquaphobia, was an underlay in the win pool at 3-1. The horse that I thought was an extreme overlay was the #5, Azar at 15-1 m/l but 30+-1 on the board. He was claimed for 25K in his last (where he was 5-2 and ran 9th) from Todd Pletcher and has been raised to the allowance optional claiming ranks and in for the same 25k tag. He had competitive performance figures and figured to get a good trip. I bet $20 to win, a $10 exacta box with the #10 and a $5 exacta box with the #9 at 12-1 odds. Azar broke well and raced midpack to the turn and steadily dropped out of it. Didn’t run a lick. Finished 10th. Would have finished last but another horse was pulled up. Aquaphobia ran a very nice race, stalking the pace, took over the lead and drew off to win by 2 ½ lengths. I took my swing and missed badly but such is the nature of betting very long prices. The bankroll stood at $780 with one mandatory to go.

The 11th at Laurel was the final mandatory of the day. A 1 mile race on the turf and a race in which I did not have an opinion. I’m unsure how to play races like this in a contest. Do you play the favorite to show to try and preserve your bankroll? Do you play your favorite horse to win or place or both? Small exacta boxes with live longshots? I’m not certain that there is a right answer. My conclusion was to choose the horse that I thought had the best chance of winning at a price greater than 7-1. It was a strange odds board. The favorite was 9-5, three horses between 3-1 and 5-1 one horse in the teens and the reminder over 20-1. I chose #7, Flash McCall at 24-1. He ran a competitive figure in his last with trouble and that was good enough for me. I bet $25 to win and place. Flash finished up the track in 8th, never making a run. The race was won by the #10, Tizarunner at 13-1 followed by #12, The Tortoise at 32-1. A nice $363 for $1 exacta for those that saw a 10/12 finish. The final bankroll stood at $730. Well below by starting goal but safely above my ceiling.

Looking at the leaderboard, I sat in 27th place after Day 1. Overall, I was happy with Day 1, in the sense that I survived without doing too much damage. My handicapping wasn’t very good and I didn’t pick many winners, yet I was able to survive and took some shots with long priced horses that I felt had a chance to win. Saturday night was going to be a long night of handicapping and Sunday a long day at the track, assuming I could pick a few winners. Sunday tracks were Laurel, Gulfstream, Belmont and Churchill.

Seven o’clock comes early on Sunday morning. On my way to breakfast, I ran into Anthony Trezza, handicapping the day’s cards. We exchange pleasantries and were discussing positioning after Saturday, potential qualifying scores and general tournament play. I was commenting on the play of Jon Hurd, a tablemate of Anthony’s. It seemed as if he was playing every race on Saturdays card, yet he was maintaining a good position on the leaderboard. Turns out that he was playing a lot of small ball, wagering small amounts trying to hit a big score, whether it was a 25-1 winner or a $100 exacta combination. It was the first realization for me that my $50 per race wasn’t necessary if liked a longshot. I could bet less and take a shot without risking a full play. More “shots” on goal and potentially less risk for more reward. This realization would come in handy a bit later in the day. I wasn’t going to have a problem finding 5 races to wager a minimum of $50 on, so smaller bets could be a part of the strategy.

Looking at the Sunday card, I had an opinion on 10 or 11 races, and a strong opinion on 3 or 4 races. One of my strong opinions was in a mandatory race during the day. The mandatory races for Sunday were:

CD #3 post time 1:43
BEL #4, post time 3:05
BEL #7 post time 4:41
LRL #9 post time 5:10
LRL #11 post time 5:40.

There would be 3 races remaining in the contest after the final mandatory race.

Two things that I was considering going into Sunday racing. The prize structure went 20 deep, but the major prizes were for 1st through 8th. Finish in the top 8 and you get a seat to the BCBC, a 10K value, a seat at the NHC, a 10K value plus a graduated cash prize. If you finished 9th or 10th, you received a NHC seat and cash prize and 11th – 20th received a seat to the World Series of Handicapping or $1,500. The consensus among the regulars was that $1,800 would get you in to the top 8, 1,700 in the top 10. Starting the day at $730, I had a little work to do put those numbers certainly were within reach.

I started the day conservatively when I played the 1st race at Laurel. I liked the #6, Cara’s Nay Nay, the 6-5 favorite. I wanted to use a place bet as a conservative way to play my optional races and preserve my bankroll. She had the best performance figures coming into the race and figured to win. I wagered $50 to place on #6. She stalked the pace, took the lead entering the stretch and won by almost 2 lengths. Pretty easy winner and I was successful in preserving the bankroll for larger plays later on. She paid $2.80, for a $20 profit and a bankroll of $750.

I skipped the next 4 races from around the country and found myself at the 1st mandatory race of the day. The 3rd at CD was 1 mile on the dirt for 10K maiden claimers. I liked the #5, Smoken Velvet, m/l of 15-1. He was o for 5 with 2 2nd in his career. Both 2nd were at 1 mile on the dirt at Belterra Park. His last race, 1 mile on the turf was a last place finish and I thought his dirt form was significantly better than his turf form. I hoped he would stalk a moderate pace and be in a good position in the stretch. I kept it simple and wagered $25 to win and place at off odds of 21-1. Smoken Velvet broke poorly, raced in 6th along the backstretch, made a 6 wide move on the turn but never threatened and finished a disappointing 6th. The race was won by the #12 American Ride a 14-1 shot and the players and leaderboard were starting to fluctuate. My bankroll stood at $700 with 4 mandatories remaining.

My 2nd optional race was the 2nd race at Gulfstream. The race was run on the dirt at 6F on a good track. Overnight rains had made the course good and took races off the turf. The horse that I liked #5, The Sun Wind, liked the off going and was going to be a decent price. I didn’t like the #3 Cautious Giant, the 3-5 favorite. I was going to play conservatively again and play my horse to place. If the 3-5 favorite runs out, I’ll still get paid well and if I am wrong, I’ll preserve my bankroll if my choice runs 2nd to the favorite. The Sun Wind went off at odds of 4-1, pressed the pace of the odds on favorite to the top of the stretch and then folded like a cheap lawn chair and ran 5th of 6, beaten 12 lengths. The odds on favorite got caught in deep stretch by a 14-1 longshot. My conservative bet went down in flames and my bankroll stood at $650. I was listed as 23rd on the leaderboard but still $700 out of the money spots early on Sunday.

I decided to play some “small ball” on the 2nd at Belmont. A short field of 6 on the turf with an odds on favorite. I liked the #3 All Is Number, lone speed and 17-1. I bet 2 small exacta boxes of 3/5 and 3/6, the favorite and 3rd choice respectively. All Is Number got an easy lead but was no match for the classier mares and faded to 5th, beaten 4.5 lengths. My bankroll was down to $630.

The 5th at Churchill was the 1st race today that I had a strong opinion. The race was MSW, 1 1/16th on the dirt and I liked the #8, Tarpon Bay Road, the 3rd or 4th choice in the wagering. He was an 0 for 7 maiden but I projected a performance figure that was better than any other horse in the field had run. The #4, Powerful Ally was my only fear as he was shipping in from Saratoga with good speed figures and figured prominently in the pace. How much do I wager on a 0 for 7 maiden? There is a long way to go in the tournament and I do have opinions later on but that had to be weighed by how much I liked this horse and the odds. Tarpon Bay Road was 5-1 as they approached the gate. I decided on a $60 win bet and a $20 exacta box with the 8/4. Tarpon Bay Road broke last and spotted the field 12 lengths in the 1st quarter mile. I lamented my luck to pick such a nag and complained to my table mate that it wasn’t the best feeling to have a horse that is 12 lengths off the lead practically as the gate opened. I was “that guy” who we have all sat next to at the track or poker table. The horse was a come from behind type but, my wishful thinking I’m sure, had him a bit closer than this. As I was internally berating myself for picking another slow horse, he made steady progress down the backside on the rail, stayed on the rail around the turn while picking up horses, came in to the stretch and took the lead and held off the fast closing favorite, #2 Fireball Shot, to win by a length. Tarpon Bay Road paid $12.00 to win and I collected a profit of $260 to bring my bankroll to $890. I apologized to my table mate for all the whining and he nodded and smirked. He was very gracious.

My biggest strategy gap is races like that above. Should I have bet more to win at 5-1? Do I forget about exactas or only use them as a place wager? If I play that way, do you give up the chance for a big score when you are exactly right. I don’t know the answer and continue to think about it.

The 4th at Belmont was the 2nd mandatory race of the day. A 1 ¼ mile MSW turf race with a full field of 12. According to the performance figures, the race was wide open and I was looking to spread on the race while including live longshots. The horses that I favored were #3 Spring on Curlin, #5 High Promise, #7 Not in Charge and #12 Peace Speaker. I decided on $10, 4 horse exacta box, using the 4 horses I liked at prices of 9-1, 9-1, 25-1 and 7-2, throwing out the favorite and 2nd choice as having no better chance than the horses that I included. A high variance play but one that could pay handsomely if I hit it and potentially vault me to the top 8 of the leaderboard. The race was not run as I expected as I thought my horses would be closer to the lead. The #12, the potential pace setter sat 3rd, with the #3, #5 and #7 sitting midpack through 6 furlongs. The #7 at 25-1 made a big middle move to get the lead at the top of the stretch by 4 lengths with the #5 taking second by a length at 9-1. Big balloons if they are good enough. It wasn’t meant to be. The favorite, #6 Ima Captain Now, came running and overtook the #5 for second but not catching the leader. The winner paid $53.00 and the exacta paid $103 for a $1 wager but I didn’t collect on either. Such is the nature of a high variance wager. On the days that I connect for the exacta, that payout would put me over $2,000 for the tournament and almost assuredly get me a spot in the top 8, and potentially a chance to win the tourney. As it was, I dropped $120 from my bankroll and had $770 with 3 mandatory races remaining.

The 5th at Gulfstream offered up an opportunity. In a 6 horse field, there was a 4-5 favorite, #1 So Fresh, that, in my opinion, was way over bet. The race was a 7 furlong sprint washed off the turf. The 1 had run a good last race on the turf but only a so-so race in her debut on the dirt. The price was too short and I saw surprising value in the exacta pools in such a small field. The #8 was Sara’s Day, a main track only entrant, going off at 3-1, and figured to be the speed of the race, #5 Harbin Ice, the 7-2 3rd choice who was dropping out of a 200K stakes race and the #4 Tropical Runnings, a 2nd time starter for Charles Simon at odds of 16-1. I bet a small $5 exacta box trying to make a small profit with a chance for a good score. When Tropical Running passed a tiring Sara’s Day deep stretch, I connected on a $87.90 exacta for $1 and a profit of $409 in the race. My bankroll now stood at $1,179 with 3 mandatories and the top 8 places now in site.

The 6th at Gulfstream was the next race up on my list. One mile on the dirt and I liked the #1, Turncoat, 5-2 in the m/l but the likely favorite at 7-5 or 8-5. He had performance figures that were much better than his foes and figured to get a good trip from the 1 post. My secondary opinion was that I did not like the likely 2nd and 3rd choices in the wagering, setting up a potential value in the exacta. I played a $20 exacta key with the #1 over the #5 at 8-1, the #6 at 8-1 and the #8 at 21-1. Turncoat was a good stalking 4th down the backstretch, made a move on the turn to contention but wasn’t good enough and got outrun to finish 4th by 2 lengths. The #5, Life in Shambles got up to win with another longshot, the #7 at 13-1 finishing 2nd, keying the 3rd or 4th healthy exacta at Gulfstream on this day.

My bankroll was at $1,109, I stood around 15th place. At this point in the contest, my goal was to get to $2,000. I had 3 plays remaining on which I had strong opinion, 2 or 3 plays that I thought could offer some value as well as the mandatory races. There were 16 total races remaining in the contest.

The 6th race at Belmont was 1 1/16 miles on the turf. I did not like the favorite. The favorite was breaking from the 12 post and her performance figures were no better than lots of others in the race. I favored the #6, Kitty Madness, 15-1 in the m/l and figured to be all of that in the wagering. Her big negative was that she was handled by a 3% trainer. Her positives were that she fit at this level, had run faster than almost all in the race and figured to get a perfect trip in the garden spot. I hoped she would sit on the rail behind the cheap speed, takeover at the top of the stretch and outrun her opposition. My other choices to fill out the exotics were the #5 Table for Six, going off at 7-1 and #9, Pinchbeck at 6-1 going into the gate but 4-1 when the gates opened. I bet $20 to win and place on #6 at 17-1 and a $10 exacta box using the 6/5/9. At the top of the lane and midstretch, I looked like a genius. The #6 got the perfect trip, was riding the rail and was leading to deep stretch. #9 was running third and #5 was running fifth and making a move wide. Deep stretch, the #6 is running her eyes out but getting overtaken by the #5 and the #3, the 9-2 3rd choice, splits my choices and runs 2nd. Kitty Madness runs third beaten ¾ and a neck for all the money at 17-1. Pinchbeck ran 4th. If I make that wager 100 times, I’m going to make money in the long run, unfortunately, today was the short run and it is just another minus in the ledger. My bankroll stands at $1,019, hovering around 20th place in the standings.

The 8th at Churchill was the next race that I liked. It featured 2 horses that had better figures than the rest of the field. I played a cold exacta with the #2, Bud’s Bayonet at 8-5 over the #5, Rippin Ranger at 4-1. The #5 went to the lead, held to the top of the lane but was overtaken by 3 horses in the stretch, including the eventual winner the #2. Another $50 gone and a diminishing bankroll of $969.

The 7th at Belmont was the 3rd mandatory race of the day. A full field of 10 going 6.5 furlongs on the dirt. I had no opinion on the race so I looked for a plausible price. The #1, Saratoga Heater had won at the 25K claiming level 2 back was claimed, ran back at the same level last race and was claimed again and is entered back at the same level again. His performance figures are better than most and he can win on his best. At 7-1, he was my play. I bet $25 to win and place. Saratoga Heater didn’t run a lick. Probably a reason that he was entered in for the same tag 3 races in a row. He looks to be tailing off form. I was left with $919 with 1 mandatory left, 10 races remaining in the contest, 2 strong opinions and a couple of value propositions.

The leaderboard began to separate as well. The 8th slot was approximately $1,700, the leader was still at $4,000 and $2,500 had you in the top 5. There was plenty of action remaining but the names were unlikely to change. Someone had to hit a race hard and people were beginning to fire away.

I played the 9th race at Churchill small. A $5 exacta box on the 5/6/10 at odds of 26-1,7-1 and 12-1 respectively. Play small to win big. The favorites ran 1st and 2nd and I was down to $889.

The 4th mandatory race was upon us. The 9th at Laurel was an evenly matched 9 horse field going 7 furlongs on the dirt. The post time favorite was # 9, Stay Home at 5-2. I preferred the #8, Royal Crusader at 9-1. He won his last race, with a good performance figure, and if he could run the same race, he could beat this crew. I also liked the #6, Gold Braid, who was consistent and in good form. I bet $30 to win on #8 and a $10 exacta box 8/6. Roya Crusader pressed a moderate race in 3rd but didn’t have anything left in the lane and ran 5th. Stay Home won the race while Gold Braid ran 2nd. The bankroll was down to $839 with 1 mandatory and 7 total races left.

The 8th at Belmont was one of the last 2 strong opinions that I had. I liked the #1, Fourstar Crook, but so did everyone else on the planet, not surprisingly, as he was going off at 1-2. I though the value lied in the exacta and had planned on 3 cold exactas, trying to get 2-1 or 3-1 on my money. When looking at the will pays, I couldn’t find any value in the horse that most thought could run 2nd, the #6 Ack Naughty. I felt there was some small value in the #9, Sommersault at 9-1 and the #5, Feeling Bossy at 15-1. I played much smaller than I had intended. I bet a $70 exacta 1/9 and a $30 exacta 1/5. In a race with a torrid pace, the #11, won the battle but lost the war. Fourstar Crook, made up 20 lengths from the 6 furlong mark to the wire and proved much the best. #11 held on to 2nd by a diminishing nose to #6. My exacta combinations did not get a call. Thankful that I hadn’t wagered more, my bankroll sat at $739 and I was in 21st place, about $1,000 out of the real money.

The 10th at Churchill saw me make an exacta wager on 3 competitive long shots. I played a $10 box using the 4/6/8 at 9-1,7-1 and 32-1. They ran 5th, 6th and 7th. Down to $679 and in 24th, with 4 races left and the final mandatory at Laurel on tap.

The 10th at Laurel was at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Another wide open affair with a post time favorite of 3-1. I didn’t have a strong opinion here but did like the finale at Gulfstream, which was the penultimate race of the contest. I played #9, Matador at 10-1, $25 to win and place. Matador ran 7th and was never a factor. While my bankroll was now $629 and I sat at 22nd with 3 races remaining, the overall contest leader had changed.

Ed Peters, a 2 time NHC qualifier hit a large exacta in the mandatory race that catapulted him to the lead with over a $5,000 bankroll. Eric Moomey, who had the lead since the 2nd race at Belmont on Saturday had now dropped back to 2nd. For the rest of us, it now meant that 11th place would get an NHC seat as Ed could not win a 3rd seat.

I passed on the last at Belmont and watched an 73-1 shot win the race with a 41-1 shot running 2nd, keying an $1,800 exacta for $1. Somewhat surprisingly the contest area was pretty quiet except for one person cheering the runners home. When he let out a cheer at the finish, all of the contestants assumed we had a new leader. How often will someone hit an 1,800-1 exacta? As it turns out, the bettor was not in the contest. He had a winner and collected a nice payout but the contest leaders were unchanged.

Down to the last 2 races of the day and a $629 bankroll. I am conflicted. I like the #7, Seven Lillies, in the finale at Gulfstream, a 7 furlong sprint. He is the favorite or 2nd choice in the wagering at 5-2, hovering to 3-1. The only horse that I fear is the #8, a 1st time starter, who is taking money and is 5-1. Seven Lillies was a 2nd time starter dropping from MSW to Maiden Claiming, for a 5% trainer but her horses improved significantly 2nd time out. Furthermore, the horse had run the best performance figure in the field as a 1st time starter.

My considerations at the time were that 8th place is $1,900 and 11th place is $1,600. How much should I bet? I want to save a bullet for the last race. Am I hedging too much? Should I just bet it all at Gulfstream. These were all the thoughts going through my mind as we approached post time at Gulfstream. Not sure what the right decision is. My intuition is telling me to take 2 shots but I don’t think the math is with me.

I decided to wager $400 to win on the #7, who had drifted to 3-1 and A $50 exacta box 7/8. If I am right and the horse wins but I don’t hit the exacta, I should have a balance around $1,750, likely in the money. If I am right and the horse wins and I do hit the exacta, I will likely move into the top 5. If I am wrong and my horse runs 2nd to the #8, I likely have $1,500 plus a chance in the last and, if I am wrong altogether, I have a $130 bullet to fire in the last race at Laurel. My bet sizing can be argued but I thought this gave me the best chance of finishing in the top 11.

Seven Lillies breaks with the field coming out of the chute, settles nicely in 4th, makes a wide sweeping move entering the turn and is much the best throughout the stretch, winning by 13 lengths. There is a 3 horse battle for 2nd, unfortunately, none of which are the #8. Seven Lillies pays exactly $8.00 to win and I collect $1,600 to put my bankroll at $1,729 with the 11th race at Laurel remaining. When they refresh the leaderboard, I stand in 11th place, $59.50 clear of 12th, $90 out of 10th and $300 out of 8th.

The last race in the contest was the 11th at Laurel. I was looking at the exacta will pays with the #9, Victory Rally, on top. My goal was to wager a maximum of $59 in exactas to try and collect $300 or so to move to 8th while forcing someone below me to hit the race to pass me. I bet 2 $15 exacta combinations with the #9 on top of the #1, #4 and a $10 exacta on top of the #8. Each exacta had a will pay that would have propelled me to the top 8, paying at least 20-1.

The #8 went to the lead, followed closely by the #3 in 2nd and the #1 3rd. Victory Rally broke fair and was 6th and 4 wide into the first turn, he maintained his position down the backstretch, continuing to chase the pacesetters. The 9 made a 4 wide move around the far turn to get in to contention. At the top of the lane it was 8-3-1-4-9 fanned 5 wide in to the lane, with the #7 behind horses and waiting for room. At the 1/8 pole it was anyone’s race. The 8 was in the lead by a head over the 1 and 4 on the inside and ¾ of a length over the 3 on his outside. The 9 was in 5th 2 lengths back and grinding and the 7 was looking for a seam. At the 1/16 pole, the 1 and 4 were fading along the rail, the 7 found his seam and was surging to the lead, the #8 was holding on to 2nd, the #3 was running in between horses and the #9 was still grinding and closing the gap to less than a length but still 4th. They hit the wire and the #7 had won by ½ a length at 17-1, the #3 ran 2nd by a nose at 7-1, the #9 ran third by a head at 5-2 and the #8 ran 4th. Not a lot of cheering going on, people had fired away but it doesn’t sound like many people, if anyone had the #7 to win or in exactas. I may have survived and stayed at 11th and got a birth in the NHC…..and then came an announcement. PLEASE HOLD ALL TICKETS. There has been a claim of foul on the #7 by the 4th place finisher, the #8.

The buzz in the air was back. I happened to be standing around Jon Hurd who had gone all in on the race, keying the #3 and having an exacta with the #9, the current 2nd and 3rd place finishers. Jon started the last race in 16th place with about $1,300 or so. If they tale the #7 down, he gets his horse put up and he hits the exacta and can catapult up the leaderboard, depending on the final payouts.

Watching the race live, there did not seem to be any infraction. Watching the initial pan shot, it looked like the #7 had come out on the #8 near the wire but it looked more like a sell job by the #8. Watching the head on gave a different perspective. The #7 definitely came out and interfered but when did it happen. The infraction was so close to the wire it may have happened after the wire and not caused the #8 a placing.

Meanwhile, in the tournament area, Jon Hurd was in deep prayer. A change in the outcome could be worth $40K or more to him, between his two entries to future contests, his bankroll for this contest plus the prize money for finishing near the top of the standings.

After what seemed like 20 minutes short of forever, the stewards at Laurel decided to make a change. The #7 was disqualified and placed 4th, behind the #8. The final result was 3-9-8-7.

For those who weren’t sure who may have been affected by the decision, they only had to listen to the “lunatic” hooting, hollering and running around the tournament area. A good analogy was made by Eric Wing, the tournament communications director.emcee, that he looked like Jimmy V when he won the NCAA title with NC State. The disqualification propelled Jon to 2nd place in the contest.

As a result of the DQ, I dropped from 11th place, to 12th, bubble boy for the top prizes. Two players jumped above me in the standings while one fell below me. I don’t have any idea if I would have dropped out of the top 11 or not if the #7 remained the winner.

My final total of $1,684.50 was good enough for $1,500 or an entry into the Horse Player World Series. Disappointing finish for sure but I was happy with my handicapping, happy with my decision making and logic and unfortunate with the end result. I’ll be continuing to try and qualify for the BCBC and NHC in the upcoming weeks.

Lastly, I’d remiss if we didn’t mention our hosts, as Laurel Park had a clean comfortable area to wager and was well set-up. McKay Smith, who wore many hats including chauffer and tournament director was active and available for any and all questions, Peter was excellent in running all of the behind the scenes details and Eric kept us informed of all of the day’s mandatory races. First class operation all around.

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