09/02/2015 12:47PM

Despite snafu, Shurman nabs second NHC seat


There was a good story to come out of last weekend’s Monmouth Park contest, where 10 players won their way into the National Handicapping Championship. None of them has a higher profile in the contest world than Paul Shurman, who secured his second spot for the 2016 event.

Shurman has qualified for the NHC 14 times and finished in the top 10 three times. He’s also a former NHC Tour champion. Shurman qualified early on in 2015 and just missed his second berth over Kentucky Derby weekend when he was nosed out by 60 cents by former NHC champ Jose Arias.

I recently wrote a column about the importance of “hugging the machine,” that is waiting until the last possible second to put in a play. I’ve also written before about the “decision tree” in contest play, where choices you make are dependent on what happened previously.

Both concepts were on display Saturday. Shurman had $200 on both of his tickets in Monmouth’s live-bankroll event with three races left in the contest: Saratoga 12, Monmouth 12, and Saratoga 13. The top 10 finishers were to receive NHC spots.

As it turned out, Saratoga’s 12th and Monmouth’s 12th were scheduled to go off about three minutes apart.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

“My plan was to cover two horses with $40 win bets in the Saratoga race, and then if one of them won, on that ticket, put $100 to win on Hunter Grey, a 10-1 shot I liked in the Monmouth race. If I missed both my bets, I was going to put my whole bankroll on Hunter Grey,” Shurman said.

The reason he was going to vary his bet size on Hunter Grey is because he could. In other words, if he cashed in Saratoga’s 12th, he wouldn’t need to bet his whole bank on Hunter Grey to get to his target score. He could hold some money back to take another shot in Saratoga’s 13th.

Shurman, hugging the machine the whole time, hit at Saratoga at 7-1. Just as they were loading at Monmouth, Shurman got his $100 bet in. That horse won at 10-1. Shurman thought he had a ticket worth $1,500, good enough for second at that time. There was just one problem: Shurman had placed the bet on the wrong ticket.

“At that point, I had $440 on one ticket and $1,180 on the other,” he said. “Had I bet correctly, I’d have been in a great spot. And had I either lost Saratoga’s 12th or not been able to see the result, I’d have been in a great spot because in either instance I would have tapped out with a $160 bet on Hunter Grey and been better off.”

Except for punching the bet on the wrong ticket, Shurman had done everything right. While a lesser player might say that Shurman overcomplicated matters with the way he played it – they might say he should have just bet more on Hunter Grey – the fact is that the extra out he gave himself by having a bullet to fire in the last race is worth a whole lot in the long run. The reason he’s so good is that he is playing chess while others are playing checkers.

As for Saturday’s tournament, the good news was that $1,180 was still good for fifth at the time, but Shurman was still not confident with one wide-open Saratoga race left.

“On my good ticket, I put in just a $20 bet on a longshot, enough to just keep me ahead of the guy in sixth so there was one less guy who could pass me,” he said. “On the other ticket, I put it all on a 7-2 I liked.”

A 9-1 shot won Saratoga’s 13th – a potentially disastrous result – but Shurman still ended up okay. A few other players had bet themselves out of position, and luckily for him, only four players passed him, and he was able to hold on for his second NHC spot. In the end, Shurman was lucky and unlucky all at the same time.

“Just again proves how big a role circumstances, timing, and luck play in these contests,” Shurman said. “I would have ended up in fifth if I hadn’t screwed up and gotten more [NHC] Tour points, but of course, I’m happy to get this out of the way and avoid having to play in the last-chance [qualifying contest] again.”

Saturday contest, Monmouth Park

Rank Name Score
1 Ralph Miller $3,182
2 Brandon MacDonald $2,496.80
3 Phil Lam $1,729.90
4 Bill Rendino $1,498
5 Joe Perry $1,494
6 Derek Isenberg $1,308
7 Bill Zvara $1,257
8 Paul Shurman $1,146
9 Tom Mannion $1,085
10 Arthur Guglielmo $1,080.70

Top 10 all received NHC spots. Top five also received cash.