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The Winning Contest Player: Chapter 3
"If you wanna be the man, you gotta beat the man." – Ric Flair
The most prestigious tournament in the country is the National Handicapping Challenge, referred to throughout this book as the NHC. As Ricky Zimmer has said, “Anybody who wants to be crowned the best wants to play in the NHC.”
There are several reasons for the NHC’s prominence in the contest world. It is a true championship event, and it’s the one contest where you can’t buy your way in—you must qualify by playing in another event first. This creates a special vibe, not just at the NHC tournament itself but also at all the tournaments across the country all year long.
Joe Scanio: “The first question all of these guys ask each other when they see each other at one of these contests is: ‘Did you qualify yet?’ They don’t care what you’ve won or how much you’ve made, it’s, ‘Are you qualified?’”
One of the perquisites of winning the NHC is that you get an automatic entry into next year’s event to defend your title. I love picturing the stereotypical contest player in Scanio’s quote above winning the NHC and being more excited about qualifying for next year than winning the big money for first place. But there is no doubt that the money is another thing that makes the NHC special. The very first NHC started with a total purse of $200,000, and over the years that number has grown to nearly $2 million with the winner walking away with $750,000. The seven-figure prize is super significant, something I refer to all the time. Throughout the writing and researching of this book, a couple of non-racing-fan friends (yes, I tolerate a few) had asked me what I was working on. I then had to explain what handicapping contests are.
I always started with the poker analogy—handicapping contests are to racing what poker tournaments are to cash games. But then I’d throw in, “And there’s a national championship event where you can win in for as little as free and play for more than $1 million.” It’s that last bit that piques their interest.You know how when somebody says, “It’s not just the money” how that usually means, “It’s just the money”? That’s not the case with the NHC. It isn’t just the money. In addition to getting an invite to the coolest party of the year and the chance to play for a small fortune, NHC contestants also play for the title of “Handicapper of the Year” and the actual Eclipse Award that comes with it. So if you win, you join company with the likes of Paul Mellon, Bobby Frankel, Angel Cordero, Jr., Secretariat, and Zenyatta as recipients of racing’s highest award.
It was Daily Racing Form chairman and publisher Steven Crist who came up with this last, brilliant idea. As he was quoted in Noel Michaels’ Handicapping Contest Handbook, about a conversation he had with then-NTRA commissioner Tim Smith: “He asked me for suggestions on the Eclipse Awards dinner, and I said, ‘How about honoring an actual horseplayer?’ To me, that’s the greatest thing about the NHC. Whoever wins it gets a trophy at the Eclipse Awards, and the industry will be saying something it needs to say more often: ‘You, the fan, are as important to this business as the owner, the breeder, the trainer, and the jockey.’”
In addition to the NHC itself, there is also now an NHC Tour, where players earn Tour points for tournament finishes at various qualifying events held around the country and online.
The Tour is an evolving animal, and something I intend to cover more thoroughly in my Daily Racing Form column and on my contest blog.
Paul Shurman: “Other tournaments might offer better value, but the NHC isn’t about value: it’s about being the best. When you get out there and you’re in that room with all those people, you’ll understand, and you’ll want to be back every year.”
I asked relative NHC newcomer Mike Maloney what he thought it would take to win the big one.
Mike Maloney: “What I’ve learned about the NHC is just how
important preparation is. If you don’t take the time to watch all the videos and do all the legwork on the trainer research, then you’re operating at a huge disadvantage.
“The first year I played in it, I flew in the day before the contest and the night before I was down in the race book playing Mountaineer and Charles Town until 11 o’clock at night. Then I went back to my room and pulled the Form out and thought, ‘Okay, I’ll look at tomorrow.’ I had no shot. I treated it like it was just another day at the races, and it’s not. If you’re going to compete with those guys, you’re going to have to take more time than that and
Mike Maloney: “Getting out there two or three days in advance is a good idea. You need to acclimate and get the Vegas rush out of your system. This way you’ll have time to focus and really do the work. Most people reading this book can probably figure all that out on their own; they’re probably smarter than I was the first time. But I have a hard time walking by a race book with lights on. You probably have to be there once and go through it before you can focus properly.”
For Paul Shurman and his playing buddies, the NHC is an annual excursion.
Paul Shurman: “I have four people or so I play in tournaments with when we are lucky enough to be together: my brother, Bill; Steve Wolfson, Sr., and Steve Wolfson, Jr.; and Mitch Schuman among them. We’ve qualified for the NHC just about every year. We go to Vegas on Tuesday and start handicapping for Friday. The goal always is to finish up the Friday races by Thursday morning so then we can start looking at the Saturday cards. We don’t want to have to handicap all of Saturday after the Friday races. But of course, it never works out that way.” The 2011 NHC champ, John Doyle, took a similar approach and felt like that gave him a significant advantage over the race-to-race players.
John Doyle: “I did all my prep work ahead of time, and that let me spend the two days making final adjustments. It seemed to me like I had more stamina than a lot of the field. It seemed to me like a lot of people were still doing their handicapping at the event. I was able to focus on when I wanted to use my optional races, tweaking my strategy based on odds and how the various tracks were playing.”
And what did his prep work consist of specifically?
John Doyle: “I started on Monday with the early entries. I didn’t worry about trying to handicap every race at every track. I have three tracks I play on a regular basis: Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, and Santa Anita. I look at all those races anyway. I decided to just handicap those cards, knowing that at least four or five mandatory races were going to fall out of those three tracks. For the other tracks, I planned to just focus on the mandatory races when they came out. That’s what I did, and I felt ready.”
Another guy who knows the importance of preparation is 2013 runner-up Roger Cettina.
Roger Cettina: “I study for hours and days before contests. I’ll go through almost every race for a given contest. For a contest like the NHC, I’ll get there Wednesday and start studying for Friday’s races. And by the middle of the day Thursday, I’m done with Friday and I’m looking at Saturday. If there’s a track I don’t like that I’m not going to do the whole card for, I’ll just pick out races with big fields.
“Each day there are eight optional bets. So I took the races I thought I might be interested in, maybe 16 total, and I put them in order of post time, and for each one I tracked the odds, and if I didn’t like the odds I was getting on the contenders, I’d just pass and move on to the next one. I try not to narrow things down to one or even two horses in a race. I’d rather narrow it down to four or five contenders.”
That’s a great point generally, not just for the NHC. If it suits your own handicapping style, then it can be a great advantage to pick races that interest you, not just horses. It’s so hard to predict what the tote board will do, and a race-focused approach will give you more
options without increasing your overall workload.
I was fortunate enough to interview six past NHC winners for this book. I asked them all about their experiences.
Judy Wagner: “The biggest thing for me was being able to be consistent for two days in a row. In spite of what some people will say, you can win the NHC without hitting a capper. It was only three years ago when I hit my first capper in the NHC. The year I won, on the first day I had five winners and four seconds; the second day I had four winners and five seconds. The longest-priced horse I had paid $37. The only reason I had that horse was because I had liked another horse who had scratched, and there I was with only two races left until the end of the contest. The track was wet, sloppy, and there were tons of scratches, but I had to put in a play. I scanned the Tomlinson numbers, and I picked the one with the highest number, Hoovergetthekeys. He went off as the longest shot. That was the horse that won the contest for me.”
Brian Troop went the other way, but with the same result. Back at NHC XI, Brian Troop put up the biggest one-day score of
all-time—$232.60—and dared the rest of the field to come get him.
No one could.
Brian Troop: “Once I got to $187 on the Friday, I tried to widen my lead. I knew I’d be a target on Saturday and that people would be gunning for me. I figured the further I got ahead, the better off I’d be. People say, ‘He didn’t do that well, he only got $34 on Saturday.’ That’s true, but you have to remember, too, that a lot of favorites came in on Saturday, and I knew favorites couldn’t hurt me unless somebody could string six or seven of them together.”
We’ll get more into the specifics of Troop’s day two strategy in our Endgame Theory chapter. I also asked him about his previous tournament success in our interview, and he told me something that was both fascinating and encouraging.
Brian Troop: “I had three seconds in contests before but had never won. I broke my maiden in a Grade 1, which doesn’t happen too often.”
Consistency was also an issue the year John Doyle won, when two players opened up big leads on day one. I asked him how he dealt with that.
John Doyle: “I felt a little discouraged. The NHC I won was the first tournament I ever played in for money. I tried to qualify the previous year online and didn’t. And then I qualified early that year and didn’t play any more tournaments. So I didn’t have a lot of experience to rely on. But I just said to myself, ‘I know these guys are way ahead, but I’m just going to stick with my plan and play the horses that I want to play. It usually takes a final bankroll of about $250 to win the thing, and I have $91. Let the chips fall where they may.’ I thought it would be a bad strategy to start stabbing early. There were a lot of 5-1s and 6-1s that I thought had good chances of winning, so I just played them and I got on a roll.”
Obviously, that was a great plan. But how was Doyle able to stick to it?
John Doyle: “I had a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. He said, ‘I can’t play this horse because it’s not enough of a price.’ But my attitude was: you can’t get off winners. I wanted to have a shot going into the last race, even if it meant that I’d have to play a 20-1 shot. And I wouldn’t have been able to be in that position by picking losers. It’s very difficult to pick horses that are longer than 10-1. It’s much easier to pick winners that are 5-1 or 6-1, and if you can run a few of those together, then you’re in
position to do something.”
“Do something” like win $500,000, in Doyle’s case.
I came across a great quote from Michael Beychok (whom I interviewed separately for this book) from an interview he did with DRF’s Jay Privman in the immediate aftermath of winning $1 million at the NHC in 2012.
Michael Beychok: “I can’t really describe what it meant to win. The money’s not real yet. I haven’t deposited the check yet. I’m beginning to get my head around the drama of it all. Horse racing is decided a lot of times by inches, like Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic [in 2010]. To inject yourself into a small portion of horse racing—I don’t want to call it history, but into the current events, and so dramatically—is pretty cool. It’s memorable to people. It’s a lifetime of work. I’m almost even.”
Beychok used his big win to help a worthy cause.
Michael Beychok: “For years, I was guilty of taking for granted what these horses do every day on the track. We derive so many gains from them, both financial and recreational. They get oats, carrots, and if they’re lucky, get treated as pets. We owe them more than that. From a horseplayer perspective, we don’t pay them enough attention. When Glorious Dancer, an $8,000 claimer, won the NHC for me by a nose, I started thinking about the cheap claimer, and what could happen.
“She was a few races away from being off the track. I bought her—first as a sporting gesture, like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to own the horse that won me $1 million?’ We ran her; she won; and we had fun. Then I thought, ‘Why am I running her? She changed my life.’ Then a lightbulb clicked: she had nothing more to do on the track. I know you can’t save them all, but for starters, I personally wanted to save this one. So I brought her to Louisiana, retired her, and thought about breeding her, but I donated her to a Louisiana rescue instead. She lives the life. Then, in my speech at the Eclipse Awards, I offered to contribute a percentage of my [NHC] winnings to horse rescue. Every time I do an interview, I try to talk about horse rescue.”
John Conte: “In all honesty, in my psyche, I never tried to beat the game. I really just didn’t want to work! I thought this would be an easier way to grind out, even if it just meant $100 a day—that would still be better than being cooped up in an office all day. Like anything else, in order to be good at something, you must put in a lot of hours. And at this point, being as old as I am and having started reading the Daily Racing Form at age 15, learning to dope it out, I’ve had plenty of hours. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. But if it is broke, you adapt. Just like in business.”
Now I know as well as you do that the worst interview question in the world is: “How did you feel?” But when I spoke with John Conte the day after his 2009 win, his enthusiasm was such that I could not resist.
John Conte: “This was my dream my whole life. My goal my whole life was to get to the top of the mountain, which is where I’m at right now. I’m not going to bet anymore. Why would I bother betting $20 when I’m sitting with a half-a-million? I’m almost 70 years old. I have enough money to take care of my family, to do what I want and have fun. I keep telling my friends, ‘I’m done. I don’t need the fix.’
“After the hell that I’ve been through in my life as a gambler, with all the ups and downs, I’m done. My wife’s a great woman and it’s not easy to live with a gambler, and she’s put up with me all these years. And she’s called ‘Saint Arlene,’ that’s her nickname. Not from me but from people who knew her previously. And they warned me, ‘You better be good to her.’ And my license plate reads ‘Saint A’ for her. We’ve been married 21 years, and she’s a wonderful woman. I’m looking forward to taking care of her because she’s really helped me along through some tough times.”
But my favorite family story, and the one that brings it all back home for me, came from the year Steve Wolfson, Jr., won the biggest prize in horseplaying. I interviewed the father-son Wolfson duo together, and this is what they had to say about Steve Jr.’s NHC win.
Steve Wolfson, Sr.: “It’s been wonderful to watch my son grow and to love the same thing as I do. We look at each other often and are so glad to be a part of something that we have in common, forever. In the NHC in 2003, I was leading after the first day, and Caton Bredar interviewed me at the end of the day at Bally’s. My experience in conducting and playing in these tournaments is that whoever is in first place the first day, rarely if ever, is in the top five the second day. So I wasn’t celebrating at all. As it turned out, I finished fourth. Steve Jr., won the tournament, and that was the first year they gave an Eclipse Award.
“I remember the Eclipse Awards more than the win itself. In his introduction, Steven Crist talked about how Steve Jr., came by all this naturally and about how his grandfather owned Affirmed and that his father was the creator, the architect, of what we are doing today. And then when Steve Jr., accepted the first Eclipse Award handed out to a horseplayer, he said something really beautiful.”
Steve Wolfson, Jr.: “I said, ‘I really want to thank my dad, from whom I have learned so much and still have so much to learn.’”
Steve Wolfson, Sr.: “I remember getting so emotional when he said that; it was a great line. That meant so much to me that those were his thoughts on that day. Hope you still feel that way.”
Steve Wolfson, Jr.: “I absolutely do.”
Pete, another dead on article that really captures the personalities, the intellect, the emotions, of a top notch handicapper. I am very fortunate that a lot of your interviewees choose to compete in my rooms at NYRA throughout the year. I have learned so much from them about handicapping, and about life in general. Please keep these articles coming. KL
Ya know I had just hung handicapping up for a bit. I was on a roll over the summer playing casually and kicked it up a notch through October pretty much making my living off it. It took a lot of time and I hit a losing streak I couldn't sustain through so I took my winnings and called it day. Racing at Belmont had ended, they were ending to Aqueduct and I wanted to concentrate on my writing. I picked up a more regular job and took a few months off. Since the new year came my idea for a horse racing blog came back up. I still wasn't sure if I wanted to start handicapping again with the time commitment and all +starting a career +working + freelance work. After reading this though, it absolutely renewed that passion I have for the sport. It's a beautiful game. My plan for this year was to concentrate on the tour some more, do this handicapping/horse racing blog and do my best to get a job writing about the sport I love. Great job, and thanks. Needed this.