INTERLUDE: A Letter to My Younger Self

Hey, kid! Yeah, you. I’m you, 15 years down the line. Scary, isn’t it? The thought that the future version of you is in any position to write a letter to his younger self? Trust me, I didn’t expect this, either.

Like with pretty much everything else, you can blame this on professional wrestling (yep, you’ll still be watching). One of the guys you grew up watching, Diamond Dallas Page, wrote one of these, and he did it so well that it brought up things I’d forgotten. One of those things is that you just came back from your ninth-grade orientation at Kingston High School, and in that folder you’re carrying was a copy of the next day’s Daily Racing Form past performances for Saratoga.

Here’s the kicker, kid. What if I told you that, by the time you’re 29, you’ll be working for them and doing a lot of the things you’ve always wanted to do? Cool, right? It is. There’s just one thing you need to know.

That family curse your dad talks about, the one where a Champagne can’t ever do things quietly? You’ve got it, and you’ve got it bad.

Because of this, your trip to where I’m at now will be a long, strange one, complete with many twists, turns, and crazy moments that you’ll swear can only happen to you. Just bear with me on this one, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

– – – – –

You know that audio-visual club you joined, KHS-TV? That’ll be one of the best things that’s ever happened to you. Your advisors, John Moriarty and Andrew Sheber, will learn a lot about you over the next few years, and they’ll be instrumental in forging the person you want to be.

It seems daunting as a nervous, pudgy high school freshman, but over the next few years, you’ll wind up being the main sports reporter for the club. Your junior and senior years will consist of traveling with teams, going in extra early the next day to cut highlights, picking up PA announcing work on the side, and ultimately becoming one of the most visible people at the school.

Your senior year, you’ll also write for the newspaper. Your attitude won’t sit well with some people. In fact, at the end of the year, the award you’ll win from advisor Sean O’Brien (one of the good guys) is entitled, “I used to be conceited, but now I’m perfect.” That won’t bother you, and it won’t bother you for a defined reason: Nobody can ever accuse you of not putting in the necessary work. Hell, there will be one newspaper where your grade for the journalism class that puts out the newspaper is something in the 210’s out of 100, simply because your name is on five or six different stories.

Opinions of you will vary widely. Some teachers (including your English and science fiction teacher, Mr. Stein, who you’ll co-host a game show with) will love you, and so will some students, including Ted King-Smith, your best friend since kindergarten (want to feel old? You’ll be in his wedding in 2018). As a senior, you’ll even mentor a kid named Ron Miles who reminds you a lot of yourself. Get ready for this: He’ll go into football coaching, win a national championship as a graduate assistant with Ohio State, and work for an NFL team. Others (namely some fellow students and an athletic director at a rival high school you almost get in a fistfight with) won’t care for your shtick. Some student-athletes will have other problems with you, namely the music you play at certain sporting events. If you’re disturbed by how much I remember, know that I am as well. At this point, there isn’t much I can do about my mind being Sicilian in nature. I apologize in advance, because this won’t get better.

When it comes time to go to college, you’ll get lucky. You’ll have two top choices, Ithaca College and Syracuse University. Syracuse will make your decision really simple, because they’ll reject you. Don’t sweat this, because you’ll wind up going EXACTLY where you’re supposed to go.

– – – – –

Be very thankful that you have two good parents. You’ve always been close to your dad, and he’s the one that took you to the track as a kid and to high school sporting events when he worked for a small local paper. You don’t share a lot of interests with your mother, and even today, she gets angry when you get frustrated about not picking a winning horse. That said, she’s always enabled you to do what you want to do, even when your desired career path isn’t glamorous.

All of that plays a large part in getting you to Ithaca College, specifically the TV/Radio program at the world-renowned Park School of Communications. The reason you pick Ithaca is the ability to do what you want to do right away, and you were right to do it. Immediately, you become the primary PA announcer for Ithaca College athletics thanks to associate athletic director Mike Lindberg and his staff, and you also pick up TV and radio work, too.

As good as Mike Lindberg, Ernie McClatchie, and his team are, though, there’s one negative constant, and it’s your first exposure to someone with actual power not liking you. The head sports information director will be a thorn in your side for the better part of four years, including once berating you in front of the entire press box for having the nerve to go to the men’s room during a delay in a football game. He’ll even go after your father when he shows up for a few games, solely because he thinks he can do whatever he wants without any repercussions (he can’t, but more on that later).

That one person, though, doesn’t cancel out all of the good things you’ll do and all of the people you meet. As a senior, you’ll become one of the voices of Ithaca College football on WICB, and you’d better bring it, because the people you’ll work with are GOOD. Your partner is Josh Getzoff, who’ll wind up calling games for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Your sports director is Nate March, who, in addition to becoming one of the top minor league baseball broadcasters in the country in his mid-20’s, will become one of your best friends (you’ll be in his wedding, too). You’ll call a game with Josh Canu, who’ll work for NBC Sports, and you’ll have a story for years to come when his car breaks down 40 miles from campus. Someone a few years younger than you, Gavin Cote, will work at ESPN and name-drop your beloved 1994 Chrysler LeBaron in a speech at Nate’s wedding (somehow, by the way, that car will get you through college). The sports radio and TV staffs become one big family, complete with irrational blowups at one another and wars about everything from women to the intramural flag football team (spoiler alert: your team stinks), but you’ll meet some of the best friends you’ll ever have by doing that.

You’ll also make real connections with some of your professors. You’ll play golf with a guy named Stephen Mosher, who’s pretty much Robin Williams’s character from “Good Will Hunting” come to life. You’ll talk horses with Jack Powers, whose credits include consultations on a hit TV show called “Modern Family.” You’ll love Peter Johanns, especially since he won’t kill you for counting the number of times he says the phrase, “something along those lines,” during his Advanced Studio Production class.

Even better, you’ll get the experience of a lifetime in 2010. Crazy as it sounds, NBC uses student interns from Ithaca and Syracuse during the Olympics. You’ll intern at the Winter Games in Vancouver as part of the Highlights Factory. You’ll meet Lester Holt, Mary Carillo, Al Michaels, and Bob Costas. You’ll go to the women’s curling semifinals with Nick Karski, who will spend most of his time wondering why he went to a curling match with a guy who never shuts up (don’t worry, part of that is why you two get along splendidly). You’ll work side-by-side with high-level guys like Brian Gilmore, Eric Hamilton, and Gary Quinn, all of whom are tremendous at their jobs, but even better people. Furthermore, it turns out you’ve got distant family in Vancouver who will show you around, even taking you in for a home-cooked meal when they have no obligation to do so.

Those six weeks will be some of the best weeks of your life. You’d better enjoy them, though, because when you get home, it’s going to be tough.

– – – – –

For all of the shtick you put forth sometimes, you’re also pretty conscientious about planning things. You major in TV/Radio at Ithaca while somehow pulling off a double-minor in Sport Studies and Speech Communication and somehow do it in 3 1/2 years, allowing you to get a three-month head start on a job hunt once you fly back from Vancouver. Having said that, I need to warn you: These next few months won’t go well.

You’ll send your resume to every single college athletic department, TV station, radio station, and newspaper you can think of. You’ll get varying responses, including some very nice rejections and a few mean ones (one of which you’ll still have in a separate email folder in 2017 because it stuck with you). Finally, in October, you’ll get a call from Siena College, and you’ll go to work…pretty much doing everything in the one department you swore you’d never work for at Ithaca: Sports information.

(By the way, remember how I said there’d be more on the Ithaca SID? Yeah, he’ll get fired a few years after you leave, and by the accounts of some people you trust, nobody will stand up for him as his fate is decided.)

You’ll work there for two years, and you’ll bust your butt before getting a full-time offer from The Saratogian. That puts you back at the racetrack, and in the stands at high school and college games in the area. You’ll love going to games, and you’ll love the people you work with (some of whom you’ll be close to years after you leave that paper). People loving you, though? That’s going to be dicey sometimes. You’ll get yelled at by a few people for impersonating “The West Wing” communications director Toby Ziegler’s ball-throwing tendency when thinking, and one of your co-workers will act in an unforgivable way at the track in the summer of 2013. Still, nobody can ever logically accuse you of not putting in the work, and that’s what gets you through that summer.

The day after Labor Day, you’ll take a train to New York City. You’ll head into a lounge at a hotel and meet a man named Phil Kubel, who’s hiring for the digital media arm of HRTV. It’s based at Santa Anita, and after meeting you, he’ll fly you out to California. You’ll sit in on meetings with execs like Amy Zimmerman and Michael Canale, and ultimately, you’ll move west the next month, in need of a fresh start that the job provides.

You’ll get it, and then some. You’ll love what you do, you’ll love being at the track every day, and, six weeks after you move, you’ll meet someone you’ll fall head over heels for. Trust me, kid. As bad as things seem directly before your move, you’ll know instantly that you’ve made the right decision to move when you meet her. She’s infinitely better-looking than you are, she’s actually got a desire to do the dirty work 99% of Americans will never want to do, and even though she doesn’t know it when you meet her, she’s destined to be the best third-grade teacher anyone could ever ask for.

You’ll get sent to Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races, some of the most well-known broadcasters will take a liking to you (namely Caton Bredar, Jeff Siegel, and Aaron Vercruysse), and even after a brief hiccup in the summer of 2014 that you’ll save the full story about for your memoirs (to be written once certain people retire or die), things will seem to be going incredibly well…and then you’ll get a monkey wrench thrown into everything.

You see, the TV station you work for will be sold to its main competitor, TVG, in early-2015. There’ll be a few weeks of uncertainty with regard to future employment, and you won’t know where money will come from. Thankfully, two men, Bhavesh Patel and Stephen Kennelly, will bring you into the fold, and, even better, they know how to manage you. You’re going to stun Bhavesh into silence at a meeting when you display your expertise, and rather than micromanage you, he and Stephen will simply recognize that you know how to do your job and leave you to it.

You won’t just handle digital media for them. You’ll handicap for them, and bluntly, you’ll be surprisingly good at it. In an age where people will look for any reason to complain about public handicappers (if you think it’s bad now, kid, just wait a few years until something called Twitter comes along), you’ll post a $500 profit on Pick Four tickets in 2015 and pick winners at a 27% clip in 2016. You’ll also host online broadcasts for them and be in charge of getting eyeballs on online content. You’ll gladly go the extra mile for what you do, especially since you’re paid hourly. What’s more, they’ll let you handicap for The Saratogian, where you’ve ascended to the role of featured handicapper following the retirement of Nick Kling (one of the best to ever pick horses on a daily basis).

Better still, you’ll meet people like you. There’ll be a guy in marketing who you work next to, and you won’t know a thing about him when you start. However, on a random walk to the other side of the office in your first week at TVG, you’ll notice Danny Kovoloff is reading the same wrestling blog you read. You’ll exclaim, “YOU’RE A SCOTT KEITH GUY!!!,” and giggle like a schoolgirl, and that’s how you’ll know you’re going to be okay.

You’ll meet two different Italian versions of yourself. One of them is headed out the door of TVG as soon as you arrive, it seems, but you wind up getting so close after he leaves that you get a standing invitation to Gino Buccola’s family’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza. Two side notes: One, his family may consist of the nicest people on the planet. Two, the greatest play of your athletic career will come at a softball game hosted near his house. Pro tip: At some point between now and Fourth of July in 2017, learn how to slide into third base.

The other Italian version of yourself is a track announcer that knows every small track like the back of his hand, it seems, and one who you’ll become close with in a bizarre way. You see, he’ll call a race at Gulfstream Park featuring a horse named Fallen Leaf, who appears to be on her way to victory. He’ll say, “No antics of any kind…,” only for the horse to prop near the wire and throw the jockey. He’ll deadpan, “…and there we go with the antics,” and your crazy mind will deduce that this must take off as a Twitter phenomenon. By Pete Aiello’s own admission, the era of the Aiellobomb will be a very strange time, but the two of you will begin bantering back and forth, and you’ll be better off for it.

You’ll also meet another guy to whom you’ll owe a debt you can’t repay. See, in 2017, your job at TVG will change drastically, to the point that you realize it’s time to look around (this is another story for the memoirs that can’t be written until certain people retire or die). This guy, who has never met you and barely knows who you are, will listen as you look for someone, ANYONE, to talk to about your situation. You’ll ramble, all while trying to sound somewhat coherent, and, bless his kind, Midwestern heart, he’ll give you an email address for Jody Swavy, the editor-in-chief at the Daily Racing Form. Within two months of the change in status at TVG, you’ll be on a plane to New York City to train for a job in digital media at the publication you just spent your high school orientation reading, and you’ll have Joe Nevills (and, by extension, fellow DRF Breeding colleague/former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo) to thank for a large portion of it.

Some of these people probably won’t like being name-dropped. The fact is, though, you won’t get anywhere without them. You’ll put in the work, but life’s about the people you meet and the relationships you forge. You don’t do Christmas cards, because you find them too time-consuming and boring, so you naturally choose to write 3,000 words (exactly 3,000, per Microsoft Word) to express your gratitude to those who deserve it, from your friends and family to a girlfriend that you’ve been with for four years and love very much. Like pretty much everything else you do, what some people think of as ego or a strong personality is really just trying to do the best you can at all times.

I don’t have a lot of other tips for you, because as I write this, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. It doesn’t matter that the journey followed a circuitous route. I’m happy.

Do what makes you happy. Everything else will take care of itself.

Best,
Andrew

P.S.: Avoid the organic ice cream at the casino you visit in Aruba your senior year of high school. Just trust me.

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Gulfstream Park, Los Alamitos (12/9/17)

Before we get into my analysis of Saturday’s action at Gulfstream and Los Alamitos, there are a few things that we need to talk about. Firstly, it’s been a tough week for everyone in horse racing. The images and videos that came out of San Luis Rey were positively gut-wrenching, and the work that many have done to assist the humans and horses in need is as admirable as it gets. If you want to assist, Santa Anita and Del Mar have teamed up to raise funds, and you can contribute here.

Secondly, and more relevant to my analysis, you’ll notice there’s only an early Pick Five writeup for Gulfstream’s card. I love that they’re holding a card to highlight the best horses in the Caribbean, especially given the destruction wreaked upon those islands by this past year’s hurricanes. However, due to the relative lack of data, I can’t put forth any sort of tickets on those races.

On to the analysis!

GULFSTREAM PARK

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 3,4
R2: 5,6,8,9,10,11
R3: 4
R4: 1,4,8,9
R5: 1,9

96 Bets, $48

Each race in this sequence is a stakes race, and some of the fields are large enough to where this could really pay out. We’ll start off with the Hut Hut for 2-year-old fillies, and I’m two-deep. #3 MY FAVORITE GIFT won by a city block in her debut, while #4 BERNADETTA is bred to go long and beat a good horse (Blonde Bomber) in her unveiling.

I’m spreading in the Wait a While. I understand that #6 STAINLESS may be favored, but her best race came over a very soft, slow turf course at Keeneland, and this isn’t a field comprised of pushovers. Of note, #10 SUBTLE STEP did something few Shug McGaughey trainees can pull off. She won at first asking, and that race’s second-place finisher has since come back to win as well.

My single comes in the third. This is the Buffalo Man, and I’m staking my ticket on #4 DIAMOND OOPS. He won twice over this surface before a lackluster effort in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, where he stumbled at the start and probably never had a chance. He’s worked well since then, and I’m not crazy about the likely favorite, #5 MOJOVATION. He ran a big race in his debut, but that came over a very quirky Saratoga track, and he hasn’t fired the same kind of shot since then.

I’m going four-deep in the fourth, the House Party. My top pick is #9 TAKE CHARGE PAULA, who’s yet to run a bad race going one turn and gets a cushy outside draw, but it’s tough to say if she’ll like Gulfstream or not. I want some coverage, and hopefully, I’ve gone deep enough.

We’ll be alive to two horses in the fifth, the Smooth Air. I’m pretty sure Todd Pletcher wins this race, as I’ve used two of his three trainees entered in this race. #1 COLTANDMISSISSIPPI bounced back from a horrible run in the Sapling to romp at Gulfstream Park West, while #9 BAL HARBOUR won the Sapling and sports a win over the Gulfstream main track.

LOS ALAMITOS

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 2,3
R2: ALL
R3: 3,5
R4: 2,4
R5: 4

48 Bets, $24

We’ve got a rarity here, as this Pick Five includes two Grade 1 races. We start off with an optional claimer, and I’m using both horses not entered for the claiming price. #3 INNYMINNIEMINEYMOE will probably be favored, but I actually prefer #2 LA CHEPIS, who was claimed last time out by Keith Desormeaux and is protected in her first start for that outfit.

I’m buying the second race, a starter allowance where the six horses involved have combined for four wins in 45 starts this calendar year. I hate betting horses that show aversions to winning, but one such horse WILL win this race. Since I’ve got the budget to use them all, that’s what I’m doing.

The third race is the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, and I’m using both Bob Baffert trainees. Of the pair, I prefer #3 SOLOMINI, who may be the bigger price despite his second-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s only been beaten by Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic to this point, and anything above 2-1 strikes me as an overlay.

The fourth is the Grade 1 Starlet, and I’m against morning line favorite #3 DREAM TREE. She does not seem like a two-turn horse to me, and I think we may be able to get a bit of value going against her. #4 WAR HEROINE is my top pick following a sharp debut at Del Mar, while #2 PIEDI BIANCHI exits the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, where she was beaten just two and a half lengths for second money.

My single figures to be a popular one. #4 HOTSY DOTSY is 0-for-14, but she’s run two good races for the level since being claimed by Hector Palma this past summer. She showed improved tactical speed last time out, and given the relative lack of early zip signed on, she could sit a dream trip here. She’s 7/5 on the morning line, and hopefully, she finishes off a profitable ticket for us.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 4,7
R7: 3,5,6
R8: 1,5,7,10
R9: 2,7,9

72 Bets, $36

I don’t have a single on this ticket, and I found this sequence tricky given the fairly large fields signed on. For that reason, if you hit, you’ll probably be in line for a solid score.

I’m using the two likely favorites to start. #4 FABRICATION returns to his favorite track and gets Tyler Baze, while #7 BIG HUNK takes a big drop in class for a trainer whose horses tend to improve at second asking.

I’m hoping things get a bit more chaotic in the second leg, as I’m not using the 5/2 morning line favorite. #4 HELLUVA CHOICE ships in from the east coast, and we have absolutely no idea how he’ll run against California horses, so I’ll try to beat him. I’m particularly intrigued by #3 ALWAYS NEVER, who ran a very nice race last time out at night over this Los Al track. He sports a recent bullet workout and will likely be the one this field has to run down turning for home.

I thought the eighth was the toughest race in the sequence. #1 PRIME ISSUE will likely be favored, and he’ll certainly be the one they have to run down, but his last two have been bad enough to where I want some coverage alongside him. In particular, while #10 BOLSTER is fast, I don’t think that one needs the lead. He made a middle move last time before flattening out to be third, and that day’s winner has since come back to win. 6-1 is a square price, and I’ll happily take those odds if I can get them.

I’m three-deep in the finale, and the horses I’m using are included with the thought that this race is very likely to collapse. Many horses entered here need the lead in order to win, so I used three that should have something left late. #2 GROUND RULES drops out of a Grade 2 race, while #7 CITY STEEL is a consistent stalking-type and #9 INCENSED has shown an ability to sit behind horses in the past (albeit on turf).

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park (12/2/17)

Saturday is a big day at both Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park. Aqueduct houses a card with four stakes races, including the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, while Gulfstream Park opens its championship meet with the Claiming Crown program. Both slates are incredibly challenging, and if you hit even one multi-race ticket, chances are you’ll walk away with a profit. Here’s how I’ll attack both cards.

AQUEDUCT

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 2,3,4,5
R2: 4,5,10
R3: 1
R4: 6,7,10,12
R5: 1,3

96 Bets, $48

I generally don’t like going much over $40 with my tickets, but I felt a need to with both of my stabs at Aqueduct. Even with a single in the middle leg of the Pick Five, it’s not a cheap ticket, but hopefully, we can get this home.

I’m four-deep in the opening leg, and for good reason. #5 BLACK SEA will probably be favored, but he probably wants to go longer, and it’s a bit alarming that he’s in for a claiming tag. I’ll use him, but I want other coverage. Of note, #3 WAR BOND is one of only a few in here that wants this specific distance. His win two back was solid, and he’s attracted Jose Ortiz.

I’m using the three logical horses in the second. Many of these horses haven’t won in a while, so I’ll take one horse second off a layoff (#4 LEAH’S DREAM), a second that makes her second start off the claim for a good barn (#5 FAIR REGIS), and a class-dropper that should appreciate the relief (#10 ANNA RAE).

My single comes in the third, and while it’s partially out of necessity, there’s also a benefit to it. I think both parts of the David Jacobson entry (#1 DOCS LEGACY and #1A ANY QUESTIONS) can win, and I need a single somewhere to keep the cost of my ticket down, so here we go.

I thought the fourth race was fascinating. It’s a turf sprint for state-bred maidens, and while some horses that figure to take money make sense, I also had to include a 15-1 shot. That’s #6 LUNE LAKE, who didn’t break well in her debut for a barn whose horses usually need a race or two to get going. In addition, she’s bred to like the turf, as her second dam, Nicole’s Dream, was a freakish turf sprinter who won multiple stakes races going short on grass. I think she’s a must-use, especially at her likely price.

I’ll hope to finish this off with one of the two favorites in the fifth. #1 FOLLOW THE SIGNS was claimed by a good barn (and from a good barn) following a romp last time out, while #3 MINSKY MOMENT showed an affinity for the turf when a sharp second last time out at Belmont.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 5,9,11,12
R8: 1,3,5
R9: 3,5
R10: 2,5,6,8

96 Bets, $48

We open with a wide-open 2-year-old maiden race. I’m four-deep, and I easily could have gone much deeper. My reluctant top pick is #11 SCATBACK, who ran well enough in two turf sprints at Saratoga earlier this year and gets Javier Castellano, but this race could unfold any number of ways. If you can afford to go deeper, you may want to do that.

The second leg is the Grade 2 Demoiselle. It’s sometimes tough to decipher which 2-year-olds want to go nine furlongs, but I think the morning line man got this one right. #1 DAISY and #3 WONDER GADOT have both looked talented and will be bet, but I also had to use #5 INDY UNION, who’s bred up and down to go long and relished the stretchout at Belmont when romping over maidens in October. She’s by Union Rags and out of an A.P. Indy mare, so two turns should be right up her alley.

I’m two-deep in the Grade 2 Remsen. #3 AVERY ISLAND may be favored and has talent, but if #5 CATHOLIC BOY can transfer his turf form to dirt, he’ll be the one to beat. He encountered some trouble when fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and while he probably wasn’t beating Mendelssohn with a clean trip, he could’ve conceivably been second. This is a good spot to take a shot on dirt, and his races have shown that the distance won’t be his undoing.

The Cigar Mile is the main event, and it doubles as the payoff leg of the sequence. I came into the race thinking the two main contenders were #6 SHARP AZTECA and #8 PRACTICAL JOKE, but upon further review, I had to use two others as well. #2 SEYMOURDINI had a nightmare trip in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler and should improve second off the layoff, and #5 AMERICANIZE has not finished worse than second in eight races he’s finished. That one was an impressive winner of the Damascus Stakes, and when Simon Callaghan gets a horse on the right track, they tend to stay there. At 12-1, I need him on my ticket.

GULFSTREAM PARK

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 3,4,5
R2: 6,7,10
R3: 6
R4: 2,8,11,12
R5: 1,5

72 Bets, $36

And there we go with the antics (hi, Pete!). This Pick Five struck me as the hardest sequence to decipher among both cards I looked at, and if there’s any consolation, it’s that Gulfstream has a 4-of-5 payout in this sequence.

The meet opener is a turf race for maidens, and I’m going three-deep. My top pick is #5 REALLY PROUD, who took a step forward at second asking last time out. She showed tactical speed and has worked well since then, so more improvement could be in the cards.

I’m also three-deep in the second leg. #6 MENDED ships east and is going for her 10th consecutive win. Her two recent dirt races were just fine, but 2-1 seems awfully short in such a big field. I’ll also use #7 DELUSIONAL K K, who’s won two of her last three, and #10 AMALUNA, who does her best running here and was impressive at this route two back.

I’ve got a “separator single” in the third leg. I know I’m supposed to like the Todd Pletcher tandem of #3 HYNDFORD and #9 ANIMAL KINGSTON, but if one was the goods, why are two entered in the same spot? I’m taking a swing with a 10-1 first-time starter that’s bred to be talented. #6 THE ROBERT has been working well at Churchill Downs and is a half-brother to four winners. Trainer Eddie Kenneally can win with first-time starters, and I’m not overly impressed with the horses that have run before. If this horse wins, we’ll be alive to a nice, nice score.

I’m four-deep in the fourth, a race with plenty of early speed signed on. While speed is usually good at Gulfstream, I had to throw in 15-1 shot #11 EXPRESS JET just in case the race falls apart. Toss the races contested over a wet track, and this closer looks much, much better.

If we’re alive into the fifth, we’ll be two-deep there. #1 BLUE BAHIA is ultra-consistent and has never been better, while #5 EILA loves Gulfstream and returns to her favorite track. Her recent form hasn’t been great, but Gulfstream is a far different turf course than Aqueduct, and she could relish her familiar stomping grounds.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: 4,7,12
R9: 5,9,10,11,12
R10: 4
R11: 5,6,7,11

60 Bets, $30

The late Pick Four kicks off with the Rapid Transit. #4 SHAFT OF LIGHT won this race by daylight last time out, and he merits respect. However, #7 MANHATTAN MISCHIEF has plenty of early speed and could keep him company early. I’m using both speed horses, and, in the event the race breaks down, I’m also using #12 COXSWAIN, a 20-1 shot that loves this track and should be flying late.

The ninth is a wide-open turf race, and I’m five-deep. #9 STARSHIP JUBILEE has been racing against much better at Woodbine and could win, but Woodbine form sometimes doesn’t translate elsewhere. She won here a few times earlier in the year, but this isn’t an easy field, and if she doesn’t win, I don’t know who does, so I went deep.

I took a completely different approach in the 10th. #4 BLACK TIDE has one way of going. He’ll go to the front, open up, and lead for as long as he can. This race doesn’t have much other quality speed signed on, so he could sit a picture-perfect trip on a track that often plays kindly to early speed. As such, he’s a single for me.

I’ll go four-deep to finish things off. #6 GIGANTIC BREEZE won a Grade 2 at Woodbine last time out, and if his form translates to dirt, he’ll definitely be the one to beat. However, I’m also using a few prices, and if one of them gets home, we’ll get paid off in a big way.

A Degenerate’s Guide to Las Vegas

There are a few undeniable truths in our society, and this article revolves around one of them. That truth is a simple one, and it’s one you simply cannot challenge.

For a degenerate gambler, Las Vegas is the greatest city in the world.

I’m headed to the desert later this week for a few days. My dad and I do a few trips each year, and this one celebrates Thanksgiving and both of our birthdays. In my trips, I’ve been fortunate enough to see and do a lot in town, and this column consists of several lists, a few stories, and some tips if you’re making your way there. If you think there’s something I missed, tweet me at @AndrewChampagne. I’ll be writing a few articles from my hotel room at Flamingo, and if you think I’ve missed something or are curious about something in town, buzz me.

On with the show!

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THE BEST BUFFETS IN TOWN

1) Bacchanal, Caesars Palace
2) The Buffet, Wynn
3) The Buffet, Bellagio
4) Carnival World Buffet, Rio
5) Le Village Buffet, Paris

I love buffets, especially when someone else is paying (hi, Dad!). The best buffets have a wide selection of tremendous food, and you can gorge to your stomach’s content.

Bacchanal at Caesars Palace isn’t just one of the best buffets in Vegas. It’s one of the best restaurants in Vegas regardless of genre. It’s not cheap, and if you go at the wrong time, you’ll be waiting in line for a while (this is Caesars, after all). However, once you get in, you’re treated to a smorgasbord of stuff, and all of it is outstanding (especially the dessert section).

Wynn and Bellagio flip-flop at the second and third spots with pretty much every trip I make. Wynn is probably better if you can stomach the lines and the trip there, but Bellagio is darned close, especially if you’re staying on the southern end of the Strip and don’t want to go all the way up to Wynn.

Rio’s buffet checks in at the fourth spot. If you like seafood, you may rank it higher; personally, I’m not much for seafood, but the rest of the buffet does enough elsewhere to get on this list. The top five is rounded out by Paris, and that’s a bit of a shame, because it used to rank with Wynn and Bellagio. It’s still good, and it’s by far the best fully-participating buffet in the 24-hour buffet deal Caesar’s properties offer, but they’ve recently downsized their food options, and that’s a bummer.

Honorable mentions: Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan; I’m not much for the feel of the property, but the buffet is good), Flavors (Harrah’s; better for lunch than for dinner given the fare offered, but the extensive dessert selection is a big plus), Cravings (Mirage; nothing exceptional, but solid and consistent).

Dishonorable mentions: Paradise Garden (Flamingo; as recently as five years ago, this was an OK option, but it’s gone downhill sharply), The Buffet at TI (Treasure Island; I’ve gotten sick here and am in no hurry to go back, which is a shame because I love gambling here), Excalibur Buffet (Excalibur; no, just no).

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THE CASINOS/PARTS OF CASINOS I MISS

1) The old O’Shea’s
2) Poker room, The Linq
3) Poker room, Luxor
4) The old sports book, Caesar’s Palace
5) Bill’s

The only similarities between the new O’Shea’s and the old one (which was torn down a few years ago to make room for The Linq’s expansion) are the name and the leprechauns. In fact, my father took video of a publicity stunt just before O’Shea’s closed. Leprechauns in full costume paraded around the front door with picket signs saying “SAVE O’SHEA’S,” and it’s just as funny as it sounds.

Anyway, while management threw O’Shea’s lovers a bone with the new wing of The Linq, it’s not the same. It’s overly loud, the acoustics are terrible, it attracts people who have no idea how to play the games they offer, and while the 24/7 spread of $5 blackjack is a plus, it’s actually more fun (for me, at least) to play that game inside The Linq than it is to play at O’Shea’s.

Back when it was known as The Quad, The Linq had a four-table poker room that ran cheap poker tournaments every three hours. The quality of opposition was pretty bad, and you could do pretty well there just by playing smart. Unfortunately, they closed the room to put slot machines in that space.

Upper management has also closed the poker room at Luxor, and that was a bummer when I went there earlier this year. They used to give players who made final tables at tournaments small toys shaped like the Luxor’s pyramid, complete with a button at the bottom that lit the top up as a laser pointer. I still have mine, and it makes for a toy that drives my cat nuts.

Caesar’s Palace has done a great job renovating their sports book. However, one of the things they did at the outset of that renovation was stick a bar right in front of the seating area, and that really hurt the mood of the place. You used to be able to use that space to congregate and mingle with whoever passed by, and that created a familial atmosphere of sorts. Placing the bar where they did took a lot of the charm away from the book, and while they’re working to get it back, it can’t be the same as it was before.

We’ll close the list with Bill’s, which was renovated and relaunched as The Cromwell a few years back. Bill’s had no frills (catchy, huh?), and it knew exactly what it was. It was a haven for degenerate gamblers who wanted fun for cheap, complete with ample $5 blackjack and very bad karaoke. On my first trip to Vegas in 2010, I walked into the building and sat down, looking to kill time. In succession, I watched a group of women butcher “Come On Eileen” by not knowing any words besides the chorus, followed by the whitest guy in three counties (which was somehow not me) nailing every word to “The Humpty Dance.” Try as it might, The Cromwell can’t recapture that magic.

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FUN PLACES TO GAMBLE FOR CHEAP ON THE STRIP

1) Casino Royale
2) Treasure Island
3) Flamingo
4) Harrah’s
5) The Cromwell

If you’ve never heard of Casino Royale, it’s not surprising. Casino Royale isn’t on the front page of any Vegas tourism brochures. The building’s sort of a dump, and it also houses a Denny’s and a White Castle as opposed to a Ruth’s Chris or a Morton’s. However, Casino Royale is one of only a few casinos in town that houses a blackjack switch table (that sound you hear is my father banging his head against either a desk or a nearby wall at the mere mention of this game).

Never played it? It’s a gas. You get to play two hands at once, and the name comes from the player’s ability to switch the top two cards. In return, all blackjacks are treated the same as any other 21 (you get paid even-money, rather than 6/5 or 3/2 odds), and all dealer 22’s are pushes. If you can stomach those two quirks (and at $5, they’re palatable), it’s a very fun game, and you can make money by playing for pushes and hoping the dealer busts. If that’s not your speed, they’ve also got other variants of card games, a sports book that offers fun prop bets, and, for the low-cost beer connoisseurs out there, $1 bottles of Michelob.

Fellow horseplayers know Treasure Island as the home of the National Handicapping Championship, and it’s one of my favorite places to gamble. There’s a great mix of people, which means that your odds of finding a good blackjack table where everyone works together are good. During slow times, they’ll offer $5 blackjack, and a good portion of those games use a standard shoe (rather than an auto-shuffler). Some of them even offer 3/2 payouts on blackjack, which stands out when most of the neighbors are offering 6/5. Just stay away from the buffet.

Flamingo is a frequent base of operations for yours truly. You can’t beat the location, and the offerings inside are reasonable. The poker room usually has cheap, beatable games going, $10 blackjack is spread around the casino, and while the race and sports book won’t win any awards, the chairs are comfortable and there are plenty of screens. The one negative is that their grandfather clause isn’t friendly to players. If you’re lucky enough to find a $5 blackjack table at most places, you’ll get that limit until you get up from the table. Here, you get a shoe or two after the limits go up, and then you must play for the elevated minimum. That’s a real downer, but other than that, it’s a fun time.

Harrah’s is pretty similar (which makes sense, given that both Harrah’s and Flamingo are owned by the same parent company). Of note, their race and sports book, while a bit small, is underrated. There are many comfortable chairs, and the atmosphere is fun. They’ll occasionally spread a few $5 blackjack games, too, and they run a fun bounty tournament in the poker room from time to time as well.

I’ve mentioned that The Cromwell replaced Bill’s, and while that’s a bummer, the updated property does boast $5 blackjack. Additionally, during busy times, the “sports book” is the best-kept secret in the city. There’s no place to watch the games, just a few lonely betting windows. However, this works to the benefit of the gambler that knows what action he or she wants. You can get in and out very quickly, and that’s a godsend sometimes.

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FUN PLACES OFF THE STRIP

1) Rio
2) Palms
3) Hard Rock
4) Golden Nugget
5) Binion’s

Rio is the home of the World Series of Poker, and even if you’re not playing, there’s nothing quite like walking through the huge halls where tournaments and side games are being played. It’s a ton of fun, and the casino itself isn’t too bad once you know where you’re going.

Palms was much more fun about five years ago. Some of the shine’s come off the place, but it’s still not a bad casino to stop at. They’ve spread blackjack switch in the past, which helps, and table limits are usually reasonable.

I wanted to rank Hard Rock higher on this list. I’ve had fun here, and my very first time in Vegas saw me come here and win a decent chunk of change playing blackjack. However, the casino has changed since then. The limits have gone way up, and it’s upsetting to make a trip over here and not feel comfortable playing anything.

Fremont Street is a fun alternative to the Strip, and Golden Nugget and Binion’s are two of the most well-known properties in that neck of the woods. Golden Nugget is the most high-end property in that neighborhood, and if you want to feel like a big shot while not spending the necessary money to actually BE a big shot, this is a decent spot to do it. One note, though: Cell phone service is garbage inside the casino.

Binion’s is not exactly what it was 15 years ago, when it hosted the World Series of Poker and became the epicenter of the poker boom when Chris Moneymaker won it and spawned a legion of wannabes (self included). However, from an “if walls could talk” perspective, it’s an incredible place to stop at. The casino’s poker room houses a wall of photos of past WSOP main event winners, there’s a card table signed by past champions, and you can get your picture taken with a million dollars. If you want a sense of “old Vegas,” this is a must-stop.

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TWO HORRIBLE BLACKJACK DEALER STORIES

– On one of my first trips to Vegas, I walked into The Mirage and spotted a $5 blackjack table. I texted my dad to let him know where I was, and the ever-personable dealer, whose table I hadn’t even sat down at, looked up and grunted, “DON’T EVEN THINK OF DOING THAT AT MY TABLE.”

Most of the time, this would be grounds for bolting from the premises. However, I’m overly competitive, so I sat down and proceeded to go on a ridiculous run where I won $80 in one shoe. The dealer was, shall we say, very displeased every time he paid me, and he didn’t say more than two or three words the whole time.

On the last hand of the shoe, he dealt me 20, and then drew a four-card 21 to beat me. He looked at me as if to say, “I’ve got you now,” to which I responded, “Color me up, please.” His jaw dropped in horror as if I’d just spilled my drink all over the table, and I’ve never played blackjack there since.

– New York New York advertises $5 blackjack at all hours, so I went down one day. It’s not my favorite spot to begin with. It’s a ways away from pretty much anywhere else on the Strip, for one, and a lot of the place just seems cheesy (although there’s a sports bar there that’s actually a pretty fun place). However, $5 blackjack is $5 blackjack, so I made the trip. I wish I hadn’t.

I sat down to play, and the dealer showed a six. A player asked for advice on what to do with her hand, and the dealer purposely ignored her. She asked the table what to do, and I told her to stay (since she could bust and the dealer had the worst up-card possible). Doing this got me a dirty look from the dealer, but I thought nothing of it.

She left a few minutes later, and suddenly, the dealer started mouthing off about how, and I’m quoting, “nobody is going to tell MY PLAYERS what to do.” Are you kidding? She asked for advice, I gave her advice, and I’m the scummy one here? Much like Mirage, I left that day and haven’t played blackjack there since.

BASIC TIPS FOR A FIRST-TIME VEGAS VISITOR

– When approaching a blackjack table mid-shoe, always ask if you can sit down, rather than simply barging in. This is simply good manners. If it’s a table with an auto-shuffler, it’s a bit more of a gray area, but I tend to ask anyway out of habit.

– Never split 10’s at a blackjack table. It will ruin table karma, and anything done out of greed in that town rarely ends well.

– If you’re going to a sports book to place a bet, know what you want to do before you get to the betting window. This is a pet peeve of any sports bettor, especially if it’s close to game time.

– No matter what else you do on your trip, go out of your way to see the Bellagio fountains at least once. It’s the coolest free show in town.

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Aqueduct and Del Mar (11/18/17)

I really like the Saturday cards at Aqueduct and Del Mar. I find the multi-race sequences at both tracks very challenging, and if you hit, I think you’ll be rewarded handsomely.

One quick note: Next week, I’ll be in Las Vegas for Thanksgiving/my 29th birthday, and I’ll be writing a few articles from there for this site with racing and sports bets, as well as any amusing anecdotes I may have from my travels. If you’re looking for stuff that’s sordid, that won’t be my speed. I’m happily taken, so I don’t do clubs, I don’t do pools, and I certainly do not interact with the people outside of casinos whipping cards around. I’m an old-school degenerate who believes in things like the blackjack grandfather clause, all-you-can-eat buffets (especially when someone else is paying; hi, Dad!), meeting random groups of outgoing people in sports books, and (best of all) backdoor covers. If any or all of that intrigues you, chances are you’ll like what I’ll be posting.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Aqueduct and Del Mar, and try to get some seed money for the trip!

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AQUEDUCT

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 1,2,4,5
R2: 6
R3: 4
R4: ALL
R5: 6,9

80 Bets, $40

We start off the Saturday card at Aqueduct with a tricky claiming event. I’m going four-deep, and I hope that’s enough. I’m most intrigued by #4 HARDLY MATE, who came from way back last time out to win going away in her first start with Lasix. Yes, it took a class drop to get her into the winner’s circle, but she ran into at least two next-out winners two back, and there’s reason to believe she’s getting better with experience.

I’ve got two straight singles in the second and third legs. #6 GANGBUSTERS ships up to New York for the second race, and I like her a lot. She’s raced very wide in each of her last two outings, and it’s not like this is a stellar field. #5 LADY BY CHOICE is the 7/5 favorite, but she goes to a lower-percentage barn and drops down in class. I think that’s a favorite you should try to beat, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

My third-leg single will be a popular one. #4 SCHIVARELLI makes his first start off the claim for Rudy Rodriguez following a race where he had a strange trip. At one point, he was six-wide in a seven-horse field, and he was still beaten less than two lengths. His usual race would make him very difficult to beat, and given my approach to the fourth race, I had to take another stand somewhere.

That fourth race, for my money, is the toughest race on Saturday’s Aqueduct program. It’s an incredibly competitive turf event, and I didn’t have a clue. Thanks to my two singles, I can buy the race, so if we get through my cold double, we’ll be one leg away from cashing.

The fifth race is a turf sprint for New York-breds, and I went two-deep to finish things out. #9 MISSION COMMAND took to the turf well last time out, running away with a claiming race at Belmont. Javier Castellano rides back, and I’m using him, but my top pick is actually #6 PSYCHIC ENERGY, who probably found seven furlongs a bit too long last time out. His four races before that effort were all quite good, and in those races, he beat several horses that also show up in this spot. Hopefully, he can win and get this ticket home at a bit of a price.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 4,5,6,9,11
R7: 6,7
R8: 5,9
R9: 4,10,12,13

80 Bets, $40

I did not think this was an easy sequence. The bookends of this sequence could go any number of different ways, and if you’ve got deeper pockets or a mid-sequence single, the “ALL” button may be your friend.

The sixth is a maiden event on the turf, and a number of these exit the same few races. #9 UNLEVERAGED will likely be favored in his debut for Chad Brown, but I thought there were others in here with big chances. Of note, #11 WICKED TRICK ran really well at bonkers odds in his debut at Kentucky Downs and was the victim of a surface switch last time out in the Grade 3 Bourbon at Keeneland. He’s 10-1 on the morning line, and that seems like way too big a price.

I’m using the two favorites in the two middle legs. I prefer #6 SCARLY CHARLY over #7 WILL DID IT in the seventh, largely due to the class drop and the switch to Joel Rosario. Meanwhile, in the eighth (the Artie Schiller), I think the only entrant that can beat #9 DELTA PRINCE is #5 BLACKTYPE, who seeks his third consecutive victory.

That brings us to the finale, which boasts a field of 14 maidens. #13 MISS HOT STONES seems logical on paper, but she was beaten at 1/2 at this level last time out. Maybe she’s just better than these, and I’m using her, but I can’t back her with any enthusiasm. The first-time starter that most intrigues me is #12 QUEENOFEVERYTHING, who’s been working very well at Saratoga and attracts Jose Ortiz. If Miss Hot Stones does not fire, it’s anyone’s race, and the works lead me to believe this daughter of Pomeroy could have some talent.

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DEL MAR

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 1,2,3,9
R2: ALL
R3: 3
R4: 8
R5: 2,3

64 Bets, $32

Right off the bat, I’m going against a likely favorite. That’s #4 LITTLE JUANITO, who’s made a career out of collecting minor checks. He’s had chances, he’s taken money, and at this point, I’m going to try to beat him. The three horses to his inside will all get some play, but #9 DRAMATIC VICTORY is my price play at 20-1. She runs against the boys here and showed speed in her debut down the hill. She faded, but Kent Desormeaux did not persevere with her when he knew she was beaten. Here, she gets top gate rider Edwin Maldonado, and she may be the one they’ve got to catch turning for home.

If we get the likely favorite beat in the opener, we’ll be two-fifths of the way home. I found the second race fascinating, and I needed maximum coverage. None of the eight entrants would be a shock, so I’m sitting back and hoping for a price.

Like at Aqueduct, I’ve got a cold double on my Pick Five ticket. My first single may be the shortest-priced favorite of the day. That’s #3 HELEN’S TIGER, who drops in for a tag and has back form. Anything close to her race two back would make her incredibly difficult to beat, and even her race three back would probably be good enough. If you can forgive the last-out clunker, which may have just been a bounce, she looks tough.

The fourth is a grass grab bag, and I’m taking a stand with #8 JERSEY’S HEAT. He improved considerably at second asking, and despite some trouble negotiating the dirt crossing, he rallied for third and earned a 67 Beyer Speed Figure. A repeat is probably good enough to win in this spot, which doesn’t feature many other horses with proven turf form. If he doesn’t win, I don’t know who does.

The payoff leg is the Saturday feature at Del Mar. It’s the $100,000 Desi Arnaz, and I’m taking a stand against another likely favorite. #6 DREAM TREE was all-out at 4/5 last time out, and while she could improve, the Bob Baffert barn is ice-cold this meet, and I’ll look elsewhere. #2 MS BAD BEHAVIOR chased two top-class fillies in her first two starts before breaking through last time out, and in that race, she overcame some trouble, which is encouraging. I’ll also use #3 MIDNIGHT BISOU, who nearly caught Dream Tree in her debut and attracts Rafael Bejarano.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,3,6,7,9
R7: 4,5
R8: 3,4,8,9
R9: 1,8

80 Bets, $40

Yep, another Pick Four ticket with no singles. I think you need lots of coverage, and nowhere is that more evident than in the sixth. This is a wide-open turf sprint, and I’ve gone five-deep. I’m most intrigued by #7 BOWIE, who almost definitely needed her last race off a long layoff and figures to be the main speed in this spot. She could easily take a leap forward for Richard Mandella, and if she does, she could start off the sequence at a price.

I’ll use the two favorites in the seventh, a confusing starter allowance with many horses that have not won in a while. #4 PARTY HOSTESS just missed last time out and runs for red-hot trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, while #5 GO ON MARY has significant back class and lost all chance at the break last time out.

We go back to the turf for the eighth race, and while #4 RADIO SILENCE may be the buzz horse, I don’t think he’s unbeatable. There isn’t much quality speed signed on, and that could bode well for #3 FLY TO MARS, who cruised home in his turf debut and could get first run at the tiring pace-setters around the far turn.

Finally, I’ll use the bookends in the Saturday finale. #1 BRADDOCK generally runs the same race every time out, while #8 MAKE IT A TRIPLE loves Del Mar and is wheeled right back by trainer Mike Machowsky, who has quietly had a very strong year (he’s hitting at 20%).