January 25, 2002

Watching, Waiting

In less than 24 hours from the time this week's edition of On-Line at the Short Line is posted, the identity of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship winner will be known. While that person might be a well-known name in Thoroughbred horse-race handicapping circles, one of those illustrious "regulars" on the tournament circuit, prior results suggest that the 2002 champion and Eclipse Award winner for Handicapper of the Year will be a regular John/Jane Doe. In other words, just like the rest of us.

True, there are, as there are every year, some famous people participating in the tournament. Some of them have won multiple big-time, big-money handicapping competitions. Others, such as supertout Mike Lasky (a.k.a. Mike Warren), have made their reputations in less-flattering ways. Still others are known for their occupations within the industry. But for whatever reason, the best finishers in the first two editions of this competition have been those with serious professsions outside the racetrack.

In the inaugural edition of the tournament, Steven Walker, a civil servant from the heartland of America -- Omaha, Nebraska, to be specific -- who qualified at the tournament at Horsemen's Park in that state, outplayed 159 other contestants while more than doubling his mythical bankroll. Last year, Judy Wagner, a grandmother from New Orleans, took home the top prize. And chances are, this year's victor (or victress, as the case may be) is going to be someone whom we've never heard of before.

Indeed, the leader after the first day of the 2002 competition is a 50-year-old landscaper from Oakland, California. While the current second-place player is a known name in the high-tech handicapping world, others chasing in the top five include a professional driver and a financial manager.

While there is no denying their excellent handicapping exploits at this stage of the tournament, there's always that four-letter word to consider: luck. The leaders have done their handicapping, but their horses still must come through with the all-important win or second-place finish. Clearly, these guys' picks have coming through in the clutch, for now, anyway.

To illustrate the importance of their horses getting the great trip, or benefiting from a rough journey from a favorite or two, the past two champions, Walker and Wagner, are nowhere near the top this time around, each stuck around the $36 mark. Have they all of a sudden forgotten how to handicap well? Unlikely. Are they not getting the highly fortunate set of circumstances that propelled them to victory in the past? Most likely.

For now, the leaders must put their pens and pencils to the pp's and look for those well-meant mid-to-long-priced horses that will keep them near the top. In a few hours, there will be nothing else for them but watching and waiting and wondering whether their selections will keep up their end of the transaction.

The Tournament Insider

We have been very lucky to have our correspondent Ed check in nightly from the home of the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, the MGM Grand. (You can view his other posts on the new Horse Talk forum.) Oh, the things he's seen...

"The guys who are serious about winning take care of every last detail. They understand there will be plenty of uncontrollable things happening on the racetrack, so they want to minimize the chances of any other surprises happening.

"For example, many of the top players choose where they're seated in the racebook. No seats in the middle of an aisle for these guys. They're strictly at the ends. And they're not way toward the back, far from the monitors, and they're not up toward the front where all the foot traffic and chatter are likely to be heaviest. In the middle of the room, on the ends, and they're at home.

"Fifteen plays a day from eight different tracks sounds like a lot, but when eight of them are pre-selected, that leaves seven free-choice spots from 64 races or so. Which seven do you play? Even the tourney pros are highly protective of their so-called optionals. Especially with a mutuel cap on the prices, they're highly unlikely to stab on a 30-1 or 40-1 in an optional.

"These optionals are the most important currency these players have, and it must be spent wisely. They want everything, emphasis on the every part, to be perfect and optimal before parting with an optional. It's hard, but that's what the leaders have been doing -- and they've been getting good prices to go along with the ideal circumstances.

"When the mandatory races go off, there is a big-race feel in the air, similar to how every racetrack in the country comes to a collective silence and standstill to watch the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Classic. The tumult was at its peak in the seventh race at Santa Anita on Friday, a wickedly competitive turf marathon in which four horses hit the wire virtually simultaneously. Clearly, 80 percent of the room had one of those four horses.

"In the media tournament, this correspondent can't tell which is more fake: the horse-picking prowess of the two Penthouse Pets on Team Penthouse, or the two pairs of you-know-whats they're concealing in their T-shirts. If those girls are really handicappers, then next month's issue of their magazine is going to have a 177-page centerfold, one for each of the finalists in the real tournament!

"One of the Pets, honorary 30th Anniversary Pet Alexa Lauren, is doing better than her team captain, DRF Mike Watchmaker. Also behind her are DRF Publisher Steven Crist, as well as DRF Handicapper Mike Hammersly and DRF columnist Lauren Stich. Indeed, Ms. Lauren is third among media players. You figure it out.

"Is there a prettier winter-racing sight than horses loading into the gate for a turf race at Gulfstream, where the camera shot catches the shimmering, picturesque infield lake in the background?

"The room rightfully gasped in horror during the seventh race at Aqueduct, when a spill took place in upper stretch. The horse that initiated the accident was in the midst of making a winning move, though most players who had the horse were more concerned with the condition of the horses and riders than with bemoaning their tough luck.

"Mainstream media outlets will provide coverage of the tournament, albeit delayed. Reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine are on the scene, and The Discovery Channel has been shooting footage during the tournament, though this reporter has not ascertained the name of this project.

"Eight players could not get any of their 15 selections to finish better than third, resulting in a first-day score of zero. Tournaments are not for the faint-hearted, and each of these eight players obviously realizes that to win a competition of this magnitude, you simply cannot be afraid to finish last. Better luck to them tomorrow.

"As was the case last year, the final race of the tournament is the Saturday finale at Golden Gate Fields. And once again, it is a maiden-claiming sprint. Never a dull moment."

Thanks to Ed for his you-are-there commentary. It's the next best thing to having a (horse)fly on the wall!

A Couple of Saturday Stakes

The Fair Grounds feature is also the beginning of that track's three-year-old stakes series, which culminates with the running of the Louisiana Derby in March.

Tomorrow's race is the Lecomte Stakes at a flat mile. A nice-sized 11-horse field is in prospect, and they're headed by 5-2 morning-line favorite Sky Terrace, and rightfully so. Sky Terrace has more than enough early speed to control or sit just off the first few calls before maintaining reasonable-enough velocity to the end. There might be a slight concern about the layoff.

Mapp Hill is another live issue. This guy ran down a good-but-not-great pace last time, in a sprint, and now makes his second try around two turns. The post is a killer at this distance, but he should be able to ration his speed effectively in this route attempt.

At Turf Paradise, it's the five-and-a-half-furlong Swift Stakes for older horses. Iza Redhead is really a gray-haired eight-year-old, and while he doesn't do much winning, he might be the one most benefited by the pace-and-speed circumstances of this race. He was able to get back to top form last time, his third off a nearly seven-month layoff, and anything close to that in here will be OK. He's proven his worth in the lane often enough.

Best wishes for a profitable weekend.

Our Weekly Brazen Attempt to Try to Sell You Something...How Dare We!

Yep, we do have a book for everything. And some mopes have to flap their busy brown beaks in every forum about every fleeting topic, too. We'll let you figure out whether it's the books or the beaks that'll help you win more. And, yes, we are grinning, thanks.

That said, check out the full assortment of books we have to offer. No, they're not free like the bloviations on most message boards, but it is true that you do get what you pay for, though paying anything for a random-number generator is still too much.

OK. Click on this link to the Cynthia Publishing Company Handicapping Store.

The newest offering: Mark Cramer's latest booklet, authoritatively titled Hidden Probabilities: Hard-Core Research for X-Rated Horseplayers.

In inimitable Cramer style and packed with unique research, Galileo-inspired thinking and writing (with high-level concepts made easy to grasp, thanks to Cramer's renowned facility with the English language), this new booklet is an ambitious blend of the nearly mechanical, the almost-magical and the fully inspired. That's because our friend Cramer takes 10 time-honored and simple handicapping concepts and pulses them through the kink-o-master machine, coming up with a stunning creation of staggering beauty and elegance that's good enough to eat.

Whoa. That's just plain silly. But you get the idea. Hidden Probabilities: Hard-Core Research for X-Rated Horseplayers is going to be another valuable addition to the handicapping literature, courtesy of someone who knows how to do just that.

New Contest Is for the Long Run

If you prefer a route of ground to a one-turn sprint, the current edition of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest is for you! For more details, please click here.

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