02/20/2011 7:16PM

2011 Horse Player World Series - Kenny Peck's handicapper diary

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Sunday, Feb. 20

FAIR LAWN, N.J. -- The red-eye from Vegas was as good as it gets: probably only 40 percent capacity, a full row of seats to myself, on time, quiet, and dark. So why was it so miserable?

Like everyone except for Bart Solomon, the deserving winner of the 2011 World Series of Horse Players, I ran through all the decisions I made over the three-day tournament and fixated on the ones that didn't turn out well. Losing the contest by $163 leaves a lot of room for second guessing, as that translates to just another winner at 5-1 at some point over the three days. But like I always say, there's one winner, and 600 guys with stories.

"Story-time" is at the end of each day of the tournament, by the guys who didn't get into the top 10 for the afternoon. As easy as it is to agonize over not using Sugar Peaks in the sixth at Tampa on Thursday it's also easy to forget the good fortune I had to win with Dr Rico on Friday, by that slimmest of noses. There are a roomful of excuses, and one guy that gets the big check. And that's Solomon.

Randi Muniz and the rest of the crew at the Orleans are so good at this contest routine that I got a phone call at home, last night, a scant couple of hours after it was all over, looking for information from me to expedite the fourth-place check. As usual, there were some complaints from players that there aren't enough scoring updates throughout the day, but the other argument is that "live scoring" is unfair to the guy in first place. That gives the players behind him a target, and they can then adjust their plays to try and run him down in the last few races, maybe by using a horse they don't even really like. That makes it more of a stabbing contest than a handicapping tournament, and I think it's done properly at the end of the third day. I agree, however, that a couple of more updates earlier in the afternoon and during the first two days wouldn't be a bad thing, but that's quibbling.

Congrats to Solomon, who took home $296,550 for the top prize, as well as Michael Harrington and Gary West, who were second and third, respectively, and fifth-place finisher Ken Warner. Thanks to all who read along, and sent along congratulations Saturday night and Sunday. Maybe we can do it again some time. In the meantime, I will be beating myself up, and re-handicapping the three days of racing I just spent countless hours handicapping, looking for things I coulda done, shoulda done, woulda done. But that, of course, is . . . another story.

Saturday, Feb. 19

LAS VEGAS -- It's tough to convince most people that you're disappointed in winning $32,000 or so in Las Vegas, but most horseplayers will understand my feelings. I finished fourth, $11 out of third and around $45 or so out of second. I think I was less than $200 out of the top spot. I'm not sure of the final tally because when I realized I couldn't win late in the day on Saturday I proceeded to drink with vigor, and never went back to check. Thanks to Kenny Jordan, one of the best handicappers at Monmouth Park who was also in the contest, I got the results by phone while sitting in a chain steakhouse drinking a double.

(By the way, I thought leaving Smart Dude off my ticket on Friday was the biggest mistake of the weekend, and even though it almost certainly cost me nearly $300,000 I think I regret the sirloin more).

Anyway, congratulations to the winner, and also the host hotel. As always, the Orleans did a tremendous job in putting on this show. It's not easy keeping track of that kind of tournament, and catering to 659 grumpy horseplayers. I'll give some more details tomorrow from the friendly confines of New Jersey, as the red-eye awaits. It's sure to be a long flight.

Friday, Feb. 18

LAS VEGAS -- For me, Day Two of the World Series of Horse Players at the Orleans was a roller coaster that is still winding and pitching as of this writing, as the last couple of races at Fair Grounds, which is running a night card, are still to be decided. The positives include the fact that as of the last scoring update, I was on top in the overall standings, with $2,364 in my contest bankroll. Another big plus today was the sausage that was served at the lunch buffet, which also included cannolis, for those of you scoring at home. A typical horseplayer, however, I'll begin with the negatives:

How in the world did I NOT use Sharp Dude in the seventh race at Hawthorne, when I had both he and firster Dancingsonofagun on my list of plays for the day, thanks to the work tabs? Well, the answer is I had 20 horses on the list, and only 15 plays are allowed each day. Also, he was dead on the board for his second career start, after going off at 84-1 in his debut back in November. I figured he was cold, and with Fair Grounds running later on it might be wise to save a "bullet" for another firster there anyway, as Cocoa's Image had a nice string of works for his debut in the second. That bullet, of course, might as well as gone through my heart, as Sharp Dude laughed off his 37-1 odds and won easily. It's not too often you watch a race and think a mistake you made could well have just cost you nearly $300,000, but such is life over the course of this three-day tournament. I considered drinking heavily, and I did admittedly have a few pops in the aftermath of that debacle, but the action doesn't stop just because one player is crying in his rum. I had to get back into the game. Also, I was out of drink tickets.

That's the thing about these contests. You make hundreds of decisions, many with the pressure of post time looming, and any one of them can win it or lose it for you. Up until that point, I had good luck zigging when zagging would have been a mistake, but that one was like walking into a right cross. I've had two good days, earning $1,238 on Thursday and another $1,284 (I think) today, and while that was good enough to put me on the lead in the overall standings at one point today it doesn't appear I'll be collecting any checks for the daily awards, which go to the players with the top ten scores on any individual day. As a matter of fact, I'd be surprised if I'm still in the lead, as there were about a dozen races left to be run after that last update, and we won't get another one until after Fair Grounds runs the last of their nine races. So at the moment I have won literally nothing, and in fact lost money gambling today, with my only play through the parimutuel windows an elaborate stab at Gulfstream's pick five carryover. You can guess how that worked out.

I stopped off for a quick dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Mandalay Bay and am already back in my room, getting ready to pore through the Saturday races, and plot a strategy for tomorrow. It's cool to be alive for the whole enchilada (I'm still thinking Mexican), and it would really be bad form to continue to grouse over Sharp Dude when I was lucky enough to win the tightest of photos with Dr Rico ($77.80) in the ninth at Tampa Bay Downs, which put me in good position to begin with. So I'm going to look ahead to Saturday, not back to that excruciating, painful, foolish decision I made regarding Sharp Dude, and put in a marathon handicapping session tonight. I'll be back tomorrow with a quick conclusion, followed by a more in-depth wrap-up on Sunday. As it stands now, I'm scheduled to be on the red-eye Saturday night, and back in Jersey on Sunday morning, so time could be short. I've got the best 2-year-old filly in the country, Ella, back at the barn, and she and her brother, Cooper, are giving their grandparents fits. I really hope that one day they can forgive me for the Sharp Dude Debacle, but for that to happen I need to come up with some winners tomorrow.

Thursday, Feb. 17

LAS VEGAS -- There's just something about the Orleans. You walk into the casino and there's just this gambling vibe, and as silly as it sounds you don't get that everywhere anymore. For instance, I stayed at the Wynn last year, and I've stayed at the Bellagio in the past. I also was able to walk around Cosmopolitan, the newest casino/hotel/mall, on Wednesday. Make no mistake, they're all downright beautiful, extravagant places. But they're not joints where you walk in and your adrenaline gets pumping, and you want to gamble. It's more of a feeling of awe, appreciation, and a little bit of fear that you're about to spend more money on a pair of shoes than you've ever dreamed.

That's what makes the Orleans cool -- it's a throwback. It reminds me of my old trips to the Sands in the early 1990s, and part of the reason is it's old school. The racebooks at the newer places, if they have them (the Cosmopolitan doesn't), feature the giant electronic boards presenting entries and results, as they well should in 2011. But now they're all somewhat the same inside, which makes the Orleans' old dry-erase boards, which are manually pulled down and updated by staff, quaint by comparison. After all, there was a time when those were cutting edge. The card games at the Orleans are nearly always perfectly active, with players at every table but at least a couple of empty seats at most. Sure, the lower minimums are the main reason, but it creates a bit of a buzz and brings the casino some life, as opposed to a couple of rows of darkened, roped-off tables, which was the scene at the luxury hotels on Wednesday night.

For horseplayers, the buzz grows as you take the escalator up to the second floor of the Orleans where you'll find the Mardi Gras and the Esplanade ballrooms, where the World Series is held. The Mardi Gras is the bigger of the two, and it's where the tellers for both live and tournament action are. That's where I like to sit -- in case there's a last-second change of heart, the less ground to cover, the better. The Esplanade is perhaps two-thirds the size of the Mardi Gras, and it's also where the lunch buffet is served, making it a little too busy for my taste. Both rooms are full, with an average of about eight players at each round table. I'm flying solo but there are plenty of guys who make the trip together, and there's a lot of friendly banter, at least before the races get under way. Personally, I prefer solitude, so after pleasantries are exchanged I'll wait for the right time to slip in ear buds and turn on the iPod, and zone in on what I'm planning to play. I find that it helps me concentrate, not only due to the perpetual din but also to cut down on distractions (cheering, overheard "tips," etc.) No offense to anyone at the table -- I do the same thing when I'm home or at the office handicapping races for the paper -- it just helps me to focus.

Thursday, Day One of the three-day tournament, was a very tricky day for me. I didn't have a single strong opinion on any of the seven cards, at least not one on a horse over 7-2. There are plenty of theories on how to play these contests, but the prevailing philosophy also happens to be true -- you can't win it playing short-priced horses. You can cash a bunch of tickets, and you can put yourself in a decent spot to win it, maybe even cash, but you're not going to get the top prize consistently playing horses at 4-1, or even slightly higher. Someone, at some point, is going to put a couple of longshots together, and they're going to blow the little guys out of the water. It may not be the first day, it may not be Friday, but by Saturday afternoon the leader will not be a guy who hit $10 winners at a 50% clip. I've also been in position, however, where a lack of solid plays has led me to stab on 12-1 shots I marginally liked, and I ended up with a goose egg.

That said, Day One of the Horse Player World Series on Thursday went well for me. From my experiences here, if you can build your bankroll over $3,000 after the three days you're in the ballpark. My goal was to have around $600 after Thursday's races, $1,800 after Day Two, and then try to pick up another $1,800 on Saturday. The reason for that is the Saturday cards usually produced several big prices, and with the guys in the middle of the pack going into the final day stabbing at longshots it's going to take a big day on the final leg of the tournament to win no matter what, unless you're lucky enough to go into Saturday with a cushion. I ended up Thursday with $1,239 (by my calculations, which are by no means official), which should put me in the top 30 or so. At 3:05 p.m. local time the leader was at $1,806, and the player in 10th place had $1,420. The horse that helped me most was Shorty Small, who won the 10th at Oaklawn at 15-1. He had a nice string of works for his return, and though he surprisingly wasn't on my list of Horses to Watch (I pore over the work tabs looking for sharp firsters and horses off layoffs) I did see that he was training well for his return, and it didn't take much to use him at 15-1.

Friday's cards are competitive but there are some interesting opportunities. At this point I can change my thinking a bit and revise my goal downward a bit, and take a horse at 6-1 that I would never play if I were well off the pace. If I can catch a couple of winners at midrange odds I can put myself in position to win on Saturday with a decent day, which is the goal, after all. In the meantime, with 75% of my work done (Oaklawn and Tampa are the only two tracks I haven't handicapped thoroughly yet) I'm off to Rao's for some veal parmigiana, a couple of pops, and a deep exhale. There are 659 entries in the tournament, and with two days and 30 plays still left for all players, every single one of them -- whether they know it or not -- is still alive. And that leaves no time to reflect on today. I'll check back in on Friday, after Day Two.

Wednesday, Feb. 16

LAS VEGAS -- Spring training has just begun, which can mean only one thing -- it's time for the World Series.

The 2011 edition of the Horse Player World Series Handicapping Tournament, held annually at the underrated Orleans casino, gets under way on Thursday, with at least 600 entries expected. Those players who didn't get here through a qualifying tournament in 2010 can still take their shot at the estimated $270,000 top prize by anteing up a $1,000 entry fee, and multiple entries are allowed. The contest encompasses three days of action,Thursday through Saturday, with entrants making 15 mythical $20 win/place bets per day on races from Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay Downs, Hawthorne, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita. There's a cap on the payoffs -- the first $2 of your play counts in full but you only get 19-1 on the win end, 9-1 on place bets, on the remaining $18 of the $20 wagered -- to try to keep it from becoming a dart-throwing contest at the end.

The tournament is held in the ballrooms on the 2nd floor of the Orleans, which annually puts on a very good show. Friendly staff, experienced tellers, and speedy cocktail waitresses make it a pleasure. Have a question about the seating? There's a plethora of employees at the registration table. Trying to get a bet in with 10 seconds to post? No problem, your ticket is punched in with several ticks to spare. Out of free drink tickets? Here ya go, the guys at table 73 weren't using theirs.

(Listen, you only get six drink tickets, and those little plastic cups don't hold much . . . water.)

As someone who's been to the World Series of handicapping as well as MLB's version of the World Series, I can honestly say where I'd rather be, and that's here in Vegas. Well, that doesn't include 1996, when I found out for the first time that the upper deck at the "new old" Yankee Stadium was actually DESIGNED to rock when 56,000 people partied in unison, from a seat in the next-to-last row for which I paid $300. Otherwise, baseball's edition of the World Series can be boring. Sure, it sounds a little silly to say that, but when you price out all the real fans and replace them with suits with an eye on the train schedule you lose a little zest. That can't be said for the Horse Player World Series, which, like the Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship, has a nearly perpetual buzz, drink tickets or no drink tickets. Races are run virtually nonstop for six hours, and any one of those races can change the complexion of the contest. That's what makes it intense.

Speaking of intense: I was walking around by Caesar's Wednesday night after an uneventful flight from JFK airport and noticed a red carpet, a boatload of staffers scurrying around and a rather large crowd gathering, with security officers getting more and more vocal. A couple of people were overheard asking the guards what the hubbub was about, and it turns out that Celine Dion is making her triumphant return to Caesar's next month, after taking some time off to deliver twins. I debated waiting around to see the spectacle but, as an obese, middle-aged man, it wasn't much of a decision after all: I continued on my way to the Palm's Steakhouse. A 16 oz strip, an order of King crab legs, and a shrimp cocktail was washed down by several cocktails and a carrot cake, putting myself within reach of my personal track record of 258 pounds, which may be three times what Celine weighs, even postpartum. I lumbered out of the restaurant and into the casino to find that the star attraction was just then arriving, several hours late and with babies in tow. We nearly crossed paths but I deftly maneuvered out to the cab line before this spectacle ended, ending any dreams of a Brush With Greatness.

Alas, my heart will go on.

I try to make it to this contest every year, and I always go out the night before the first day. That's because it's the only night when all of my work for the next day is completed, as I spent the last couple of days poring over Thursday's races. My strategy is pretty simple, and it's virtually the same strategy I employ everyday when making picks for Daily Racing Form: I make the biggest "Horses to Watch" list I can, I keep it as tight as I possibly can, and I play off that list each day. The problem this year is that although "The List" has over 300 horses on it there's only one horse I've been waiting on entered on Thursday and only three on Friday, and that's made for a lot of research over the last couple of days. I now have about 20 horses I'm interested in on Thursday, and that will be whittled down as the day wears on through scratches and odds restrictions. I'll be back tomorrow to divulge how it went.