NHC Final Table Play Selections

Unlike the analysis of the mandatory and optional plays at the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), the numbers transactions at the Final Table are too small with a one-year sample size to be of quantitative relevance. An observational and qualitative approach will begin to yield some of the end-game strategies deployed by the top ten contestants.

For the purposes of describing the trajectories of the final table members from start to finish, the NTRA NHC2020 can be divided into four contest stages: Day 1, Day 2, Semi-Final, and Final Table. For simplicity, let’s refer to these as contest stages 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively.

Day 1 consisted of seven mandatory plays accompanied by eleven optional plays after which the eventual members of the final table were separated into the vanguard and the peloton. Among the vanguard of the baker’s dozen who amassed a minimum of 113 contest points were the following five final table sitters – John Vail (2nd), Trey Stiles (4th), Ralph Magnetti (5th), Raymond Arsenault (10th), and Michael Odorisio (11th). The other Final Table quintet was in the chase group which comprised 80% of the contest with approximately fewer than 70 points – Ashley Taylor (149th), Christopher Podratz (152nd), Thomas Goldsmith (156th), Eric Bialek (242nd), and Mike Goodrich (332nd). Mike Goodrich is the poster child for the concept that one bad day doesn’t define the contest.

On Day 2, John Vail continued following the timeless riding instructions of “GO TO THE FRONT AND IMPROVE YOUR POSITION” as he started the day in second place and advanced to first. The above chart depicts the Day 1 – Day 2 trajectories as measured by rank amongst all contestants. Accommodating the peloton, the diagram invokes a logarithmic scale to show the five who ended the first contest stage by 149th or higher. After Day 2’s eight mandatories and ten optional selections, all but one ‘Final Tablist’ was in the top 20 in contest standings. Christopher Podratz was the outlier at 61st place.

The third contest stage, the Semi-Final, winnowed the top tournament decile from 71 to the Final Table with ten optional contest selections. The next chart continues the logarithmic rank plot to accommodate the sixty position spread between John Vail and Christopher Podratz. Mr. Podratz was only $1.60 above the cutline proving that one is still in it regardless of where you start the day.

For clarity, the presentation of the last transition, the Final Table competition within the competition, will be inverted without logs in the form of traditional final standings. The summarized rank movement amongst the Final Table is simplified over the seven mandatory races.

The following is an examination of the contestant’s seven final table plays. In addition to showing the race-to-race rank volatility of the Final Table, the trajectories are labelled with the contestant’s final contest earnings.

The NHC final table offers multiple game theories for players to invoke ranging from an analogous checkmate in chess to prevent defence in football. Observationally, it will be difficult to do more than speculate each player’s motivation which probably changed after each leaderboard update. The series of next seven charts will help to identify those who made differentiator selections (in yellow), i.e. unique plays that would produce gains allowing to catching the leader or extending the lead. For consistency, each bar chart lists the players alphabetically from left to right on the abscissa while the ordinate depicts the betting number of the player’s choice.

Sunday’s Race 9 from Gulfstream kicked off the Final Table challenge. A trio made individual selections including Ralph Magnetti who selected the second-place finisher #6 FILLY JEAN KING (6.2-to-1 post-time odds). Had the Juan Alvarado-trainee won, Mr. Magnetti would have been the sole player to gain an additional $14 or so in contest earnings. Both Goodrich and Goldsmith tabbed the race winner, #8 SWEET MIA, for a gain of $15.20.

While no one had the winner of the second Final Table race (Aqueduct’s 9th), Thomas Goldsmith’s go ahead selection of #1 GRINGOTTS was the contest separator that provided him with an additional $550,000 prize monies. The place-capped contest horse paid $33.40 to place in the pari-mutuel universe. To profit that much prize money by betting the Chris Englehart-conditioned closer, it would have required a $37,415 place bet in the Aqueduct tote pools. The filly was the recipient of only 2.4% of the place pool. Goldsmith not only won the NHC with this selection but also earned more than ten-fold of the combined purse monies ($33,000) of the whole field of the New York nightcap.

There were three differentiating plays in Tampa’s 10th, the final table’s third event, of which Eric Bialek’s selection of #3 MORE THAN GRACIOUS was the only point-getter. Unfortunately for Mr. Bialek, half of the final table cashed on #2 CLASSY OF COURSE at 6.1-to-1 odds.

In the middle final table leg, two contestants both selected the winner of Oaklawn Park’s 8th race, #11 NIGHT OPS. John Vail and Ralph Magnetti benefitted quite differently by having the $10 pari-mutuel winner. While Mr. Vail closed the points gap on Goldsmith without changing positions, Mr. Magnetti accomplished the largest final table position change from 9th place after the previous race to 6th place. Magnetti maintained that position through the finality and realized a $13,000 prize monies bump thanks to the victory of the Brad Cox-trained colt. This would be the equivalent of a $3,250 wager at the windows. Although the win pool for that Hot Springs race was sizeable, that equivalent win bet might have been large enough to drop the odds down to 7-to-2.

In successive races, OP Race 9 and GG Race 7, Ray Arsenault cashed with a second-place and first-place runner respectively with differentiators.

Those two selections combined moved Mr. Arsenault up the prize monies ladder by $50,000 which is in excess of the available $40,200 for which the eight runner-ups and winner #1 TIZ A SPEED BOMB competed. Hopefully, the gray gelding and owner/trainer Holly Evans receives a bale of alfalfa and/or timothy hay from Ray.

While none of the contestants in the contest’s final race, Santa Anita’ eighth, selected a points-horse, the concept of the differentiator is still relevant. Four runners were selected. By the function of the rank entering the final race, less than four players could win top billing. Ms. Taylor despite being in fourth place wasn’t one of them as she shared Mr. Vail’s selection of #5 HONOR HOP at 7.7-to-1. Mr. Stiles selected #1 NOBLE HEARTED at 4.8-to-1 which was likely designed to advance from 5th to 4th for a $25,000 gain.

Had any of the nine who were chasing Mr. Goldsmith selected the winner #8 RED LARK, who paid $23.20 and $8.00 win-place respectively, they would have leaped-frogged at least one competitor. The biggest potential beneficiary in terms of position would have been presumptive fifth-place finisher (instead of 9th) Mr. Odorisio.

The biggest woulda-coulda-shoulda as the late turf writer Dave Feldman might have expressed was John Vail who presumptively missed out on an additional $550,000. Mr. Vail’s strategy might have been to protect his largest ever ‘contest cash’ from being halved. If his choice of the third favourite had won he may have created enough separation to prevent Ray Arsenault from catching him with any horse on the board.

Similar speculation to the final play motivations, the psychology and behavioural economics of all seventy final table plays are equally fraught with complexities. With the limited number of data points exclusively from this year’s NTRA NHC Final Table, it will be left as an exercise for the reader to discern the rationale of these plays. Hopefully, the reader will be in the position after the mandatory and optional plays in next year’s tournament to capitalize on their observations of these end-game selections.

Photo credit:  Horsephotos/NTRA.


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