This past weekend at Belmont, Scott Shapiro of shapperdacapper.com organized an event where a few of us made five $5 wagers on the races going on at Belmont, and donated the proceeds to ReRun. It ended up being a successful endeavour: four of us played for $25 per person, and we raised a total of $144.85 for racehorse retirement and retraining! On top of that, I also got some perspective as to how I could improve my own wagering at the track.
After handicapping Belmont, I looked at my top selections in all of the stakes races on Saturday, and identified five wagers that I thought struck a good balance between value and caution:
- $5 to win on Life In Shambles in the Easy Goer
- $5 to show on Tonito M. in the Woody Stephens (GII)
- $5 to win on Sweet Reason in the Acorn (GI)
- $5 to place on Close Hatches in the Ogden Phipps (GI)
- $5 to show on Commissioner in the Belmont Stakes (GI)
I avoided the exotics: even though I tend to play exotics more in my own play, I didn’t want these results to be contingent on the performance of more than one horse in any given race. That was probably the most careful decision I made. Three of these bets were made on my top selections in the races: the Easy Goer, the Woody Stephens, and the Acorn. Close Hatches had been my second choice in the Acorn, but the decision was so close between her and Princess of Sylmar that the better odds on Close Hatches made my wagering choice easy. In the Belmont, Commissioner was my third choice, but the combination of his run-all-day breeding and his long-shot odds suggested that if he hit the board at all, even a show bet would pay well.
Of course, not everything shook out as expected. The beginning of the day was rough. The strongest opinion I had Belmont day was that Life In Shambles was going to win the Easy Goer, which was why I went for the gusto with a win bet. However, he set fractions so much faster than I expected and got caught late by both Kid Cruz and Legend. He ran well to get third, but the race didn’t shake out how I hoped. My bet for ReRun, as well as my personal win/place bets on him, were ticket confetti. The Woody Stephens didn’t work out quite so well, either, as Tonito M. got caught wide and didn’t fire powerfully enough to threaten the front. My third choice in that race, Top Fortitude, was the one who ended up blowing up the tote board, crossing the wire ahead of everyone but the mighty Bayern. I was right to pick a long shot coming in from the Laz Barrera: I just picked the wrong one.
Things started looking up in the Acorn. Sweet Reason was my top choice, and the combination of the win odds and what I felt to be a near certainty of a good pace setup for her made the win bet irresistible. Of course, you can never be completely certain of pace; just look at the Easy Goer, or even back to the Derby, for times I’ve been burned on that. However, this looked like the place to put the ballsy win bet out there: the GI winner was 10/1 on the morning line, and the only horse resembling a proven off-the-pace type in a race with oodles of early speed. The race unfolded exactly as I expected. Sweet Reason went off at 9/1, just the sort of odds I was hoping to get. Fiftyshadesofgold, My Miss Sophia, and Fashion Plate all got out near the front early, and Fiftyshadesofgold ticked off some fast early fractions. Sweet Reason sat back, fired through the far turn, ran well down the stretch, and collared Sweet Whiskey late to win by half a length.
I went conservative in the Ogden Phipps. Close Hatches was going to be the best odds out of the three top horses in the race, but there was enough of a chance that she would finish behind Princess of Sylmar or Beholder that I went for the place instead of the win. I also thought the difference in payoff between a place bet and a show bet would have been enough to justify taking the extra risk of going for place instead of show. Close Hatches ended up carrying the day: she made her move to surpass Antipathy and the fading Classic Point through the far turn, and had enough left to make Princess of Sylmar’s late run fall a head short.
Finally, I had the show bet on Commissioner. He wasn’t my favourite horse going into the Belmont, but I thought he had a legitimate shot: and was bound to be a better price than either of the horses I had ahead of him in my handicapping, Wicked Strong or California Chrome. The Belmont was enough of a question anyway, since none of the horses had ever run past 1 1/4 miles in a race, that no one seemed an honest lock to win or place. Given the $5 constraint, the best bet seemed to be a show bet on a big-money horse who had a shot to hit the board: Commissioner fit that bill perfectly. He delivered, too, in a way that my shorter-priced favourites did not. He got to the lead early, outlasted General a Rod’s attempts to press him, and was just nipped by Tonalist before the wire.
I am so glad I played in this challenge for two reasons. For one, the obvious: it was fun to hit a few bets and turn my $25 into almost four times that ($93.75, to be exact) for ReRun to use for the care and retraining of retired racehorses. As a horse racing fan, it’s my responsibility to contribute to the futures of the horses who make me so happy, and having another way to act on that responsibility was excellent. Secondly, though, this contest taught me a thing or two about being more mindful with my bets.
Usually, I spend so much time handicapping that I don’t put quite enough thought into my ticket construction. This time, I went through and kept a notepad file of single horses who looked particularly promising: either the pace scenario was going to set up extra-favourably for them, or they were likely to far outrun their likely odds, or some combination of the two. Usually, I’m a lot more focused on who is going to win; this forced me to not only think about that, but think about who was going to provide the best values over the course of the card. I was more mindful of that both because of the limited quantity of bets I was able to place, as well as because I wanted to make this a profitable endeavour for ReRun. Of course, I could not guarantee the latter, but it was a very focused goal.
On future race days, I think that instead of having more free-form plans (like “let’s start dipping my toes into the Pick 3/Pick 4/trifecta pools”), I should come at it from something that is less structured on what bets I want to play, and more structured around what I found while handicapping the card. I should spend a bit more time before I go to the track thinking, “what are my strongest opinions, and how can I maximize them?” This is something I’ve heard so many times from people trying to describe how to play the horses, but I didn’t quite have the confidence in my knowledge and abilities to want to take that angle. Playing this format of a challenge showed me that I did have some ability to pick spots based on the strength of my opinions, and I should have far more faith in it.