Lessons from the First Big Online Tournament of the Year

By Rich Nilsen

The first big online handicapping tournament of the year was held over the weekend of Jan. 9-10 at horsetourneys.com, and I was fortunate enough to win into this $1,500 buy-in event via an initial $28 feeder.  It was also the same weekend at the local Tampa Bay Downs handicapping contest, so plenty of work was required to prepare for both events.

The Flo-Cal Faceoff, the Players Championship (April 2-3) and the Spa & Surf Showdown (August 14-15) comprise the new 2021 Tourney Triple series at HorseTourneys which features additional bonuses and prizes if you do well over the three contests.  The Flo-Cal closed on the morning of January 9th with a staggering purse of $570,373 based on 429 entries and a top prize set at $205,019.  The contest was comprised of full-card mandatory races at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita on both Saturday and Sunday, so this was going to be a long weekend.

On day one I got off to a very good start in the Flo-Cal Faceoff by hitting five winners from the first nine races at Gulfstream Park.  The problem was that I missed the big longshot that came in early in the day ($37.00 to win, $17 to place) and that missed $54 in bankroll was going to be difficult to overcome.

Unfortunately, I did not fare nearly as well at Santa Anita, so most of my Saturday bankroll came from South Florida.  I ended the day with over $97, an admirable score that was within ‘shouting’ distance, but that only put me in the top 25% of the field.  The lucrative prize structure was paying down to the top 28 players at the conclusion of the weekend.

Day Two of Flo-Cal

I decided I was going to swing for the fences on Sunday.  ‘Grinding it out’ seemed like a difficult strategy to make up the $60-90 deficit.  Hindsight is 20/20 and that proved to be a mistake on a day where shorter price horses were consistently winning throughout the afternoon.  The first longshot of the day wouldn’t come in until nearly 4pm when Weisser scored in Gulfstream Park’s 8th race, paying $27.80, $11.80.  I did not have him, and the situation was looking bleak.

However, I am not one to give up, knowing that in the span of just one-two races, a tournament player can make up huge strides on the leaderboard.  In the very next race at Gulfstream Park (race 9), I eyed a runner that was trying the turf for the first time.  The Munnings filly had won two of her three starts when sprinting and she had good tactical, early speed.  She looked like the type of filly that could win going 5 furlongs on the grass.  She was a juicy 17-1 and I knew if I could get this horse home, I was back in the top 50 of the standings.  I would then have a chance for some nice prize money if I could finish the day strong.

Choose Joy, my bomber, tracked closely in third and was loaded turning for home.  She surged in the final strides at the leader, but the front runner who had been off since June fought back and held on by a diminishing nose.  I got a $15.00 place payoff but missed out on an additional $36 for the win.  Numerous players had the 14-1 winner, and, instead of sitting on the first page of the leaderboard,  I was now sitting in around 170th  and the light at the end of the tunnel was very dim.

It wasn’t too long before the final race of the long weekend was upon us.  Sitting in about 140th and being only $20 out of the top 100, I had to decide if I was going to shoot for the top 100 to earn some points in this Triple Tourney event, or if hitting a bomb could move me into the top 28 of the cash prize winners.

In the field of 11 there were only three cappers and a 17-1 shot on the board.   The math told me I was blocked.  There was simply no way that I was going to pass over 100 players no matter what horse won.  It made more sense to find a horse I really liked at good odds.  [In the end my calculations were correct and even if I had hit the final contest race winner, I would have only ended up about 40th… but I digress.]

Not that I was considering the favorites, but the shorter priced horses in the field did not strike fear into anyone.  #11 Miss Dracarys had only raced one time.  She was let off at odds of 23-1 in her debut, indicating that she wasn’t exactly ‘well meant’ by her connections.  Despite that, she won, but now she was being asked to transfer that form on the other side of the country – not an easy task for a young horse.

So, I was on the lookout for a runner that had a strong chance of winning and represented some value.  I needed at least 6-1 odds to secure a top 100 finish, but of course, the higher the odds the better.

Santa Anita race favorites

#10 Empire House was starting for the dangerous Jonathan Wong outfit, but this runner had never attempted the turf.  She was getting first time Lasix and had a pedigree to handle the surface switch.  She made sense at odds of 9-1, but #4 Magical Thought was even more appealing.  Starting for trainer Peter Miller, arguably the best turf sprint trainer in California, this horse was dropping out of a graded stakes race and was cutting back from one mile to a preferred sprint distance.  She was also 9-1 and just the odds I needed to pass a lot of players on the leaderboard.

The Pivotal Question

When I first handicapped the race, it didn’t take my long to pass right over the #1 horse.  Having seen Mountaineers shippers lose at an extraordinarily high rate over the years, I didn’t care for the cheap maiden graduate to move to Santa Anita and win.  Although she had won by a large margin (over a bad field) she had “lugged out” in the lane, another negative note.  Two races back this horse had lost at Belterra Park.  Win at Santa Anita…are you kidding me?  Next.

Now, my Dad, who taught me how to handicap, would not have been so rash.  He would have looked at this odd shipper and asked himself the question, “What is this horse doing in this race?”  And that is the question that would have led to the correct answer.  He was here to win.

Santa Anita race 9 winner

The Mountaineer shipper had moved into one of the top barns in Southern California, that of John Sadler.  He had given the filly a long string of workouts, fairly consistent and dating back to at least early October.  She showed two bullet works in early October and a sharp 47.3 drill, sixth best of 52 at the distance on October 17.

Sadler was putting up one of the top jockeys in Southern California, Umberto Rispoli.  Rispoli is one of the best on the grass and also one of the best out of the gate.  This horse had flashed very quick early speed in her two races, and that is one of the main assets you typically want in a 6 furlong turf horse.

Why in the world would a top California barn obtain a lowly maiden winner from West Virginia?  By the stallion Cinco Charlie and out of a modest winner, the filly didn’t have much of a pedigree.  However, they clearly saw something in this runner and felt that she could fit a certain profile out West.  The connections were right, and they were handsomely rewarded.

The Final Race Result

With dusk falling over the stunning San Gabriel Mountains, Five Pics Please cruised to the front right out of the gate and ran the field off their feet.  At odds of 29-1 she easily held on for the shocking score in the $63,000 race.  She stopped the timer in a swift 1:08.91.

By not closely analyzing Five Pics Please and failing to ask the obvious question that my father would have asked, I missed out on a big longshot winner.  The Flo-Cal Faceoff champ turned out to be Alan Levitt, a 12-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship.  Back in 2012 he compiled a $195.20 bankroll en route to a 7th place overall finish in Las Vegas.  With one race to go Levitt was sitting in 19th place in the Flo-Cal Faceoff, and he wisely pulled the trigger on the Mountaineer bomber.  He catapulted past the 18 players in front of him and took down the lucrative six-figure cash prize.

The Final Race Result winner Santa Anita

copyright 2021 Equibase.com

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 17-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 twice. He cashed on the 2018 NHC Tour with a 19th overall finish. Rich was also a winner of a $24,000 package into Kentucky Derby Betting Championship I. A former executive with Brisnet.com, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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