Instead of handicapping the Race of the Week for Post Time this weekend, we're going to try our hand in the free NTRA/TVG Online Challenge, which runs Saturday. This week's contest will reward the top three finishers with a trip to Las Vegas for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Jan. 28-29 at the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa.
This weekend's contest races will be held at three tracks: Monmouth (races 4-6), Woodbine (races 6-8) and Hollywood Park (races 5-8), a total of 10 races. Players place one (1) $2 "win" wager and one (1) $2 "place" wager on the same horse. Multiple wagers on different horses in any one race are prohibited. There is a cap placed on all mutuel payoffs. The win cap is 20:1 ($42.00). The place cap is 10:1 ($22.00).
Handicapping contest strategy is much different than your normal Saturday afternoon handicapping. You will probably need to hit a long shot or two to finish in the top tier of handicappers. You will have to predict which races offer the biggest chance for an upset or longer-priced horse to win or finish second. Playing the chalk (favorite) usually isn't the best strategy unless it's a sure thing. Looking for potential value in horses with middle level odds (3-1 to 10-1) gives one the best chance to start stockpiling points and putting oneself in a position to win. Lastly, the races with larger fields render a better chance to score with a horse with higher odds.
Sitting in a contest in Henderson, Nev. several years ago, which had five mandatory races and five races that one could play from any of the selected tracks, we just missed qualifying. A 15th place finish was just outside of the money, and resulted mainly because we didn't stick with the plan. Saturday's NTRA contest is made up of 10 pre-selected races, so there will be no unnecessary straying to tracks outside of our normal wheelhouse.
So let's take a quick look at all 10 races and where we're leaning for our contest selections. Of course, selections can be changed up to a minute to post, so depending on the odds, we may alter our selections by post time.
Monmouth Race 4: The contest starts off with a 6-furlong maiden special weight for 3-year-olds and up, which means we're getting down and dirty right off the bat. I'm looking at True Heaven (3-1 morning line) to get me off on the right foot in the contest. With Monmouth's better riders, Joey Bravo, in the irons, and a couple of third-place finishes at the distance, he seems to make sense. My backup will be Steady Gentleman (9-2), who has hit the board four of seven times in races at six furlongs. We'll be watching the tote board before making a decision between these two.
Monmouth Race 5: The second contest race is a $47,000 allowance N1X over a mile and 70 yards that has attracted 12 starters. Again, I'm going to jump on the Bravo train and go with Victor's Boy (10-1) who is only one of two horses in the race to win at a mile and shows a solid recent workout. The other horse who has won at the distance is No Fret (15-1) who has won three lifetime races in 13 starts. We have an interesting choice to make here; again we'll wait to see what the tote board offers before selecting between these two.
Monmouth Race 6: An 11-horse field of 2-year-old maidens going a mile and 70 yards on the dirt, including two first-time starters. On paper, the Bellamy Road colt Bellamy's Boss (5-2) owned by the late George Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stables looks to take a lot of money, so I'll stay away from him. I'm leaning towards Magnifi Cat (6-1) who was well bet in his debut and finished a strong second after going four wide. Big field with unpredictable two years olds lends a great chance to catch a price in this race.
Woodbine Race 6: The contest shifts from the Jersey Shore to the Great White North and the first synthetic race to be contested. Race 6 at Woodbine is an $8,000 claiming race for fillies and mares 3-year-olds and up, going a mile and 1/16 on the polytrack. Sunflower Drive, should she stay at his morning line of 6-1, will be my choice based on her record on the Woodbine polytrack. She boasts solid speed figures and had some decent success at Fort Erie this fall, winning three of her last four. Initforreal seems to be making a class drop, or she's just been racing over her head, so I'll stay away.
Woodbine Race 7: Another big field of 14 horses going a mile and 1/16 on the polytrack for a $71,600 purse. I like Prized Humour (4-1) going back to the all-weather surface after four tries on the turf. He has the pedigree for a route horse and has won at the distance and at Woodbine. Scratching my head trying to figure out the odds on Cold Harbour (one win in 17 tries at Woodbine) and Thunder Ball. We're also considering Free to Fly at 15-1 who finished strong in September at the distance against similar foes.
Woodbine Race 8: The Autumn Stakes (G2) will be run for $150,000 on the poly track at a mile and 1/16. This race has some classy competitors including the Queen's Plate winner Big Red Mike and Southdale, both who should take money. I'm going to gamble with a horse that hasn't run on the synthetic before, but based on a bullet workout on Halloween, I'll give Lord Justice a shot at 8-1 and hopefully he'll climb higher. He's three for five at the distance and will have faith in trainer Reade Baker's move from the dirt to all-weather surface. He's won two non-graded stakes at Monmouth this summer, so I'll go for the price and hope the name horses take the money at the windows.
Hollywood Race 5: The contest shifts to the left coast and a different type of synthetic track, the Cushion Track of Hollywood Park. We're looking at a maiden claiming 5-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds with a purse of $32,000. I'm veering from my normal strategy to try and engineer a nice payout in this race. I'm looking hard at first time starter Dulce Con Leche, a Candy Ride colt who sports some solid workouts and a nice Tomlinson figure for the distance. When a veteran rider like Rafael Bejarano jumps on a first timer; handicappers should take notice. We're looking for a bomb to come in here.
Hollywood Race 6: A $40,000 optional claiming 5-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-olds attracted eight horses to enter. There appears to be a ton of speed in this race, so I'm going to hope for a pace meltdown and go with Maui Mark to pick up the pieces late. Winter Camp and El Scorpio will be locking horns early at a very hot pace. Blue Jay Attack intrigues me with Bejarano up.
Hollywood Race 7: Another 2-year-old maiden race, but this time at 6 furlongs on the Cushion Track of Hollywood Park. Five of the 12 entrants are first-time starters, which for me is typically an automatic throw out. I'm between Switzer's Da Man and Robie the Cat on this one. I like how Switzer's has finished second twice, gaining ground on the winner both times going 5 1/2 furlongs, the extra 1/2 furlong may be the difference. Robie the Cat, with Bejarano in the irons, and jumping off Schuykill Punch is usually a sign of who the better horse is.
Hollywood Race 8: The last race of the contest is the $250K Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup for 3-year olds going a mile and 1/2 on the Hollywood turf course. At this point in most contests I have played, one either goes big or goes home. I like Where's The Remote to pull an upset here at a decent price. Look no further than two races back where Champ Pegasus beat him by a quarter of a length, before placing last weekend in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Throw out his last race on an off track and let's hope he is closing late to pick up the victory and a seat for me in Vegas!
Good luck and remember to check the scratches and changes on Saturday before the contest begins.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer, handicapper and member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He handicaps the race of the week on Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com.
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