Survivor strategies, and condition book horses

This fall, I have been playing a lot more DerbyWars.  I enjoy contest play, but I am so tightly focused on my local circuit that I have done little contest play before.  I’ve dabbled, but when it comes down to handicapping a Chicago track or handicapping some other track for a contest, Hawthorne or Arlington always wins.

This year, DerbyWars has been running Hawthorne contests on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  I have played the Hawthorne Survivor contests every day they have been offered, as well as played a few head-to-head contests along the way.  They have gone generally well.

I have made it to the end of the Survivor game four times, each of those times with only a single entry in the game, and won more head-to-heads than I’ve lost.  Most of the Survivor victories have been in split pots — days when my handicapping was solid, but there was not a ton of room for creativity.  That often happens in Survivor contests, when the goal of each race is to pick a horse who will at least show.

Wednesday’s Hawthorne Survivor had some room to be clever, however.  I found a horse who had one of my favourite handicapping angles ever, and she keyed my first Sole Survivor win.

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The first few races were pretty straightforward, in that individual horses jumped out at me as the most likely ones in the field to hit the board.  The first race of the contest was a lower-level maiden claimer for juvenile fillies that had been scratched down to four.  Out of the rest, I liked C J’s Ruler, since she had at least shown some early speed in her last outing.  She sent, she wired, one horse home.  The next was an open $5,000 claimer; Gabio looked the class on paper, and was in consistent enough recent form that she looked the most likely to hit the board.  She ran to that form, finished a close second, and kept me alive.

The third contest race was a wide-open allowance, without such a standout horse in the field.  I thought the race was slightly more likely to set up for a closer than a speed horse, but that was the strongest opinion I had.  I had tipped Wood Not Mind in Chicago Railbird, and I stuck with her in Survivor.  Though sometimes there is some deviation between the best horse to bet and the most likely to hit the board (read: Gabio in the previous race), no one seemed so classy or so sharp that they had to hit the board against that set.  Consistent recent form is a big draw in those kinds of races, and Wood Not Mind had that going for her.  Sticking with her proved the right move; she rallied from the clouds to win by a length.  I was among 29 players still alive with three races to go.

Wednesday’s sixth race at Hawthorne was a five and a half furlong dirt sprint for $5,000 beaten claimers.  The race had two conditions: non-winners of three lifetime, or non-winners of a race since June 2.

Shrewd trainers know how to get the most out of the condition book.  Shrewd horseplayers do, too.

With conditions like these, I tend to give a plus-factor to the horses who have more wins than the lifetime condition, but qualify under the “time since last win” condition.  I also love to see horses fit a condition as snugly as possible.  In this case, it would be a horse who had at least three wins lifetime, and had a win right before June 2.  Not every race with conditions like this has such a horse, but if it does, that horse deserves a long look.

Enter, A Little Unique.

A Little Unique had three wins under her belt, with the last one coming on May 29 of this year.  Horses rarely fit the condition book better than that.  This made me give A Little Unique a very long look, and plenty of other things jumped off the page. She was coming in second off the lay for a 19% trainer in that circumstance (Tom Swearingen), had been third against open $5,000 company last out, and had never missed the board in six starts at the distance.  I was not sure why she was 10/1 on the morning line when there was so much to like.

Furthermore, none of the likely chalks inspired me.  W W Afleet had some solid back lines, but I did not trust that she was going to rebound from her last-out clunker.  Oh Suzanna had not fired a clunker recently, but the drop back in for $5,000 when she had done so well in $10,000 company last out seemed questionable.  Fast Alice appealed a bit, being first off the re-claim by hot trainer Chris Dorris, but I wasn’t sure she was going to get quite enough pace to attack.

Among the runners, I liked my condition book longshot the best.  Even though Survivor is about picking horses to do well — and not necessarily to pay well — I had the fewest lingering questions about the Swearingen trainee.

I was one of two people in the contest who threw in their lot with A Little Unique.  All 27 other players sided with either W W Afleet or Oh Suzanna.

That decision proved the key to the contest.

A Little Unique did not have things easy on the front end, but she relished the slop and had fight to spare.  She kicked clear to win by a comfortable length and a half.  Longshot Queen Otaheite was a clear second.  W W Afleet was in a photo for third.  But, late-running longshot Legend In Time nipped her by a head at the wire.

Reading the conditions, and sticking to my opinion, had just ensured me at least second place in the contest.

My logic behind the fifth contest race was less intricate.  Lazylovin and Smokey Row Mac were the clear standouts on paper; I found it a bit difficult to separate the two, given that most of their current races were so much better than the others in the field.  Lazylovin had shown more sustained good form (having hit the board in is last seven starts), and was coming in first off the claim by the blazing hot Michael Reavis.  Smokey Row Mac had some recent races that would win the race as well, but he had fired some clunkers more recently, and trainer Steve Manley had not been having quite as sharp a meet.  Still, he fit.

I took Lazylovin.  My one remaining opponent took Smokey Row Mac.

12/1 outsider Iker got his picture taken.  However, Lazylovin rallied for the show, catching Gray Mensch just in time.  Smokey Row Mac splashed home a few lengths back in fifth.

I was the sole survivor.

For good measure, my pick in the last race hit the board, too.  My opinion was hardly strong, but at least Sheza Ruler liked the Hawthorne course a lot, and had won her only start at the specialist distance of six and a half furlongs.  That is another thing I look for in either regular handicapping or survivor contests: if the race is run at a somewhat esoteric distance, I dig up the horses who have shown an affinity.  Sheza Ruler had a far better record at Hawthorne than either of the others with victories going six and a half (Lady Ice and Read to Me), so she was my pick.  That was enough: she sent, she held, and she won by daylight.

Of course, ending the day as the sole survivor required some luck as well as some skill.  Had W W Afleet not been nailed for third, there would have been more competition into the last two races — and enough logical horses hit the board that the winning prize would have likely been split yet again.  Had Lazylovin not caught Gray Mensch at the wire, there would still have been two of us fighting it out in the finale.  This list could go on, and get very dull.

Still, it was nice to see my instincts — and one of my favourite handicapping angles, that of the Condition Book Horse — lead me to be both contrarian and correct this time around.

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