02/23/2012 1:25PM

Horse Player World Series: Kenny Peck's handicapper diary

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LAS VEGAS - My favorite wintertime destination used to be Hallandale, Fla. The afternoons were slowly whittled away with booze and horses, and the nights were filled with ... well, the same, really, plus a few hundred stone crab claws by the end of the week. It sure was sweet ... and it was also delicious, especially with that mustard sauce that goes so well with the claws. Las Vegas, Nevada, however, has become my preferred excursion in February, and not because there's now a Joe's Stone Crabs at Caesars (there is). No, it's been that way for a while now, certainly since Gulfstream Park decided a rooftop bar and restaurant wasn't a good idea when they ruined -- er, renovated -- the track a few years ago. I've particpated in the Horse Player World Series, held at the Orleans Hotel, for several years now, and it's become one of the highlights of the handicapping year for me. And after several different trials and errors, the wife and I finally had our ideal routine down -- leave on Wednesday morning, get to Vegas mid-afternoon, register for the contest and then go on a mini-binge of steak, seafood, and booze. (Well, that's my trifecta, anyway. Danielle goes on a massage, manicure, and pedicure bender, complete with a tab that dwarfs mine. But I digress.) Wednesday night is normally the best opportunity all week to spend any time carousing, as the next two nights have generally been spent hunkered down watching replays and compiling a cheat sheet of races to play, with a quick bite at whatever establishment is between the Orleans ballrooms and my hotel room. Then, on Saturday, the last day of the tournament, the red-eye would await.

This year, however, a change in travel plans was necessary. Because while it's hardly a longshot that my parenting skills will one day make a future pyschoanalyst rich, it still seemed that taking off for Vegas on the morning of my young son's birthday would assuredly lead to at least a few lengthy, costly therapy sessions for him at some point. So I delayed my departure by about 12 hours or so, and left on a 7:45 p.m. flight out of Newark on Wednesday night, landing in Vegas at 1:24 a.m. EST (I always stay on Eastern time in Vegas -- makes it easier to keep track of post times). And I was flying solo, with the wife coming out tomorrow. Even though I traded about six hours of studing Oaklawn, Fair Grounds, and Tampa for a morning and afternoon of playing for the Leaf, Banana, and Star Cups on the Wii's Mario Kart racecourses with the kid, it was the right move. After all, we also defeated Catman -- but not Catwoman, as Cooper, playing the role of Batman, was a little slow with the batarang -- and all in all we had a fun family day, even with my little 3-year-old filly Ella running amok with markers.

Maybe the day of frivolity will cost me, but the reality is I was pretty much done handicapping the races anyway, a little burnt out. I had already spent about 30 hours poring over most of the cards we'll be using over the three-day tournament, which begins Thursday with the opener at Aqueduct, and had a lot of trouble coming up with price horses as anchors on my tickets for Day One. That, of course, has meant a lot of rehashing of the same races over and over again in search of that one missed nugget that can turn a potential passed race into a viable play, but nothing seems to leap off the pages, a sure sign that the brain has had it with the little numbers.

I handicap a lot of races for the paper every day, and the way I'm able to stay focused (and sane) is to compile an extensive list of horses to watch, making those runners near-compulsory picks when they show up in the entries. I approach the contest the same way, using any horse off my list that's entered in a contest race, unless it's the wrong spot (distance, surface, etc.) or he's clearly up against it, for whatever reason. Much like last year, however, that list isn't going to do me much good on the first day of action, as a grand total of two horses from my list of 300+ were entered on Thursday, and one of them is in a turf race at Fair Grounds. The last time I checked, there was a good chance of precipitation in New Orleans, which seems to make the chances of those races staying on the turf an even-money shot, at best.

There will be no whining, however. We're all in the same boat, all 700 or so of us, and after three days of sweating out photos, agonizing over picks, and brokering deals for extra drink tickets, the winner will be the one who best adapts. There are 15 plays per day, a mythical $20 win/place bet on each, with payoffs capped at 20-1 for win and 10-1 place, though for the life of me I can't foresee a lot of use of the "cap" on Thursday, as the races generally seem fairly chalky. Right now, my plan (hope) is to not get skunked on Thursday, which would almost certainly lead to overreaching on Friday. I just want to be in position to make a run on Day Two, then hope for the same going into Day Three. This year, thanks to our later arrival, we're staying until Sunday morning, and my wife, God bless her, has already been in touch with the good people at Rao's, making Saturday a winning day regardless of what happens at the Orleans between now and then. In the meantime, I'll be back on Thursday night with a recap of how the first day plays out.