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Avoiding Landmines

The Claiming Crown Ultimate Handicappers Open was held at Canterbury Park on August 2, with 47 entrants gunning for the $28,000 first place prize. The top three (not already qualified) finishers also qualified for the $1,000,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship next January in Las Vegas.

The format was as follows: players had to wager at least 50% of their bankroll in 6 of 8 races, and the last race of the contest was a mandatory play. Wagers were limited to single race events; no multi-race wagers were allowed. Also, dime superfectas were not allowed but dollar superfectas were strongly encouraged. The starting bankroll for each player was $1,000 and the contest entry fee was also $1,000.

Not many of us can pony up $2,000 and just start swinging away. Fortunately, Canterbury Park offers many opportunities throughout the year to win your way into the contest and that’s exactly what I did. I won a little $10 super satellite back in January, which qualified me for a $100 satellite in February. The top 2 finishers from the $100 February satellite qualified for the Ultimate Handicappers Open, all expenses paid. Then Canterbury repeated the same process each month and that’s how many of us got our spots in the event. You just have to be right at the right time, because somebody’s going to win.

Strategy – I had never played in this format before, but from watching it a few times I knew that the wagering strategy was extremely important. It’s certainly more important than the actual handicapping of the races, in my view. In this format, you can beat a lot of players by understanding the concept that it’s just as important to not lose as it is to win. And wagering those kinds of dollars can have a strong influence on your decision making skills (it’s real, live money after all, and your final bankroll is yours to keep).

Another key strategic factor is deciding which two races to skip, or if you want to skip any races at all. To make a proper decision on that, you need to have a strong handle on each race prior to the event and then determine where your best opinions are within the sequence. Also, it helps to know your own personal strengths and weaknesses as a handicapper. I’ve always had stronger opinions on dirt races than turf races, so I ultimately decided to skip both turf races prior to the Lady Canterbury, which was a mandatory play.

The Contest – Race 1) This was the Iron Horse. My contender group for this race was only 2 deep, and included the two favorites Antrim County and House of Usher (although House of Usher was 12-1 Morning Line I wasn’t expecting anything close to that). I played $250 to win on House of Usher as the probable lone speed (3-1 when I made the play), played the Antrim County over House of Usher exacta for $150, and Antrim County over E’ Carte’ and Biblical Scholar for $50 each.

The two favorites dominated, with Antrim County defeating House of Usher and the exacta paid $7.60 for a dollar. My bankroll stood at $1,640 good for 6th place after one race.

Race 2) This was the Glass Slipper, a 5 horse sprint for fillies and mares. Moonlight Dreamer on the rail appeared to be the lone speed, and Chippewa Court appeared to have enough speed to stay relatively close early. The other three looked like they would drop pretty far out of it on the backstretch. The way the Canterbury main track has played lately, I figured it should come down to the speed or the stalker to win it. This was one of those situations where I was really more interested in not going backwards as I was about going forwards. I was off to a solid start and wanted to put another race behind me, hold my position and see what other people did. I debated betting Moonlight Dreamer to show, or betting both Moonlight Dreamer and Chippewa Court to win. In the end, I decided to make the 2-horse win bet because I didn’t quite trust the class level of Moonlight Dreamer coming from Mountaineer Racetrack. I had to bet $820 dollars in the race, so bet $410 on each to win. Moonlight Dreamer was 5/2 and Chippewa Court was 8/5.

It was a good decision because Moonlight Dreamer sprinted to the lead early, but drifted wide into the stretch and tired to fourth. Chippewa Court stalked the early lead, moved to the front entering the stretch and held co-favorite Morghyn safe by a neck in the final 100 yards. Chippewa Court only paid $5.40 to win, but I moved forward a bit and put another race behind me. The win pushed my bankroll to $1,907 and maintained my 6th place position.

Race 3) The Express was a 6f race for colts and geldings. I decided to bet this race even though I didn’t have a strong opinion on who would win it. I did have a pretty strong opinion on who wouldn’t win it and that was the locally based Chickster. He’s had a phenomenal year, but I just couldn’t envision a scenario where he could sprint clear and wire a field of this caliber. He was going to take some money. So, I went to the multiple win bet strategy again, leaving Chickster out of the mix. I had to bet $954 dollars here, but decided to just bet an even $1,000 spread out over the other three horses that I pegged as contenders. The 9/5 favorite Fireonthewire looked strong with 5 straight 1st or 2nd place finishes on the East Coast, so I bet $500 to win on him. The 5/2 second choice Extra Exclusive looked strong with the trainer switch back to Cody Autrey so I bet $300 to win on him. And the local horse Secret Fever had gone favored against Chickster two starts back and chased Eagle Storm last time, so I bet $200 to win on him at 5-1. He was actually 8-1 when I made the bet, but was bet down to 5-1 at the end.

I hung my head early as Chickster immediately opened up two lengths on the field. But he was about done by the top of the stretch as Extra Exclusive snuck through on the inside and blew them away down the stretch to win by 5 lengths, paying $7.80 to win. That netted me a $170 profit in the race and moved my total to $2,077 and into 4th place.

I had a brief scare when they started scrolling through the tournament leaders and my name showed $907 after it. “Oh no”, I thought. “Don’t tell me I bet the wrong number or something like that”. But when I checked my wagering card it showed $2,077 and it was just that the standings hadn’t been updated yet.

Race 6) This was the Tiara on the turf. I had a decent opinion that Couple Whiles was going to run well, as I liked the pace scenario for her and the fact that she was a locally based horse with 7 in-the-money finishes out of 10 local starts. She was also a decent price on the board at nearly 10-1. But the fact was that my turf opinions are usually wrong, and I really needed to just sit one out and see what happened with the other players. I passed the race and selfishly hoped Couple Whiles would run off the board to validate my decision.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Couple Whiles ran a terrific race, splitting horses in mid-stretch and running a game second behind 16-1 longshot Cat Hop. I had missed an opportunity to add to my bankroll and survive another race. Or had I? When I got back to my table and looked at the Racing Form, there was only one horse I had lined out as a non-contender: Cat Hop (probably because Jeff Maday loved the horse). So, it’s hard to say if I would have hit the race or not, because multiple win bets certainly wouldn’t have worked. Couple Whiles to place or show would have been good, but I never got as far as formulating a betting strategy on the race, so it will forever remain a mystery. Two contest players did hit the race big, and separated themselves from the rest of the pack. I dropped a couple of spots to 6th, and focused my attention on the next race.

Race 7) This was the Rapid Transit at 6 furlongs. Upon first glance at this race, it looked too tough and I was going to pass it. But when I decided to pass the turf races, this became a must play situation. Forest Attack was the 2-1 favorite, and he looked extremely tough as he had run 1st or 2nd in 7 straight races, including a close loss to a super horse named First Defence. Tempo Five was lightly raced with 5 wins from 7 lifetime starts, and Eagle Storm was the local star with keen early speed and 4 daylight wins in a row. I decided to bet $1,100 total, and played a large $700 show bet on the favored Forest Attack, and also played $200 to win on Tempo Five and Eagle Storm (they were both 5-1 when I bet, but were 3-1 and 7/2 at post time).

Eagle Storm sprinted clear and wired the field at 7/2 odds, as favored First Attack never threatened and finished 6th. Show bet = dead. I got back $960 for the win bet and netted a $140 loss in the race. Bankroll was at $1,937 and I stayed in 6th place. That was a disappointing run from the favorite, to be sure. We move on, it wasn’t a fatal blow.

Race 8) This was the Emerald on the turf, and my second pass of the contest. I didn’t have any opinion at all, and it was probably a good time to skip one and compose myself after the last race. I started doing the math in my head: what happens if I roll two doughnuts in the last two races, crazy stuff like that. Hey, it passes the time.

The race came back chalk-chalk-bomb, and it appeared that nobody around me hit it. The standings board showed that I moved up two spots into 4th place by passing. Ah yes, the value of not going backwards in this format. Also, we were told about this time that the top two leaders in the contest were already qualified for Vegas, so the qualifiers would extend to the top three finishers not already qualified. Nice.

Race 9) This was the Jewel at 1 1/8 mile on the main track. I was really hoping to hold my position for one more race, which would mean that even if I blew the Lady Canterbury that I would at least have my original bankroll to show for the day. And, it would give me a $1,000 swing at the Lady Canterbury instead of only a $500 swing, so that’s a big deal too. But I was having trouble formulating a 2 or 3 horse wagering strategy for the race. The fact of the matter was that I only liked a single horse in the race, and that was Won Awesome Dude.

After much deliberation, I decided that rather than hedge on horses I didn’t particularly care for, I would make a single $1,000 show bet on One Awesome Dude, and hope that today wasn’t the day that he missed the break, ran a dull one, or was disqualified. Not today, not this race, not this time….please.

My worst fears never materialized. Won Awesome Dude got a perfect stalking trip in fourth, moved out at the top of the stretch and won by a game length at the wire. He was the 5/2 second choice and paid $3 to show. That moved my bankroll to $2,437 and maintained my 4th place position. One race to go…

Race 10) This was the Lady Canterbury and the final contest race. My goal was clear in my own mind, maintain my position and force players behind me to come and get me. The 2 leaders were up around $8,000, and 3rd was around $3,400 or so. And the good news was that I had an opinion that I was comfortable with in this race, an opinion that I was willing to lose with.

It was a contentious race, 11 runners on the turf with a lot of speed signed on, and I had an opinion that local horse Angel Smoke had a great chance to hit the board from off the pace. She was going to be a price, so if I was right she would pay at least $4.00 to show. The other horse I liked was the favored Tears I Cry, who was exiting 2 consecutive Grade-3 races and appeared to be the class of the field. If she hit the board, I could get a decent chunk of my wager back, although I would still lose some money in the race if Angel Smoke missed.

So it came down to this, a $600 show bet on 9-1 Angel Smoke and a $650 show bet on 2-1 Tears I Cry. One of these horses had to hit the board or it would be a lot of hard work and good fortune down the drain. No pressure.

I watched the race from ground level way over on the north side of the grandstand, so when they came by me in the stretch I knew Angel Smoke was moving well, though she was still several lengths back and in about 8th position. I wasn’t sure about Tears I Cry, she was near the lead, but I could see the gray Angel Smoke passing runners on the outside as I watched the jumbo monitor in the infield. I knew Angel Smoke was second on the wire and that was all I needed to maintain my bankroll, but I couldn’t tell who was third. The photo showed that it was Tears I Cry and that meant it would be pretty tough to knock me down too many spots on the board.

Angel Smoke paid $4.80 to show and Tears I Cry paid $2.60, which brought my total bankroll to just under $3,500. A 30-1 outsider had won the race, so there was definitely a chance that the superfecta could pay huge and people having that could go flying right by me. I wasn’t hearing a lot of buzz in the contest area, however.

The contest results were posted after about 10 minutes and it showed that I had finished 3rd overall. The 4th place player heading into the last race either bet more than 50% of bankroll or completely missed the race. I was actually $1,700 clear of 4th and $2,500 short of second. I was on an island in 3rd place.

So that was my strategy and that’s how it worked out. I’m certainly not saying it’s the best way to play this format or the only way, but it worked for me on this particular day. It’s a way to consider tackling this format for anyone looking for a strategy. Of course, I couldn’t have played this way if I hadn’t won early, I couldn’t have afforded to try to maintain my position. So the circumstances dictated the play, in my view.

There may be some second guessers out there that will say that my handicapping was so good on this day, that had I been more aggressive I could have finished first instead of third. It’s an unknowable, but let’s just look at the last two races where I made show bets that were successful. Won Awesome Dude paid $7.60 to win and $3.00 to show. Let’s say I “go for it” and put $1,000 to win on Won Awesome Dude instead of $1,000 to show. The payoff may have been reduced slightly with the additional money in the win pool, but for the sake of argument let’s say it was the same. That would have been a $3,800 return instead of a $1,500 return, which would have put my bankroll at $4,747 heading into the last race. That would have necessitated a $2,375 bet, and since I didn’t like the winner, I’m not sure how “going for it” in that race would have resulted in anything other than a complete miss. I still would have finished third, but with a lower total. In my view, complete misses in this format are to be avoided like the plague.

Anyway, that’s how I turned $10 into just over $8,000, so I strongly encourage everyone to play these contests because you never know when it could be your day, or series of days.

The Oracle