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Profiles of leading National Handicapping Championship contenders
This was Kevin “The Brooklyn Cowboy” Cox’s first full year on the contest scene, but he made a mark right away, winning three tournaments, finishing third on the NHC Tour, and, along with his wife, Nicole, racking up four NHC qualifications for the household.
“I’m not an under-the-radar guy,” he said. “In my eyes, the more people see of me, the better it is, especially if I hit the leaderboard. Then it has a double psychological effect. People are less likely to say, ‘Who’s this guy?’ because they already know I’m the jerk in the cowboy hat, and now they’re starting to think a little bit.”
Cox has the advantage of playing with four tickets at the NHC.
“When I play with extra tickets, I use the extra tickets to hedge,” he said. “Brent Sumja yells at me all the time because he’s an anti-hedger. But I play one ticket off the other – If one ticket does well, maybe I’ll play more favorites on that one – until I get to about two-thirds of the way through the contest. Then you have to start making those tough decisions.”
Cox, 43, is a relative newcomer to the NHC. This is only his second appearance.
“A lot of my success has come in tournaments online, and online you’re dealing with a fixed set of races,” he said. “I’d prefer to have the races chosen for me because that’s one less decision I have to make.”
Cox said his wife is new to tournament play.
“Nicole is still in the learning process,” he said. “I’ve been involved in betting partnerships before and have had people try to coordinate opinions. It never works. You need to have a strong voice. Without that, it’s a fire drill.”
Cox feels like the NHC finals are basically a free roll at this point.
“If I go 0 for 30 in this contest, that’s fine with me,” he said, “because like Frank Sinatra said, ‘I did it my way.’ My dad used to go to contests with me. And right before my mother died, she lent me money to become a professional gambler. And even if I tap out in Vegas, I think they’d be happy with what I accomplished this year.”
Eric Moomey is another relative newcomer to the NHC, but contest players far and wide have been impressed with his creativity and consistency. A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who qualified at the Aqueduct November contest and online via twinspires.com, Moomey is a fan of the changes made for this year’s tournament.
“I love the fact that people can qualify twice for the NHC this year,” he said. “People who are good enough to qualify twice should certainly be rewarded. I noticed most of the dual qualifiers are the most successful players from years past, so I’m glad to be counted among them.”
Moomey said he also figures to benefit from the addition of a third day.
“Adding a third day to the competition also plays to my strengths as a tournament player,” he said. “Some folks have difficulty staying mentally sharp into the last day.”
Moomey, 41, who uses computers extensively in his handicapping, might have an advantage as the field dwindles in size.
“There is some luck, perhaps, but I work really hard at constantly improving my game,” he said. “It’s all about maximizing my probability of success for each given situation. Some moves are obvious, while others, not so much. It’s all about understanding your competition and what tendencies they have during their game.”
The toughest aspect for Moomey is that he has so much more experience playing online than he does in in-person tournaments.
“My two challenges with playing a live tournament are my ability to focus on my game in a crowded room and the inability to make last-minute decisions,” he said. “It’s easy to let others get to you in a live tournament and knock you off your game. You just need to tune everything else out and play your game, just like you do when you are at home on the computer. In live tournaments, you need to make decisions without knowing exactly what the odds will be at post time. You also can’t change on the fly last second if you want to make a change.”
Still, Moomey remains confident that his success will carry over.
“Except for the prizes being higher, everything else is the same,” he said. “I excel at the $2 win-place format, so my expectations for this tournament are very high.”
Paul Shurman, like Trey Stiles, has qualified for the NHC 12 years in a row. Shurman believes his experience will benefit him this week.
“My experience helps me because I won’t panic,” he said. “You have to stick to your strategy until it’s very late in the game.”
How hard is it to win the NHC?
“It’s nearly impossible,” he said. “You have to be good, and you have to be lucky. You have to have everything break right for you and not have everything break better for someone else.”
Shurman, a former NHC Tour champ from Dix Hills, N.Y., is a threat in any contest he enters.
“The good players are the ones who are in the position to be lucky consistently,” he said. “That’s why you see the same people on the leaderboards all the time.”
Shurman, 59, is known for playing with a group that includes his brother, Bill, as well as contest legend Steve Wolfson Sr. and his son, former NHC champ Steve Wolfson Jr. He will monitor their progress during the tournament.
“I like keeping an eye on my friends,” Shurman said, “but mostly, I’ll just be focusing on my own ticket.”
A preparation freak, Shurman once joked that he needs a checklist for all the items on his handicapping checklist.
“I start several days early,” he said. “All of the info I use isn’t available that early, but I can start my work by putting everything I can in order chronologically, so at least I can get started filling in my little checklist.”
Many of the top players will have two entries in the NHC. Shurman has just one.
“Would I rather have two entries? Absolutely,” he said. “But I really think it mostly matters in the mandatory races, where you have a chance to play two different horses. In the optionals, I think there’s just as good a chance that you’ll wind up splitting your tickets as you have of getting the right horses on one ticket, so I’m okay playing one ticket.”
Some people think handicapping contests are all about luck. Try telling that to Houston-based trial lawyer Trey Stiles, who has qualified for the NHC finals an amazing 12 times in a row.
“That’s right, I’ve been a bunch of times before,” he said. “The fourth NHC was my first one. In fact, I think I’ve lost more than anybody.”
In 2013, Stiles qualified online twice in the span of seven days, once at horsetourneys.com and once at NHCQualify.com.
What does Stiles think was his best finish at the NHC?
“I never know what to say when people ask me that because numerically, my best finish was 30-something in the first year I played,” he said. “But I don’t look at that as my best year because I was a newbie, and I didn’t play it right. I didn’t put myself in a position to win. A couple of other times, I had really good first days, ending up in the top five, and then tanked it the next day.
“Last year, I didn’t cash, but I went for broke, and I probably gave myself my best chance to win of any of the years I’ve gone, even though I only finished in the 50s.”
Stiles, 45, admits the new format might be an issue for him.
“I am a little nervous about the new format,” he said. “I’m an old-school guy. I don’t have a computer program to help me make picks. I have trouble with two days of handicapping, so for me, adding another day is going to be hard.”
Stiles is going to change his strategy this year, but it isn’t because the NHC has been expanded to three days.
“My strategy this year will change, but not because of the three days – because of being able to have two entries,” he said. “If they hadn’t allowed for two entries this year, I don’t think anything would have changed in terms of my strategy from past years. But having two entries, I’ll probably play one going for broke, like I usually do, and the other I’ll just try to get in the top 50.”
Stiles is fond of looking for hidden speed horses and has won tournaments by ferreting them out. He has the right blend of skill and experience to make him a player to watch at this year’s NHC.
You know its an important contest when everybody has their computers out, reams of paper at their tables, and they’re hollering at the TVs.
But that’s not Ricky Zimmer’s style.
Armed with only a pen and a Daily Racing Form, Zimmer, nicknamed the “Quiet Assassin,” will be by himself, stone-faced, getting ready to place his next bet.
Zimmer, 36, a resident of Pasadena, Calif., is known for his preparation and ability to come up with a game plan. He is unfazed by this year’s new NHC format.
“It’ll be something different for sure,” he said. “I don’t know that it really changes strategy that much since your score carries over to Day 3. I think if you’re playing to win, you’ll still play the same way.”
And how does he prepare for an event like this, with so many races to choose from?
“I’m preparing the same way I always prepare,” he said. “I usually do two tracks a day starting on the Sunday before the NHC up to Wednesday. I’ll get all the Friday tracks done by Tuesday night. On Wednesday, I’ll pick two Saturday tracks and do those. And the rest of the Saturday work I’ll do between Friday and Saturday.”
Zimmer won’t handicap Sunday’s races until the night before.
“I won’t be doing any advance preparation for Sunday,” he said. “I’ll do that work all Saturday night. If I’m just playing in the consolation tournament, I won’t be worrying too much about that. But if I’m in the top 50, I’ll be cramming like heck.”
Both of Zimmer’s NHC entries this year came in live-bankroll events. Is he concerned about translating his success to the NHC format?
“I do feel more comfortable in live-bankroll tournaments,” he said. “But I don’t necessarily do that much better in them. I keep a spreadsheet of all my play in tournaments, and I do pretty evenly across all types.”
Zimmer is known for his ability to stay calm.
“It’s something you learn through repetition,” Zimmer said. “If you do this long enough, you see just about every scenario played out, so you don’t get rattled. You’ve been there before, you know what you have to do, and you move forward.”