Jul 3 2019

Tribute to Neal Benoit from Shawn Meyers

I was saddened to learn of Neal’s passing through a mutual friend within a day of Tom Morley posting the news on his Twitter account.  The cause of death was not stated, and yet I had a sense that my friend had made a most difficult decision after having fought valiantly against overwhelming pain for which he had exhausted all remedies.  For a man like Neal, who was always considering the odds, he must have decided they were overwhelming.

My thoughts immediately turned to his wife, Debbie, and his two children, Michael and Courtney.  Anyone who took the time to read his posts at Getting Out of the Gate or Daring Ways, knows that Debbie wasn’t a track widow and the kids were not orphaned by a dad so obsessed with the track that he ignored his fatherly duties.  Instead, you quickly realized that they were his partners and supporters as he tried to educate and improve the lives of those around him, whether it was at the track or his self-help website. Debbie has confirmed to me that in voluntarily ending his life, Neal was acting in a way to not only spare him the enduring pain, but also to relieve his family from suffering, as his health continued to deteriorate and the pain grew too great to bear.  So the fact that I had not heard from him for several months, especially during the Triple Crown Series, caused me serious concern and ended in an outcome that I feared, and yet realized brought him relief.

Can I say that I was a long time or close friend of Neal?  I will not be so bold.  I’ll let others judge the depth of our relationship based on how we met and the resulting email, text exchanges and Saratoga meetings through the years.

About seven years ago as I was scrolling through links on the HorseRacesNow app, created by Kenny McPeek and his wife, I saw a link to some “free” Kentucky Derby analysis at a website “Gettingoutofthegate.com”.  As a fan of all aspects of the racing game, I was intrigued by the information on Neal’s website.  I read his introduction in which he promised that the purpose behind it was to create new fans and enthusiasts by providing handicapping information and interesting stories from a fan’s point of view. His openness in sharing his racing experiences was unlike anything else I had read on the net or in print about the game.  There was so much joy in every post.  Needless to say, I was hooked.  I found myself clicking on story link after story link, especially those in which he interviewed Maggie Wolfendale, Tom Morley and other racing insiders.

One day I saw a post in which Neal was offering free handicapping sessions at a local Albany, New York library in advance of the Derby – for free!  “What kind of generous man was this?”, I thought.  Nobody in the racing game provides the information that he was providing free of cost to the consumer.  I was so moved by his efforts, I felt compelled to reach out to him. In a world of easy on line posting, sending an email would not have had the impact that I desired.  I found his mailing address and sent him a good old-fashioned hand written letter.  It ended up as 3 pages of my indecipherable scrawl, of which I failed to keep a copy.  I can recollect telling him how much I valued his analysis, which was based on thoughtful research and the personal stories of his trips to Kentucky Downs and the backside at Saratoga. I indicated a desire to commence a correspondence if he was so inclined.  After a few days, to my delight, Neal replied and our friendship began.  At first, I simply provided some feedback and support of each new posting on his website. As the Saratoga season approached, and my wife and I planned to return for a week of attending the races and sight-seeing, Neal extended an offer to join the Benoit clan and friends at their traditional picnic table gathering by the paddock.  We accepted and had a fun-filled day analyzing the horses, comparing notes and making wagers. You couldn’t find a more welcoming crowd on the grounds of the entire backyard. It was apparent that Neal enjoyed the good-humored handicapping debates with family and friends.   I observed that Neal’s gentle ways prompted everyone around him to be more genteel in their conduct.  I think to have argued too aggressively or to be too critical in ones’ appraisal of another’s handicapping was simply bad form and not to be proffered in Neal’s company.  I don’t mean to say that Neal didn’t make bold predictions or take firm positions, he simply offered them in a way that was non-confrontational and everyone else followed suit.

While an invitation to the Benoit gathering revealed Neal’s generosity, he expanded it, by offering to take Nancy and I on a morning excursion to Tom Morley’s stable while he conducted an interview.  To someone who spent mornings at the Oklahoma rail and later the Whitney Viewing Stand, such an offer was an unexpected gift. Spending a morning with Neal as he spoke with Tom, discussing the various horses in his stable, their prospects for victory and the burgeoning growth of Maggie’s career as an analyst with NYRA was a day on the backside that we’ll never forget and truly treasure.

Neal continued to write and develop new articles focused on handicapping angles for the Saratoga meet and the major events such as the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown Series, which helped all who read his posts.  Sadly, he soon reached out to me to tell me that he was experiencing some health issues and he was limited in his ability to post articles on his website with his previous frequency.   Soon the pain and his efforts to beat it, caused him to be concerned that the website might become irrelevant without fresh postings.  It was then that he asked if Nancy could post some articles based on our travels to Saratoga.  She initially questioned whether or not she could produce anything rivaling his work, but he assured me that she could do the job and it would be of great assistance to him.  We agreed, honored that he thought enough of her to ask.  So began an annual submission, coinciding with the Saratoga meet, offering restaurant and lodging reviews and reflections on things to do beyond attending the races.  All the while we hoped that her reviews would become unnecessary and Neal would resume traveling with Debbie and find the strength to begin making regular postings.  Unfortunately, that wish never came true.

Neal’s battle to use every available resource – especially his mind – to combat his pain, lead him to create a new website, “Daring Ways”, in which he sought to offer motivation to others to find ways to overcome their own disabilities.  As with his racing website, Neal was always looking to educate others, through his own hard work and research.  I found many of his articles inspiring and with each post hoped that Neal was deriving new found strength to overcome his own disabling illness.

Now that Neal has passed, I reflect upon how he might like me to honor him.  I cannot offer anecdotes from childhood, or his professional life or even the types of stories a neighbor may share.  But hopefully Neal would appreciate that I have delved into my library of racing literature and offer a few quotations that encapsulate his love of racing and provided the bonds of our friendship.

Neal loved his family and the horse in that order and so I think of James Whitcomb Riley.

 

“ ‘Each hoss has his appointed place, –

The heavy hoss should plow the soil; –

The blooded racer, he must race,

And win big wages fer his toil.

 

‘I never bet – ner never wrought

Upon my feller man to bet –

And yit, at times. I’ve often thought

Of my convictions with regret.

 

‘I bless the hoss from hoof to head –

From head to hoof, and tale to mane! –

I bless the hoss, as I have said,

From head to hoof, and back again!

 

‘ I love my God the first of all,

Then Him that perished on the cross,

And next, my wife, – and then I fall

Down on my knees and love the hoss.’

The Hoss, James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)

 

I considered Neal a “Racetracker” as defined by John Perrotta in his book of the same title.  “Racetrackers are the keepers of the thoroughbred flame.  They live for crisp mornings and steaming coffee at the rail. Their soundtrack is thunder rolling in the dirt under charging hooves and rabid fans with high stakes riding on every jockey’s whip. Their passion is the pursuit of champions.”

Neal like many of us, came to appreciate the people of racing without pre-conceived notions.  He saw racetrackers as generally good people, not the scallywags depicted in literature and film.  Perrotta quoted Bill Veek, who observed in Thirty Tons A Day that “The first question I was always asked – invariably, anywhere – was how I found horseracing compared to baseball.  My answer – invariably, anywhere – was that, fans excluded, you met a nicer brand of human being in racing.”  Neal certainly was a nicer brand of human being.

Neal found the backside especially intriguing much like Bill Barich in Laughing in the Hills.  “I came to think of trainers as Renaissance princes who ruled the backstretch.  Walking the shedrows I saw that each barn resembled a principality, embodying a unique blend of laws and mores, an individuated style.”  I’ll always remember Neal’s joy walking the shed rows behind the Oklahoma Training Track.

Neal wanted us all to learn handicapping principles and then make our choices, satisfied that the lessons we learned from him would lead to a winning score. In Bill Barich’s follow up to Laughing in the Hills, A Fine Place to Daydream he wrote,

“Always stick with your first choice,” Rothwell cautioned me, with an oracular firmness that made me recall Allen Ginsburg’s motto about writing and creativity, “First thought, best thought.”  In possession of such wisdom, I put fifty to win on Rule Supreme with Paddy Sharkey, violating a motto of my own that goes, “Never bet with a bookie whose name has a negative ring.”

There’s a wonderful relief in placing a bet. Like boarding an airplane or accepting a blind date, you’re in the hands of fate”.

 

And finally, some thoughts on Saratoga.

Sam Toperoff authored Crazy Over Horses, an apt title of a book to provide some perspective on Neal’s favorite track:

. . . yet Saratoga in 1966 remained an estimable place in August.  It is still deciduous; when it blooms in August, there is still the same sort of pure excitement that has always been generated by racing.  The repairs and additions to the grandstand, the fresh paint, the new escalators, the greatly emphasized publicity of the meeting back in New York City, none of these destroyed the essence of the finest racing in the United States.  No, the track and the town were not quite what they had been, but the essence has remained pure.

. . . this track, this town, is the navel of thoroughbred racing in the United States. Close to it again I felt more the man of quality.

The track was jammed, as it is each Saturday in August. Lots of people up from the city. Lots of rustics too. There were no seats in the grandstand, no seats in the clubhouse, no reserved seats anywhere. No seats. People milled about.  Many sat in lightweight lawn chairs that they’d brought with them. . . Handicappers, bettors, and aesthetes ring the horses . . . A call to the paddock, and everyone — spectator, trainer, owner, handler, jockey and horse —moves leisurely toward the walking ring. In the ring the horses are paraded, mounted, paraded again, and led by the red-coated outriders along an old path around the clubhouse and onto the track.  . . . At Saratoga, there is much more than mere running.  There’s racing, with an ease and tradition worthy of the horse and his parents.

Neal knew of the magic of Saratoga and was always happy to share his love of it with all who knew him.

Finally, Neal, dear friend, in the immortal words of Harvey Pack, “May the Horse Be with You!”

 

 

Sep 24 2018

Collaborative Handicapping – A Travers Stakes Story

Nancy Meyers

Introduction (by Neal Benoit): The following is a story about a 2018 Travers Stakes score by our guest author, Nancy Meyers. FYI, the order of finish was Catholic Boy (7-1), Mendelssohn (13-1), Bravazo (10-1), King Zachary (28-1). The $1 exacta paid $145, 50-cent triple paid $744, and 10-cent Superfecta paid $1,796.

By Guest Author: Nancy Meyers

Neal has asked that I take on the topic of “collaborative handicapping”, in response to my recent success wagering on the 2018 Travers.

My definition of “collaborative handicapping” means that you draw information from multiple sources and other people’s opinions which exceed personal review of the PPs and other statistical data. When I look back at my process I found I initially used a lot of the techniques listed in my prior article, The Casual Handicapper.

First, I got the PPs from Equibase and spent some time Friday evening perusing the card and trying to plan wagers over the course of about 10 races so that I was sure to have some cash available to wager on the Travers.

In my initial review, I identified 3 horses of interest: Tenfold, Mendelssohn and Catholic Boy.

Tenfold was intriguing because of the effort he displayed in the Preakness. Asmussen and Santana have had a pretty strong Saratoga meet and I hated to have them knock me out of a big score.

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Sep 6 2018

Know Your Trainers – Todd Pletcher

A frequent question asked by new fans trying to learn more about horse racing is, “Where do I begin?” My immediate response is generally, “Get to know your trainers.” While learning about topics like distance, class, and pace are important … in my opinion, none are as important as learning about the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of trainers. With that thought in mind, we continue our series of articles called “Know Your Trainers.”  In this series we will dig into the statistics of some head trainers and try to make sense of the numbers we find.

So let’s continue with a big name in the business presently, Todd Pletcher. Our focus will be on two main areas; Graded Stakes and 2-Year old horses.  Statistics for this article were gathered on September 4, 2018.

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Aug 28 2018

The Casual Handicapper

Nancy Meyers

Introduction (by Neal Benoit): In one of my very first articles (Horseplayer Styles), I commented how horseplayers come in all shapes and sizes and have their own styles.  Nancy offered to share her “style” with my readers and I’m glad she did.  She reminds me a lot of my wife; learning the basics, gaining confidence over time, doing her own thing, and ultimately becoming a horseplayer in her own right.  And, I believe her methodologies are very adaptable to fans who are new to the game.  So, without further ado, here is the “Casual Handicapper.”

By Guest Author: Nancy Meyers

I have enjoyed reading a lot of Neal’s columns because they give me new and interesting things to think about when wagering on the races. I offered to write a column from the perspective of someone who only wagers on races when my husband and I attend the races in person (about 7 race days per year) or at home during big racing days such as the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup. Otherwise, I remain on the bench, keeping up with what’s going on in racing through discussions with my husband, glancing at the The Blood-Horse magazine and of course, reading Getting Out of the Gate.com.

I consider myself a casual handicapper with which some readers may or may not agree. While I sometimes play a “hunch” wager, I never wager solely on “the grey horse”, “the number 4 horse” or a favorite combination of numbers. If that was how I wagered, then I would find other forms of gambling interesting, which I do not. For me it’s about the horses. I admire their beauty, tenacity and the excitement of seeing them racing down the stretch. Over the years I have learned to read the track program and DRF PP’s with enough detail that I rarely have to ask my husband what a particular column or symbol may mean. Although I may not understand how a speed figure for a race at Finger Lakes is different than a speed figure for a Belmont race of the same distance on the same day, I understand that knowing how to read the basics of the program allows me to make informed decisions. I can say I haven’t invested the amount of time and effort that serious handicappers have to understanding all the nuances of the various past performances, sheets and clocker’s reports out there, but for me at least being able to read the past performances most readily available at the track has provided enough information to allow me to have many enjoyable days at the track. So here is the general method I employ when wagering on the races.

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Aug 20 2018

20 Places to Eat and Drink in Saratoga

Welcome to Saratoga

By Guest Author: Nancy Meyers

Part 1 of this series gave some tips on things to think about when selecting a location to stay in Saratoga. Click here to read that article.

Part 2 of this series offered some “Must See and Do’s” while you are visiting the Saratoga Springs area. Click here to read that article.

So now that you have found a place to stay, and have outlined a plan of things to see while traveling around Saratoga, where will you enjoy a meal with family or friends? In full disclosure, my husband and I do not have children, so if it’s family friendly places you are interested in, we can’t be of much help, except to acknowledge restaurants that appeared to have a lot of families in them. In addition, I am only offering commentary about restaurants or bars or lounges in which we have enjoyed a cocktail or eaten a meal. Reports from other friends about their experiences are not included. Finally, we usually rent a place within walking distance of downtown, so there are few restaurants that require a drive out of town.

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Aug 11 2018

Saratoga Turf Primer

Saratoga is a Race Track that has two turf courses located inside of the Main Dirt track. The outer turf course is officially known as the Mellon Turf Course, in honor of the Mellon family (whose members were prominent owners and breeders in the Thoroughbred industry). The inner turf course is located directly inside of the Mellon Turf Course. As far as turf courses go, it is pretty straight-forward with no chutes or extensions like turf courses at some other race tracks.

The following diagram highlights the Mellon Turf course (in light green) and includes the location of the starting gate (in a box) for each distance from 5f to 9.5f.
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Aug 6 2018

Know Your Trainers – Chad Brown

A frequent question asked by new fans trying to learn more about horse racing is, “Where do I begin?” My immediate response is generally, “Get to know your trainers.” While learning about topics like distance, class, and pace are important … in my opinion, none are as important as learning about the tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of trainers. With that thought in mind, we continue our series of articles called “Know Your Trainers.”  In this series we will dig into the statistics of some head trainers and try to make sense of the numbers we find.

So let’s continue with a big name in the business presently, Chad Brown. Our focus will be on two main areas; Graded Stakes and 2-Year old horses, with a couple of extras that we uncovered by surprise.  We limited the data to the past year.  And statistics for this article were gathered on August 3, 2018.

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Jul 31 2018

Uncovering Workout Patterns – TimeformUS Style

In a prior article we discussed the importance of using workouts to evaluate a horse’s current racing “form.”  Workouts were described in detail and Daily Racing Form examples were provided, including the option to “merge” workouts into the running lines with DRF Formulator.  Click here to view “Workouts – A Measure of Racing Form.”

In this article we’re going to feature workouts, as they are presented in TimeformUS.  And specifically, how they help you spot patterns for a horse that is coming back from a layoff. The horse is Come Dancing, and she made her return to racing on July 25, 2018 in the 6th race at Saratoga. Below are her PPs.

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Jul 25 2018

Saratoga Post Positions – On Dirt

Horses in Gate

Post positions in and of themselves are not important. Post positions relative to where the starting gate is located on the track, the running style (e.g. early speed vs. closer) for each horse, and the size of the field are quite important.

For example, an inside post position when the gate is located only a few hops from the first turn is helpful to almost any horse, and greatly advantageous to a horse with fast-breaking early speed. On the other hand, an outside post position in the same situation is a serious disadvantage. Even if the horse has enough speed to run up to the front before the first turn, he must use some energy to get there, which could compromise his chances later.

If he cannot get to the front by the first turn, then he risks losing precious ground to the field going wide around the turn. And if the horse is not in the capable hands of a quality jockey, he might end up going wide around successive turns as well. He could end up running substantially more distance than the other horses located to his inside.

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Jul 19 2018

10 Things To Remember at Saratoga – 2018

 

In no particular order, here are some handicapping tips to remember as we head into the 2018 Saratoga racing meet:

 

  1. Speed is dangerous on the turf, especially on the Inner Turf course.  The tight turns and sun-baked surface seem to favor speed horses.  Also, the combination of speed and inside post position is deadly.
  2. “Horses for Courses” rings true at Saratoga.  In an article a few years ago we provided examples of three such horses in just the first four days of racing.  Click here to read the details, including what to look for when you’re handicapping.
  3. Trainer George Weaver is one of the few trainers with a positive ROI at Saratoga nearly every year. Click here to read an article about Timeform Trainer ratings.  George was featured in this article, in particular his record with 2-year old maidens.
  4. Use the tote board to help when handicapping 2-year old maiden races and pay close attention when a horse is being well bet from a trainer who is not one of the leading trainers.  Be wary of multi-race wagers (e.g. Pick-4,5,6) when a 2-year old race is toward the end of the sequence.  If a 2-year old race is the first or second leg, use the tote board and probable doubles payouts to help.
  5. Outside post positions at 1 1/8 mile (9 furlongs) on the dirt are really bad.  This is due to the location of the starting gate at the finish line, very close to the first turn.  In 2017, horses starting in post position 8 or higher were 0 for 19 in dirt route races at Saratoga.
  6. Jockey Jose Lezcano has the highest ROI of any major jockey over the Saratoga turf courses in the past two years.  In 2016 his ROI was $2.36 and in 2017 it was $2.91.
  7. “Never burn your winners.”  Coined by Jim Mazur, if you like a “single” horse and your bankroll is limited, make a WIN bet before spending a lot of money on “singling” your horse in multi-race wagers.
  8. Know your trainers.  Whether using Jim Mazur products from Progressive Handicapping, DRF Formulator statistics, or some other source, get to know the strengths and weaknesses of trainers and their tendencies at Saratoga.  Click here for a list of “Know Your Trainer” articles.
  9. Always listen to NYRA paddock analyst, Maggie Wolfendale, but especially on 2-year old maiden races and Stakes races – two areas where she seems to excel with her physical analysis of the horses in the paddock.  Click here to learn more about Maggie.
  10. Get the NYRA NOW App on your phone or tablet.  Live coverage is very good and insures you’ll be able to hear Maggie’s comments.  Click here for our detailed review of the NYRA NOW App.

I hope these tips help. Good luck to everyone during the 2018 Saratoga racing meet!


Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

The Article Sponsored By ADIRONDACK BEVERAGES

The Article Sponsored By ADIRONDACK BEVERAGES (A Favorite Cooler Drink Of Racing Fans at Saratoga)