02/19/2018 2:20PM

Roe follows sign to NHC cash


John Roe is a fighter. And like John Henry, one of the Thoroughbreds he admires most, the bigger the challenge, the more he finds in his heart.

Of all the stories to emerge from this year’s National Horseplayers Championship, Roe’s has attracted the most attention from his fellow horseplayers. His ninth-place finish, worth $52,000, comes with a story for the ages.

Roe, 60, is a longtime race fan, and even worked on the backstretch for a few years in his native Cicero, Ill., where he grew up walking distance from both Hawthorne and Sportsman’s Park. He started playing tournaments in mid-2016, inspired by a chance meeting at Del Mar with the man known as the patron saint of rookie tournament players: John Doyle, who won the NHC at first asking back in 2011.

Soon thereafter, Roe discovered that his daughter’s boyfriend’s uncle, Nick Pavletic, was very active on the tournament scene. The two played together in one of Hawthorne’s tournaments and the hook was set in Roe. He decided to include tournaments in his horseplaying repertoire, and ended up qualifying for the NHC in another Hawthorne tourney several months later.

The time between those two tournaments was the toughest of Roe’s life. First, he was diagnosed with emphysema. Then last June he received the phone call that would change his life forever. “It was a Friday night and Joe” – his son – “was in a car accident,” he said. “Six days later he passed away.”

Roe, of course, was deep in mourning, but after a couple of months he resumed playing the horses, if only for the distraction it allowed. “I just had this feeling something’s gonna happen,” he said. “My Lord kept telling me, ‘Keep playing, keep playing.’ ”

In December, Roe was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. At that point, he quit his job as a truck driver, stayed busy with tournaments, and started his preparation for the NHC. He headed to Vegas with his wife and some other family members, delaying his treatment a bit.

Roe is the furthest thing from a hunch player. He describes his handicapping process as a stew that contains many elements, the most important of which is trip handicapping. In his case he gets a visual assessment of a horse’s class via video.

“You can’t put anything about a horse’s heart on paper,” he said. “You’ve got to see it in a race. That’s what I try to look at in the race, the horse that just grabs ahold of that bit and says, ‘Get the hell out of my way, I’m gonna kick your ass.’ That’s the horse I want.”

After two hard days of competition in Vegas, Roe found himself in the hunt with one bullet left in his chamber. He’d been in the top 10 for much of Day 2 but had slipped out toward the end of the day and his goal of making the final table was in serious jeopardy with just three races to play.

“There was a horse named, Miss You Jo,” he said. “The Lord was telling me, ‘This is your horse.’ ”

Proper horseplayer that he is, Roe wasn’t going to just play the horse blind. He looked over the Form and saw that the horse was live. He told himself, “If you don’t bet him you’ll kick yourself in the ass for the rest of your life.”

Miss You Jo took the lead at Fair Grounds and held on to win at 13-1. Roe was headed to the final table. “It took everything in my power not to break down right there at that table,” said Roe, though not a soul would have looked askance if he had.

Joe Roe wasn’t a horseplayer himself, outside of the Derby parties the Roes would host each year. The first Saturday in May is a bigger deal than the Super Bowl at their house. “He was definitely one of my biggest fans,” Roe said of his son, “always bragging about his old man and his love of the ponies.”

Word of Roe’s story had spread quickly around the contest room and later the contest world, sparked by a notable appearance this week on Steve Byk’s “At the Races” show. John Doyle was among those spreading the word in the ballroom about the truck driver at the final table who had an immediate fan base.

“We got bombed with texts and phone calls from family and friends, and people we know,” said Roe. “It’s just been great.”

For all its twists and turns, there are some familiar elements to Roe’s biography. He started playing the horses under the tutelage of his father, a Cicero bar owner, and he maintains a deep connection to racing through family.

“My dad had Racing Forms in the garage,” he explained, “and he’d tell my brother, in the middle of the winter, ‘Go out there and get 1962 and ’63.’ We’d bring these Racing Forms through the snow, and he and my brother and me would just go over them trying to figure out a system. What if a horse wins, and he gets claimed, and they step him up in class? Hmmm, that’s not a bad angle. Let’s see how that works after two years. So, we were up all night long doing this crap, you know?”

His father and brother have since passed away, but he felt their presence in the ballroom last Sunday night. Roe said, “Between them two and my son, I believe God just pulled the curtain back and said, ‘Hey, take a look at this guy.’ And I hope they were up in the grandstands…I know they were.”

In the Roe household, there is a China cabinet that’s loaded with horse memorabilia. There’s a new addition amongst the various passes, ticket stubs, and Kentucky Derby glasses: a $2 mythical win-place ticket on a 3-year-old bay gelding who recently won his maiden for $12,500 at Fair Grounds: Miss You Jo.