The reasons I’ll be back

Everyone hates bad-beat stories because we all have our own and we’ve heard yours before. Whether you’re betting through the windows or playing in contests, every sob story is pretty much the same. “I needed the 6 for my Pick 4 and he got an awful ride.” Or, “I was gonna use the 7 in the contest but the odds dropped so I went with the 2. Then the odds on the 7 climbed back up and he won but it was too late.” So yeah, they can be different here and there. But they’re all the same. And they’re all annoying.

Allow me to annoy you. I wouldn’t do so unless I was convinced you’d enjoy it, and besides, you might learn something.

For me, the last 12 months of contest play have been frustrating, eye-opening, gut-wrenching, agonizing, and unforgettable. And I’ve loved every second of it. The brief stories below will explain why I have decided to temporarily step away from not only contest play, but from betting horses altogether, as I commit myself to never putting another dollar through the windows or into the contest entry box until I know I am absolutely nothing less than 100% prepared to fire my best shot and compete with Alexa Zepp, who in the last few months has managed to become the greatest contest player on Earth apparently.

2019 in the year of Our Lord began well for me. In January, I qualified for the NHC for the first time. In February, a furious Day 2 run got me to Day 3 at the NHC and an eventual 47th place finish worth $6,000. In March, I was invited to the televised Hawthorne Invitational Handicapping Contest, where I built my starting bankroll of $2,000 all the way up to $5,300 and first place on the leaderboard with one race to go- The Florida Derby. At that moment, I felt like I had arrived. This was a real event. With people you have heard of if you play in contests and follow the tournament circuit. And I was in the lead with one race to go. Well, I bet it all (yes, all of it) on Hidden Scroll and went broke. And if I had to trace my shift in contest fortune to one moment, it was the moment Hidden Scroll was taken back after breaking well in the Florida Derby. Because after that moment, almost nothing went right.

In May, I waited until the last minute to choose Spinoff over Country House as my Kentucky Derby win bet (although I did manage to cash for $11k thanks to using the Derby “winner” on top in the trifecta).

In June and July, I routinely finished near the bottom of too many online NHC qualifiers to count.

In August, I played two entries in the Indiana Grand on-track NHC qualifier, moved those entries up to 3rd and 4th place with two races to go, whiffed on my final four plays among the two entires, and finished 5th and 8th in a contest awarding NHC seats to the top three. Steve Simonovic told me to use Higher Power in the Pacific Classic at the end of that contest. I used Tenfold and Mongolian Groom. I should have listened to Steve.

In September, two consecutive win bets on horses that ran 2nd by a nose (literally, a nose) cost me an NHC seat at Canterbury.

In October, I qualified for the NHC. Hooray.

In early November, I just needed Anneau d’Or to pass Strom the Court for a $30,000 hit in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.

In a late-November contest at Hawthorne, I cancelled a $500 win bet on Silver Prospector and placed a new $300 win bet on the same horse when he appeared headed for final odds in the area of 12-1 instead of the 8-1 price I had planned for. He went off at 8-1 and won. Cancelling part of the bet cost me around $1,600 and forced me to have to make additional bets to win a second NHC seat. I did not win those bets. I did not win a second NHC seat.

And now, nearly a month after the fact, I am ready to talk about February’s NHC. But I am going to make it short and to-the-point. And I’m only talking about it at all because in last weekend’s Flo-Cal Faceoff, I applied a “lesson” I “learned” at the NHC and it may have cost me money.

In short, I had a terrible Friday but an amazing Saturday at the NHC. Late on Day 2, I sat in 21st place with a score of $189, two mandatories and four, yes four, optional plays left. At this point, I wasn’t really concerned with whether or not I would make it to Day 3. I truly thought I already had. No, I was concerned with how high up the leaderboard I would start Day 3. So I stuck with what got me to 21st place, which was playing the opinions I had formed that morning. I didn’t play favorites in an attempt to grow my score to $200 or $210. I wanted $250 or $270. I wanted the final table and I wanted $800k.

Unfortunately, bombs ran 2nd and 1st in the final two mandatory races, a lot of people stabbed their way past me, and I hit exactly zero of my final six plays. I choked. It’s as simple as that. 82nd place for me in my second NHC, just one year after running 47th in my NHC debut.

But it was two races on Friday at the NHC that, arguably, cost me not only a berth into the NHC semi-finals and a minimum check of $10,000, but also cost me a much, much better showing in the Flo-Cal Faceoff last weekend. This is the lesson I mentioned above. On Friday, there were two horses that I identified as certain optional plays early in the morning. In both cases, the horses in question opened way lower on the tote board than both the morning line maker and I had anticipated. One horse stayed low on the board through the race. The price on the other crept up slightly, but not enough to convince me to use an optional play. Both horses won. The optional plays I made on other races did not. The decision cost me about $21 in contest dollars, and at least $10,000 in real dollars.

The “lesson” I took away was, had I stuck to my original plan and my original plays, I would have made it to Day 3. I passed on two horses that I liked, and both won. Simple lesson.

Which brings me to the Flo-Cal Faceoff. And since this little story of mine is fast approaching “too long, didn’t read” territory, I’m going to get short and to-the-point again.

I’ll be back from my short contest break because I decided to switch my pick to Harvey Wallbanger before changing my mind at the last second and sticking with my original pick who still hasn’t crossed the finish line because of the “lesson I learned at the NHC”. I said to myself, “It’s too early to start chasing. You’re behind, but so is everyone. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Look what shifting gears cost you at the NHC. You ranked Harvey Wallbanger second this morning. Keep it that way.” Wrong decision.

I’ll be back from my short contest break because I would have used Louder Than Bombs at 54-1 whether I was in 1st or last. A little ground saved here and there, and he wins.

I’ll be back from my short contest break because my Flo-Cal Faceoff picks ran 2nd or 3rd at double-digit odds more times than I care to talk about.

I’ll be back because a nose here, a neck there, a different decision on Harvey Wallbanger that I made and then un-made, a better trip for Louder Than Bombs, and who knows? It’s not hard to do the math and see I might have won the whole thing, just like everyone else with a sob story.

I’m taking a break because for the last year, it’s been an endless stream of self-imposed defeat and the contest world will mess with your mind if you don’t proceed with conviction each and every time. For the last year, conviction has eluded me and found me at all the wrong times.

I’ll be back because one day….oh wait. Did I just see that the Spa and Surf Showdown has a guaranteed purse of $150,000 and that qualifiers are happening now? Looks like the break is over baby! Breaks are for losers anyway. What the hell was I thinking? Anyone like this Tomlinson firster on the grass in the 5th Gulfstream on Wednesday? First leg of the Rainbow 6. Who’s with me?


  1. Rich Nilsen on March 3, 2020 at 8:48 pm

    Nice ending.

  2. TROY DAUN on March 3, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    I could see that ending coming a furlong away, there’s no quitting in horse racing, keep it up, your day will come.

  3. Joe E. on March 3, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    First let me say that I did enjoy your article and you are right bad beats stories are annoying especially the ones like yours in which you at least won seats to the NHC back to back years. A lot of us don’t even get to be that fortunate to get that ticket to the NHC in Vegas. I would be grateful for just winning that one entry to the NHC Tournament. Wish I had a year that you had from February 2019 to February 2020. I got the feeling you were crying with your pockets spilling out with wads of cash just that you could have had them overflowing with lots more greenbacks. It was a nice ending that made me smile. I think we all suffer from that power of our convictions and find ourselves switching selections or amounts wagered as I have done the same and felt the pain of it too many times to admit. Glad we will keep trying and I will try to restrain from telling bad beat stories.

  4. Bill Duncliffe on March 4, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    Great overview of the yin and yang of contest play.

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