Thoughts on the Horse Player World Series

The three-day format of the Horse Player World Series—and Las Vegas, itself—makes for a grueling and intense few days. I happened to add a couple of extra days to my Orleans journey to bet on some baseball and basketball and, as a result, I STILL am catching up on my sleep from last weekend.

My post-mortem thoughts are still pretty scattered at this point. If I neglected to note something obvious or important, feel free to bring it to my attention in the comments section. Otherwise, here goes.

A few people out there seemed miffed that winner Loyal Sprague and runner up Mike Rosenthal employed a strategy whereby they played all the same horses across their four entries on Day 1, then played mostly the same horses on Day 2, before veering off on Day 3.

First off, the strategy is not new. Pete Puhich essentially did this en route to his first and second place HPWS finish in 2017. Many players, including Jonathon Kinchen, have spoken publicly about the power of playing the same horses on both of their NHC entries during the early stages of that contest.

It’s a great strategy…if you pick fast horses. (I’m always amazed at how good my strategy is when my horses win. When they don’t, my contest strategy seems to suffer!)

Last weekend, Sprague followed up his 1,398 Day 1 total with more-than-solid scores of 981.6 on Day 2 and 960 on Day 3. A bad first day, though, and Sprague and Rosenthal would have been bringing up the rear with all four of their entries. All else aside, they put together three consistently excellent days of handicapping.

Mike Rosenthal (left), Loyal Sprague (right)

Speaking of them…they had four entries, not 24. Four other players in the field had four entries under their own name and could have done the exact same things as Sprague and Rosenthal had they wished And, not that there was anything against the rules or even the least bit shady in what Sprague and Rosenthal did, but the two friends could have just as easily put all four of their entries under one name and no one would have raised an eyebrow (just as none were raised with Puhich). Teamwork in a mythical-money tournament is a far different animal (and a far less dangerous one) than teamwork in a live-bankroll tournament.

Sprague and Rosenthal and all the rest of us played three days over a total of 16 contest tracks—three on Thursday, six on Friday and seven on Saturday. I’ve never understood the need for seven tracks to be in play at contests like the HPWS or NHC. Choice and variety are good, but at a certain point, it’s just more homework for those who handicap the old fashioned way. And you’d like players, win or lose, to leave thinking “That was a lot of fun!”…not “That was a lot of work!”

That said, three tracks in play at a multi-day event like the Horse Player World Series is probably too few. This was the case on Thursday, though it wasn’t really the fault of The Orleans. Santa Anita was originally supposed to run on Thursday, but their reopening didn’t begin until the next day. Meanwhile other tracks like Aqueduct and Laurel have gradually cut back on the number of racing days per week due to horse population issues. I doubt, when the 2019 HPWS schedule was determined, that they figured Aqueduct and Laurel would be dark.

They can assume that may well be the case in 2020, though. So here’s hoping that a shift to a Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule may be in the works for next year.

Such a move might help participation further too, in that some players may be able to take one fewer day off from work in order to compete.

It was heartening, though, to see the number of entries jump from 428 in 2018 to 479 this year. I think the move back to late March from mid March was a help. Two trips back and forth to Vegas within five weeks (NHC) are too much for some. That 51-entry increase this year may have been significantly greater, too, if not for some Hawthorne tournaments taking place during the same weekend that undoubtedly kept some people away.

The 479-entry turnout also speaks, in my opinion, to the continuing popularity of mythical-money tournaments. I have nothing against live-bankroll tournaments. If you have just two or three good opinions (or sometimes even just one really good opinion) in one of those, you can do some serious damage. On the other side of the coin, it can be demoralizing to handicap well and lose to someone making a gigantic, otherworldly-sized wager on an exacta or trifecta. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…but I think mythical tournaments absolutely have their place, as reflected in the higher participation figures at the World Series. Two or three years ago, live-bankroll tournaments seemed all the rage, and perhaps the pendulum swung too far in that direction. Personally, I’m glad that the HPWS and NHC have held firm to their formats…and that The BIG One will be going back to what is essentially a mythical-type format later this year. Certainly, there are still plenty of live-bankroll games for those who disagree.

You know where the Horse Player World Series could use a participation boost? In the number of women playing!

In a typical year, the NHC field consists of somewhere between 8-10% women. Walking around the Mardi Gras and Esplanade ballrooms, however, it seemed like the Horse Player World Series had more male than a post office. Now caught up on my sleep (sort of), I went back and counted the entries. There were 479 of them overall, spread among 381 individual people. Of those 381, 12 (3.1%) were women.

It’s possible I’m being generous, too. I don’t know HPWS contestant Kelly Brecker, but I’m counting Kelly as a woman, not a man (mainly because I have a child named Kelly, and I count her as a daughter and not a son).

I’m not sure how much the gender percentages at these contests matter, but I suppose it would be nice to see them more closely reflect society as a whole. Then again, handle at The Orleans race and sports book seemed to be flowing just fine, and I can promise you the percentage of women there was way less than 3%!

Speaking of The Orleans, on the recommendation of Ray Arsenault and one or two others, I had my last couple of meals at Bailiwick. It was very good, and I found the prices almost shockingly reasonable. It’s definitely a place to check out next year if you haven’t already done so.

One other thing about The Orleans. I’ve stayed there for years and, without knowing quite why, I have always been intrigued by the little window at the back of each shower. This year, it hit me—the window sill is perfectly positioned so you can rest your can of beer there during your shower without any fear of water getting into your drink.

On the downside, it DID take me twice as long to shower this year.