In August 2008, NICHOLAS GODFREY visited Canterbury Park in Minnesota to take part in a $2,000 ‘handicapping’ competition linked to the Claiming Crown, a popular annual series that serves as a sort of blue-collar Breeders’ Cup. Here’s how it went …
Bob Dylan was born in the mid-western state of Minnesota, but he got out as fast as his guitar could carry him. Perhaps I should have considered Dylan’s implicit warning before entering a high-stakes ‘handicapping competition’ at homely Canterbury Park, the state’s only racetrack.
Let me explain. ‘Handicapping’ has a rather different meaning in the States: the contest does not involve a group of people attempting to frame the weights for the 4.30.
Handicapping means form study with a view to betting, and competitions employing varied formats are hugely popular in the States, where regulars – many at least semi-professional – pay to become card-carrying members of a ‘tour’, accruing points like golfers on the PGA.
This is no place to mess about – we are talking big business. The Daily Racing Form and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association sponsor the National Handicapping Challenge, which features nearly 150 qualifiers at racetracks, casinos and online, culminating in a million-dollar final over two days at the Red Rocks resort in Las Vegas.
It is the holy grail of handicapping, and the qualifiers are exactly what they suggest: each offers a number of places for the big kahuna. The vast majority require an entry fee, which varies enormously, from $100 for contests attracting hundreds of entrants to thousands for more select affairs, rather like the whales’ poker room at a Vegas casino.
I have long fancied chancing my arm in one of these crap shoots, which is how I end up in Shakopee, about 20 miles south-west of downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota may be billed as the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’, but you won’t find too many of them in Shakopee, among the strip malls, industrial estates, motels and gas stations.
A blue-collar Breeders’ Cup for hard-knocking horses
Plus the racecourse. A middling venue, Canterbury Park opened in 1985 and races from May to early September. A fairly isolated, northern outpost, its diet of relentlessly low-grade action seldom registers on a national scale.
Apart from today, that is, when Canterbury hosts the tenth running of the Claiming Crown, a seven-race series designed as a blue-collar Breeders’ Cup for those hard-knocking horses that provide the bedrock of US racing. With combined prize-money of $600,000 – including $150,000 for the highlight, the Claiming Crown Jewel – this may not be Royal Ascot, but neither is it Southwell.
Canterbury is using its most prestigious day’s racing as the basis for its premier handicapping tournament. But while it all seemed a great idea back home, I cannot help thinking that maybe I could have found a less forbidding arena for my debut than the $2,000-a-head ‘Ultimate Handicappers’ Open’.
At least the format is straightforward. Half your stake goes into the prize fund, with the remaining $1,000 used as a live bankroll, so you are betting real money during the competition. Eight races are involved, the seven Claiming Crown events plus the Lady Canterbury, a $100,000 stakes race at the end of the card, but two can be missed out. Any combination of bets, including exotics, is allowed.
With a first prize of more than $25,000 and three places on the plane to Vegas, the tournament offers a good bet for the regulars, although this particular competition has one cruelly unique feature. Every sequence of bets on a single race must account for at least half your active bankroll.
So your first bet will be at least $500, and if you make a decent return, you are compelled to reinvest at least 50 per cent of it straight away. In the real world, such a staking plan would surely bring the men with white coats – yet this is the real world, to an extent, because real money is involved.
A quite ludicrous project, given my level of ignorance
After a thorough examination of the card the night before, I realise quite how ludicrous this project is, given my level of ignorance. While the Claiming Crown attracts horses from circuits big and small, I have never heard of any of them. According to the racecard, every horse will be running with the assistance of Bute and Lasix, and perhaps some of them are on other things that aren’t listed.
At least a couple of the trainers are familiar names. Steve Asmussen has sent up two of his more useless representatives, while the prolific Scott Lake, a byword for claiming-race success, has three.
As Lake has taken the trouble to attend the meeting – he’s seen propping up the bar all night at the eve-of-race cocktail party – I reckon he must be good for a couple of winners. He’s got the odd medication violation to his name as well, so he ought to know the time of day. Come on, I’ve got two grand on this; it is no time to get ethical.
After several hours’ study, I arrive at Canterbury early on Saturday morning ready for action. The track’s lack of pretension is writ large from the outset. First prize in the raffle is a lawn tractor; a plaque advertising the Canterbury Hall of Fame sits in splendid isolation on a blank patch of white wall.
After I have signed in, a smiley young hostess hands me a souvenir pen. “At least I won’t be leaving with nothing then,” I offer, weakly attempting a shot at gallows humour. She doesn’t laugh.
Not the healthiest lifestyle choice, judging by the paunches
That this is a serious business is immediately apparent. I take a seat in the third row; in the second row sit six or seven regular tournament attendees who have flown in from places like Florida, New York and Indianapolis, well known to each other and the organisers.
These are big players in more ways than one – let’s just say handicapping doesn’t appear the healthiest lifestyle choice to judge from some of the paunches.
Hours before the first contest, some are punching numbers into computer screens, working out complex trifectas, superfectas and the like. All I have is a notepad and my Daily Racing Form.
My neighbours on the third row are no strangers either to the handicapping scene. To my left is Trey Stiles, a Texas lawyer who has flown in for the day from Houston. Studious-looking, like a less sinister Jeremy Irons (if you can imagine him wearing a baseball cap from Zia Park in New Mexico), he spends much of the day hitting his pocket calculator and checking the depth of the show pools.
On my right is local punter Bill Ender, who has qualified for this via smaller-stakes competitions at Canterbury earlier in the season. It has cost him only $10 to get to the Ultimate Handicappers’ Open, which looks a good deal halfway through the afternoon when he is sitting in tenth position.
The psychology of handicapping: take chances
To be frank, the psychology really gets to me. Having come all this way, it would seem pointless to play defensively in the hope of saving some of my bankroll, but then again trying to win the competition means turning it into about $5,000, if last year’s result is anything to go by, and that means taking chances. It is worth a go: 47 competitors sign up and the first prize is now $28,200.
In the end, my tactics are straightforward. I don’t really fancy anything until the fourth race, but that’s not much use when I am compelled by the brutality of the rules to bet $500 on at least one of the first three. It is time to play it safe, just get through without doing too much damage, and I decide to jump in on the very first eligible race, the Claiming Crown Iron Horse over a mile and a sixteenth on the dirt.
But I don’t play it safe enough. I narrow it down to just three, headed by Antrim County, a visitor from Kentucky whose sire is the ‘Iron Horse’ himself, Giant’s Causeway. However, Antrim County is odds-on on the indicative tote board, which looks too short.
The other possibles are House Of Usher, a fast horse drawn low on a track where the bias looks to be inside speed, and a Scott Lake trainee, Biblical Scholar, showing at about 5-1. This looks the stuff, so I back him $200 win and show. A few $10 exactas finish my bets.
How to get it wrong before you’ve really started
This is where it all goes wrong, before we’ve even really started. Antrim County drifts out to a more attractive 6-4, and I soon learn that several of my more experienced opponents have played even more defensively, just betting him to make the first three.
If he had been showing 6-4 earlier, I would have backed him win and show instead of the horse I did back win and show, the aforementioned Biblical Scholar, who proceeds to play up at the gate. On any run-of-the-mill day, he would be scratched, but this is Claiming Crown day, so the handlers persevere.
“They’re going to force this hyperactive Floridian into the gate,” says the evil track announcer. I silently offer up a prayer that they fail to do so. They get him in, of course, and he is a spent force after about four furlongs. Just like that, I’ve done $400 in cold blood as Antrim County scores by a street from House Of Usher.
All is not lost: one of the $10 exactas pays $76, taking my remaining bankroll to $576. Only $2,000 behind the initial leader, who just happens to be leading US racing journalist Steve Davidowitz, who has supplied all the tips and analysis in the racecard. Surely there ought to be a law against that?
Hitting the leaderboard – just for a moment
In the next race, Davidowitz ups his total to $4,795 and a lead of nearly $2,000. As I sit this one out, I am now a mere $4,200 adrift. Sitting out the third proves sensible as well, because I get the thrill of seeing my name on the leaderboard, which runs down to 24th place, or halfway down the overall list.
For a blissful minute or two, I am in that 24th position. As I haven’t had a bet for two races, I am still on $576; the leader is now Pat Gianforte, who has hit a trifecta to take him to $8,340.
We get to the fourth, a turf race where I’ve persuaded myself that I have an edge. I wasn’t the only spare part from out of town at the previous night’s cocktail party, where I found myself next to California-based trainer John Sadler’s assistant Linda Thrash. With a name like that, it is hard to avoid images of calling cards in London telephone boxes offering all manner of sado-masochistic pastimes. You might suggest I have found one of those in Minnesota.
Anyway, Linda tells me that Simply Run, the stable’s sole runner on the card, has flown in with a “legitimate chance”. As she leaves, she adds: “Come down and join us in the photo if we win or there will only be me and the groom.”
As the mare is 5-1 on the morning line, I resolve to back it with whatever I can muster. That’s $250 to win, a hit-or-bust attempt to get back in the game.
Unfortunately, the morning line appears to have been put together by someone with only the vaguest grip of betting. Linda is not the only one to think Simply Run has a ‘legitimate chance’ and she is even money. She finishes nearer last than first after chasing a hot pace in a race won by an outsider.
“That’s why I sat this one out,” says Bill. You will be relieved to hear that I don’t smack him one.
Don’t forget your pocket calculator
Despite, or perhaps because of, such an unlikely result, it is here that Mitch Schuman makes what turns out to be a winning move. Clearly those pocket calculators are worth having as his focus is on a horse called Couple Whiles, who doesn’t even win the race. However, the 9-1 chance takes second behind 16-1 winner Cat Hop, generating a $94.60 one-dollar exacta and a $412.40 one-dollar trifecta. Schuman, it emerges, has the exacta 20 times and the trifecta ten times.
What he doesn’t know is that the sole transatlantic visitor still has four more bullets to fire. Then again, he need not be overly worried, as my nerve is already gone, strategy broken down like a war economy after just two bets. The Ultimate Handicappers’ Open has become the ultimate retrieval mission, and, to put it bluntly, I fail miserably. Favourites are no good to me now, and so I miss out on a couple of winners as I swing for the fences.
Scott Lake draws a blank, my losers with him including Coyoteshighcall, who looked generously priced at 6-1 in the Claiming Crown Jewel. By then, however, my bank is down to $60, so it hardly matters. The race goes to Delaware shipper Won Awesome Dude, leading home a 1-2-3 that pushes Bill Ender back into the top ten. Trey Stiles, though, has slipped right out of contention. Having cleverly marshalled his finances through the first half of the card, none of his major plays come off, so he isn’t too far in front of me.
The Tiger Woods of ultimate handicapping
After the last is won by 30-1 shot Quiet Queen, no-one is left behind me. I finish with zilch, nada, nothing. Bill is eighth with about $800 left, not bad for a $10 entry. Mitch Schuman’s total of $7,604 claims the crown, just ahead of Gianforte, who holds on for second.
Schuman and his laptop are no strangers to success in big-money events, it seems. “You’re the Tiger Woods of ultimate handicapping,” says one of his cohorts. Maybe so, if Tiger Woods was a bearded, bespectacled 40-something with a loud floral shirt and a belly the size of a small African nation.
As for early leader Steve Davidowitz, he ends up with only 80 cents, which takes quite some doing from $4,000. It’s a harsh world, this ultimate handicapping. Inevitably, Schuman and Gianforte are seated just in front of me on the second row and have already got a seat in Vegas. I can’t escape the feeling that I have been their bitch.
• Nicholas Godfrey’s latest book, Postcards from the World of Horse Racing, is available at the Racing Post shop