Monmouth Park 8/5 Contest Recap – A View From a First Time Player: By Eric Solomon

On Saturday 8/5, Monmouth Park offered a new $500 Monmouth/Saratoga Handicapping Contest, which offered two seats to the NHC and two seats to the BCBC. The entry fee was $500, with all players starting with a $250 bankroll. Players had to wager on a minimum of five races at Monmouth, with at least $50 in each race. Outside of that, every race at Monmouth or Saratoga was open to wagering. 

I have never played in a live handicapping contest like this, and since I had to be in New Jersey the night before, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to try something new and test my skills as a handicapper. Since I’ve been covering the Monmouth meet and I always pay attention to the Saratoga races, this seemed like a good spot for me to take that leap, since I knew my preparation wasn’t going to be an issue. That has always been a hang up for me which has prevented me from taking a chance like this in the past. I wanted to share my experience from the perspective of a first time contest player because this is always something that I’ve been interested in doing, however, it’s always seemed a bit daunting.  

Going into the day, I identified five horses that were my strongest opinions of the day between the two race cards. However, most of those runners were racing later in both cards and three of those five runners were at Saratoga. My plan was to make some smaller wagers in the early stages to try to build a bankroll to afford hitting the minimums, where my opinions weren’t as strong, and then hopefully take some big swings with the horses I liked at the back end of the two programs. 

Seeking inspiration before the races begin, I always love walking through the Monmouth grandstand, seeing banners of past champions line the ceiling.



First post between the two tracks was five minutes apart and I landed on two horses that I thought made some sense in both of those races. The maiden special weight race for two year olds at Saratoga was taken off the turf, and run at one mile on the main track. Todd Pletcher sent out Agate Road, who is by Quality Road. This horse was a toss on the turf for me, but at the distance on the dirt, he became a lot more interesting. I didn’t see a ton of turf in his pedigree, and I was guessing that Pletcher entered him here just because he was a horse that wanted to go longer than the standard dirt sprint races that are typically offered for two year olds at this time of year. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the Chad Brown MTO runner, Trade Imbalance, who felt like too short of a price. 


At Monmouth, I gave out three horses on the A line in my analysis, and made One Violent Affair as the top pick, while using two other horses on the A line. The complexion of the race changed a bit when Nice Baby scratched, and I wasn’t loving what I was seeing from One Violent Affair in the paddock. I am far from an expert of what to be looking for from a horse leading up to the race, however, she just seemed way too laid back for a horse that was going to be sprinting on the turf for the first time. I turned my attention to Nicky’s Notion, who was 0-12, but her few turf sprint races were sharp. I thought 4-1 was fair volume especially with a key scratch. 


I decide to limp into the tournament, betting $15 to win on both, and using them both in a $5 double. I knew I wasn’t going to hit my minimum here, but the goal was to try to build the bankroll. Saratoga was first and Agate Road was sluggish from the gate, but he relaxed nicely near the back of the pack, as the front runners set an honest tempo. Luis Saez started to move with him and he progressed well with a sustained bid. He came wide and looked like he was going to blow by Trade Imbalance. He shifted inside and looked like he got up in the shadow of the wire. I wasn’t sure, but the guy next to me was certain he got up. I turned my attention to getting the bet in at Monmouth while the horses were going into the gate. Before I stepped outside, I saw they put the other horse up at Saratoga. 


In a case of deja vu, Nicky’s Notion turned for home and looked to be clear in the stretch. I also had her in the Win-Early Pick-5 that was seeded with a $15K carryover. However, the Kathleen O’Connell first time starter, Vingativa, who looked beat on the turn, found her best stride late, and re-rallied along the rail to hit the wire together with Nicky’s Notion. It was hard to tell on the in-track feed, but it seemed like a good sign when the cameraman stayed focused on Nicky’s Notion in the moments leading up to the decision. Somehow, Vingativa got up, and I was $30 in the hole after what felt like an ominous sign for the day to come. 


Nicky’s Notion losing by the slimmest of margins in the opener.



Monmouth Park is one of my favorite tracks in the country to be at for many reasons. One of the newer perks is that they offer fixed-odds wagering on track and for New Jersey residents on their ADW. I am not a resident of New Jersey, so I do enjoy the opportunity to make some of these wagers if there is a chance to get some value. For those not familiar with fixed-odds wagering, it’s very simple. If you bet a horse at 5-1 odds and that horse wins, you get paid at 5-1. In pari-mutuel wagering, you may place your wager on that horse at 5-1, but if he goes into the gate at 3-1 and wins, you’ll get paid at 3-1. Conversely, if that horse that was 5-1 when you wagered on it, goes up to 7-1, you’d get paid at 7-1 with the pari-mutuel odds, but you’d still get your 5-1 in the fixed market. 


Speed horses struggled on the dirt on Friday at Monmouth at the heavy favorite in the second race, Road to Stardom, a horse that I gave out as the top pick, won his last two races going gate to wire. Kattath was a closer who was unraced since January at Oaklawn. She started off at 9-2 on the morning line, and her pari-mutuel odds stayed in that neighborhood. However, with about five minutes to post, his odds were at 8-1 on the fixed market. I placed a wager there, but not in the pari-mutuel market as a part of the tournament. I was quite happy when he came home first, but that victory did nothing for me in terms of the tournament. In fact, I would go on to lose every tournament wager that I placed before getting to my horses, failing to build the kind of bankroll that I had hoped to be able to do. 



I juggled this for the next few races, thinking that if I could get one decent score, I’d be able to hit the necessary minimums and put myself into play in the contest. I was scratching and clawing trying to make it to the part of both cards where I had my strongest opinions. I was able to hang on to get to the 7th race at Saratoga, where I liked Speaking Scout. I also really liked Swirvin in the 8th race at Monmouth. I had $100 left in the account and decided to split that up into two $50 win bets. Speaking Scout was a close 4th, so I was essentially all-in on Swirvin.


Swirvin was the horse I gave out as the Monmouth Park Bet of the Day on the In The Money Podcast with Peter Fornatale. His race in the Carry Back was strange, but he showed that he was able to be effective coming from off the pace. Between the track bias and the field he was up against, that asset proved to be the difference maker. I wasn’t surprised that he was bet down to 5-2 in the pari-mutuel odds, but I was pleased to also get him at 4.4-1 in the fixed market as well. I quickly sprinted back inside after that race, as my next big play came in the Test, which was getting close to post time. 

Swirvin gallops out after taking home the top prize in the Jersey Shore Stakes.



At this point, everyone reading this knows about the tragedy that unfortunately occurred in the Test Stakes. Pretty Mischievous was my pick in that race because I thought she was the classiest filly in that race that was also figured to be getting what seemed like a perfect setup. I also really liked Program Trading in the next race for Chad Brown. He had two monster efforts to start his career, and I was betting that as a son of Lope de Vega, he was going to appreciate the softer ground that day. I bet Pretty Mischievous to win and used her in a $50 double with Program Trading.


After the first few jumps of the Test, I thought I was in trouble. Munny’s Gold broke quicker than Maple Leaf Mel, but Maple Leaf Mel went for the front and Irad Ortiz conceded the lead with Munny’s Gold, trying to have her stalk the pace instead of engaging in a speed duel. Once they turned for home, it felt like the race was over. Maple Leaf Mel was too good to be left alone on the front end and had plenty left in the tank to secure her first Grade 1 win. Before the race ended, I began to start packing my things up when the unthinkable happened. I didn’t even realize that my horse had gotten up to cross the finish line first. 


The Teletheater in the Monmouth Park Clubhouse was very quiet, most people in shock, disbelief, and horror to what they just witnessed on television, about 200 miles away. Everything that was going on seemed a lot less important and my thoughts turned to how absolutely devastating this was for everyone involved. I needed to take a walk to clear my head and get some fresh air prior to the final live race. 



I wandered out to the Picnic Grove where most of the action was beginning to wrap up for the afternoon. As I made my way back toward the Grandstand, I heard Chris Griffin’s call for final wagers as the horses were going into the gate. I didn’t have a strong opinion in the nightcap, but I thought Kelly Breen’s first time starter, It’s Birdie Birdie, was interesting. I was hoping to get a better price on him, but I was going to take what I could get. 


The way the wagering works in the contest when you are playing on site is that you’re given a card that has your bankroll amount pre-loaded on it. You get a unique pin with your card, so you’ll swipe the card, enter your four digit number, and place your bets. As they were going to post, my card was not working in any of the outside machines. I would come to realize that the back of the card was right beside my magsafe I-phone charger in my pocket. I had to type in the account number manually to get access to my bankroll. I scrambled to get one bet in before the gates sprung open, but I didn’t get my exacta play to hit the $50 minimum for that race. I didn’t realize at the time how crucial that error was, I was just glad I didn’t lose more money in that race as It’s Birdie Birdie didn’t fire and I had no plans to use the race winner, Fun at the Fort in any of my wagers. 


I planned to regroup by placing a $100 win wager on Program Trading at Saratoga, which proved to be a solid decision. With the win wager and the double wager, I ended with a bankroll of $1,166, good enough for me to crack the top ten with three races left. The thought that I could win one of the top prizes started to creep into my head. The Whitney was next, and I didn’t really put much time into looking for an alternative to Cody’s Wish in that race. Hindsight being 20/20, White Abarrio made some sense, and 10-1 was a great price on a horse that has always had talent, but now looks like he’s starting to figure some things out. I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time though, so I dismissed that race from a wagering perspective, since it was followed by two much more palatable betting races. I grabbed a local beer from the Sportsbook (Kane Head High IPA, which I would highly recommend) and began to focus on the last two races. 


I thought both the favorites in those races were vulnerable. I was still about $2K off the lead at that point, so I was trying to figure out how much of my bankroll I was willing to risk. I liked Frat Pack in the 11th, and I saw Hilliard as an interesting longshot in the 12th. I liked both of these horses, but didn’t love either. I was thinking somewhere between $300-$500 would be the budget I’d use for those last two races. While I wanted to win, I also wanted to walk out of the building ahead for the afternoon at that point. 


With a few minutes before post time in the 11th race, I updated the leaderboard prior to placing the next wager. I found myself in 9th place, but as I scrolled over and I saw the column documenting the number of minimums that were fulfilled and that I had not met the necessary quota that I would need to be eligible for any of the prizes. Racing at Monmouth was done for the day, so I was out of luck and beyond angry with myself. There was no point in placing the wager, so my only real option at that point was to cash out and walk away.


Despite feeling like a loser, I left the track a winner. I watched Frat Pack come in third on my phone, feeling a little better that I had caught my error before throwing away $200 on that pick. I drove to the nearby Wawa for gas and coffee and made a stop at the liquor store to bring back a few Kane’s Head High four-packs since I have never seen them in Pennsylvania. I pulled out my phone in time to make a small wager on Hilliard, and got a cheap thrill as he finished a close 4th at 28-1. 


The leaderboard around 5:00 PM, prior to the last few races at Saratoga.



As a first time contest player, this was a very good learning experience for me. There are definitely some things that I would do differently if given a do-over, but all in all, I was pleased with my overall handicapping. 


First and foremost, you have to have some type of strategy. I had a plan going into the day, and while I think the plan was solid, my execution was clearly lacking. I became too distracted with other wagers outside of the contest, and ended up losing track of what needed to be done. My mindset at the time was that I put an awful lot of time and preparation into both race cards and if I wasn’t going to turn a profit in the contest, I wanted a chance to do so with some other wagers that were not eligible for the tournament. I don’t completely regret those decisions, since I had a few nice winners, while being fortunate enough to get what I viewed as excellent value. However, that definitely made it harder for me to mentally keep track of what wagers I made and where I made them. They give you a recording sheet, which sat unused at my spot in the Teletheater all afternoon and there’s a reason they do that. Note to self, next time; use the damn sheet!


Another lesson is that if you want to win, you have to be willing to be uber-aggressive on your best opinions. $6K was the bankroll that won the contest and $2.7K was enough to get 4th. I cashed tickets on four out five of my strongest picks, however, I still felt like I left money on the table in those races. I feel like I got more aggressive as the day went on, and maybe that was better since Speaking Scout was the lone non-winner in key picks, and his race went off before the other four races. 


I think the final lesson I learned is that seeking value in these contests can be a bit overrated. Most of what I do when typing up my race reviews at Monmouth is based on trying to find the right horse at the right price. If you’re on a horse that you think is the best horse in the race, being able to double your bankroll is not a bad thing in this instance. Pugilist in the 9th race at Monmouth towered over her opponents and paid $3.60 to win. Going all in on her would have been a relatively low risk, low reward play. She was a horse that would likely beat that field nine times out of ten. However, I wouldn’t have connected on the exacta or double (although I missed an opportunity not playing the double in the prior race, won by Swirvin). Nearly doubling my bankroll in that race would have been a solid play that would have given me a little more money wager on the Saratoga horses that I liked after that race. 


Overall, this was a great experience and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to play in one of these contests. I have to work on Travers Day, but if you’re in the area or playing online, I’d highly recommend looking into entering the next contest on 8/26. 


A final view of the grandstand from the parking lot, on the walk back to my car.
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  • Eric – I enjoy reading your write-ups. They have helped on more than one occasion. I’ve been playing contests and betting more seriously the last 2-3 years. It’s a process. It takes time to hone the contest playing and betting skills. I’m sure you’ll hit it out of the park!

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