Visiting the Recent Saratoga and Monmouth Tourneys

I had the privilege of traveling North to the Battle of Saratoga last Wednesday and Thursday and back down South for the big 10-seat NHC qualifier at Monmouth on Saturday. It was a pleasure meeting so many HorseTourneys players and getting to put faces with names. Here are some impressions from the three days at the track:

Most players already know that the New York tourneys are a great deal due to New York State law, which requires that 100% of all monies taken in be returned as prizes. And this doesn’t even take into consideration tourney seats. NYRA paid for the four NHC seats and two BCBC spots out of pocket. So it was a positive expectation event for the players.

It was also a positive expectation event for manufacturers of anti-perspirant. Boy, was it sticky there. Fortunately Donny Nelson and the NYRA staff did what it could to keep people as comfortable as possible in the upper Carousel (not sure if they still call it that anymore). All in all, it was a very well-run event. There was a very low reading on the Complaint-O-Meter. Special kudos to the unsung guys who kept the water, iced tea and lemonade jugs filled at all times. I made about 35 trips there over the two days and never once came up empty. And that was with a player contingent of 205 on Wednesday and 210 on Thursday.

I heard a few grumblings about the shift to a live-bankroll format but none whatsoever about splitting the two-day tourney into a pair of one-day tourneys.

For a while there, it didn’t look like the split was going to make any difference. Incredibly, the winner of Day 1, Mark D’Amato of Green Bay, Wisc., was leading for about the first half of Day 2 as well. D’Amato’s approach was very straight forward. Win, place, show, exacta and trifecta bets were permitted and D’Amato stuck (for virtually the entire two days) with playing $60 (the typical race-to-race bet size in this contest where bankrolls started at $600) cold trifectas on a single combination. He hit 2 such plays on Wednesday to win that day, and started out hot doing the same thing Thursday before he was done in by a cold streak and some other players really stepping up their bet size on Day 2. The most successful of these plungers was Scott Carson of He wagered his entire bankroll of about $1,700 on Thursday’s final race, and he connected with one of his plays — a $500 cold exacta that he had envisioned as a saver. (Nice saver!)

They say it doesn’t make sense to take a knife to a gun fight. My takeaway for the two days at the Spa it might just be a good idea to take swings at the most lucrative bet types available within the rules of a given tourney (i.e. trifectas in this case) unless your bankroll is so big that you can get away with making safer plays. D’Amato obviously did this right from the get-go — eschewing the $60 water-treading show bets that many others opted for early on. His competition played, collectively, more conservatively. But they all seemed to catch on part way through Day 2 as word continued to spread about the guy crushing cold tris. Plays got bigger and bolder as it became clear that even a sizable straight bet wasn’t going to get the job done. Scott Carson’s ultimate winning play may have been on an exacta, but it was a $500 exacta — the type of play that probably wouldn’t have been feasible earlier in the day due to a combination of bankroll size and in-game strategy. The exacta return of $14,875 was plenty big enough to win the contest, but if Carson, in 15th place at the time, had only been able to afford (or only had the guts to play) a $50 or $100 unit on his exotic wagers, he too probably would have needed to opt for the trifecta.

The temperatures were even hotter, and the humidity even more oppressive on Saturday at Monmouth. Fortunately the Monmouth facility offered its players an ample choice of comfortable, air-conditioned rooms from which to play. The contest drew 166 entries, with the top 10 winning NHC seats plus cash from a prize pool. While I saw players there who hailed from coast to coast, the overall makeup of the contestants seemed a bit more casual than at Saratoga.

Only win, place and show wagers were allowed here with players (who started with a $200 bankroll) having to make at least 10 $20 plays at Monmouth and Saratoga, with at least five of those plays on Monmouth. As many of you know by now, the contest was put on its ear with the sudden announcement that Saratoga had canceled its card after the 5th race (of what was an 11-race card). By that time, Monmouth only had four races remaining.

I was tremendously impressed by the composure of the players while Monmouth officials huddled to decide what to do. Some players wanted Arlington added as a replacement track. Others felt it was fairer to just stick with Monmouth and Monmouth alone.

Ultimately Monmouth’s Brian Skirka (himself the picture of calm at all times) made what was a very well-received decision. Not wanting to hit unprepared players with a new track from out of left field, Skirka elected to just finish out the contest with Monmouth and waive the 10-play minimum as long as players had made at least five $20 Monmouth plays — which was the players’ responsibility all along and was unaffected by the Saratoga cancellation.

It was almost like one of those turbo poker tournaments where levels and blinds go up faster than normal. With so few races suddenly left, players instinctively knew that those high up the leader board now had an increased advantage. But with bet sizes now sure to increase due to a paucity of opportunities, players also knew that the three races still to come would mean a lot more than those that had already taken place.

The Monmouth main track on Saturday had a 24-karat gold rail with a bias pronounced enough that prices were hard to find. In the last race, Way to the Bank ran to his name, wiring the field from post 1 at a generous $6.80. HorseTourneys player Rob Ramirez from Ronkonkoma, NY saw the bias and put his entire $418 bankroll on Way to the Bank’s nose to win. The win boosted his winning bankroll to $1,421.70, which Rob won…along with a $9,800 first place prize and an NHC seat.

It turned out to be an excellent contest at Monmouth, but only because tournament officials and players kept cool heads and acted gracefully under pressure. There’s probably a lesson in here somewhere!