Archives for August 15, 2017

A First Time Starter at the Wynn Handicapping Challenge

“Here were two tournament veterans wanting in on my action.  A far cry from just wanting to avoid embarrassing myself. “

By Justin Dew

A social media friend of mine pointed out to me that when one’s name is misspelled publically, it’s thought to be a sign of good luck.  Perhaps that’s what led to my 7th place finish in the Wynn Handicapping Challenge.  Or perhaps it was “Misspelled Name’s Luck” better known cousin, Beginner’s Luck.  Regardless, my experience in my first ever $2 Win/Place format tournament with an actual cash prize on the line has brought me to the conclusion that I am going to be taking part in these events for a long time to come.

The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge was my first handicapping tournament of any kind, and since then I have participated in several online qualifiers.  But the 2017 Wynn Handicapping Challenge was the first time I had ever competed for real money, other than the live money BCBC.  I am typically not a big goal setter, so I aimed low for the Wynn event: don’t embarrass yourself.  With $64 in mythical wagers each of two days, I would have been perfectly happy earning a score of $128.10 and looking at my lost $2,000 entry fee as an investment in my education.  Seriously.  My expectations were that low.  Especially after trying and failing to qualify for the event online four times at an additional cost of about $800.

I downloaded the Saratoga and Del Mar past performances on Thursday before my flight from Orlando to Las Vegas, but other than a cursory glance to get a feel for what the respective cards had in store, I didn’t do one second of handicapping before the event.  Not one second.  I am a huge believer in avoiding paralysis through analysis, and my limited experience in online qualifies has shown me how frustrating it can be to warm up to a horse at 12-1 on the morning line, see that horse open at 6-1, find another horse at better odds, and then watch the first horse win at 10-1.  So I knew I didn’t want to make any emotional commitments to any horse before I had a chance to see the tote board.  And with more than 30 minutes between races at Saratoga, I knew I’d have plenty of time to handicap.  So I essentially went in blind.

Me and my iPad arrived at the Wynn Sportbook about an hour before the Friday opener at the Spa.  There was no assigned seat for me since I had just registered that morning.  I was placed at a small table with two other guys who would become friends by the end of the weekend.  We will call them Scott and Brian since I neglected to get their permission to use their real names for this little story.  Scott and Brian were playing as a partnership.  I had seen Scott’s name on tournament leaderboards before.

With 30 selections over two days, I’ll spare you a breakdown of each horse I used and stick to the highlights.  After running last and second last with my first two plays, I used my one daily $4 Win and Place wager in the 3rd from Saratoga [Wynn rules allow one ‘double bet’ each day].  I wish I had kept the PPs from both days so I could tell you why I picked the horse, but I didn’t.  Anyway, Hardened won and paid $18.80 and $7.90.  Since I “fired my big bullet,” that horse was worth $53.40 to me.  After only three races, I knew I was near the top of the leaderboard, which I wouldn’t be able to actually see until the end of the day, per Wynn rules.  The Saratoga card would end with me only scoring on one other horse: Petrov, who paid $7.60 and $4.40.

In the 4th at Del Mar, Into Rissa (if I remember correctly) was moving into state-bred company from open maiden special weights company at about 12-1.  She ran 2nd and paid $10.20 to place.  I had used a short-priced winner earlier on the card and then blanked from there.  So I scored with four of 15 picks and had a Day 1 score of $85.80, good for 16th place out of 241 contestants.  When the Day 1 results were posted, I was identified at J. Drew.  My social media friends had a field day.

I approached Day 2 pretty much the same way.  Minimal prep and low expectations.  And I struck early and hard.  After initially planning to skip the first three races, I ended up playing them and making a move that would make me a contender for the victory.  In the 2nd race at Saratoga, an Al Stall Churchill shipper caught my eye, so I fired my $4 bullet and he won at 6-1.  Behavioral Bias paid $15.60 and $6.60, times two.  And in the very next day, me and my tablemates Scott and Brian both used 9-1 winner Estrechada.  Javiar Castellano had now won two in a row for me, and I was up to $74.00 for the day and $159.80 for the tournament.  The table celebrated together.

It was after the next race, the 4th from Saratoga, that things got interesting.  Scott and Brian used a Mott first-timer named Trumpi who won and paid $47.40 and $20.20.  This put them up near the $150 range, and right into contention with me.  Just then, as I started to handicap the 5th race, I noticed Scott motioning Brian to follow him out in to the casino.  I figured they were going to come back and inform me that tournament protocol dictated that we had to either switch tables or stop talking openly about our opinions since both parties were now in contention for some serious cash.  I was wrong.  They returned to the table and a fresh round of Diet Cokes (I think both of them combined for between 30-40 Diet Cokes over the weekend).  Scott said “So Justin.  We figure you are in the lead and we are in the Top 5.  How about we each agree to hedge for 10% of each other’s winnings, and we keep playing openly like we have been?”  Wow.  Here were two tournament veterans wanting in on my action.  A far cry from just wanting to avoid embarrassing myself.  I agreed, and it was on to the rest of the Saratoga card.

I would only hit three more horses from my remaining 11 selections.  The highlight for me was a D. Wayne Lukas runner in the 11th race named Warrior’s Club, who almost stole the race at 26-1 before Neolithic ran him down.  That extra $54 would have come in handy, but I settled for the $11.60 place payout.  I did manage to score with my final two picks, adding about $20 or so.  After two days, I had accumulated a score of $189.20.  Scott and Brian were in the low $160 range.  It was all over.  Time to wait.

It took about 45 minutes for the final results to be posted.  The people sitting around me speculated that I had a shot at the Top 20.  I was letting myself dream about maybe the Top 15.  Though I was fully prepared to be disappointed by a 25th-place finish, which would have been out of the money and out of the Top 10 percent.

But I was not to be disappointed.  I had finished in 7th place overall.  Scott and Brian also cracked the Top 20 and took home some cash.  My finish was worth $8,500, minus the 10% cut for Scott and Brian, plus 10% of their winnings to me.  I was absolutely stunned.  I never expected to perform so well.  It was truly beyond my wildest expectations.   In a room full of people who had done this many, many times before and who in some cases were viewing multiple laptops at once as they analyzed replays and charts, I had somehow managed to finish 7th without even looking at the past performances until there were 30 minutes to post.  I’ll say it again: I was stunned.

Scott and Brian invited me to the Wynn buffet, where I literally pinched myself half-a-dozen times just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.  To be honest, while the money was nice and will fund my return to the BCBC this year, what I really was excited about was knowing that I can compete with the best handicappers on the tournament circuit.  Maybe not every time.  Maybe not even most of the time.  But at least this time.  For at least a race or two, I was in the lead against 241 other handicappers.  And I ended up beating 97% of the field.  Was it Beginner’s Luck?  I guess time will tell.