Had you told me four days ago that I would finish my first National Horseplayers Championship in 47th place out of 668 entries and take home $6,000, there is a very strong chance I would have cried tears of joy. As I sit here in my Treasure Island hotel room on Monday morning, waiting to leave for the airport and the long flight(s) back to Orlando, I can’t help but think about what might have been as I remind myself to consider what almost never was.
Race-by-race, bet-by-bet, and play-by-play breakdowns aren’t my thing. And trust me, with 46 plays behind me over three days, I could easily make this a very lengthy story. Instead, I will choose to tell you about four horses that got me to 47th place in very different ways.
I entered Day 2 of the NHC with around $51 and in 262nd place. In order to make Day 3 and guaranteed prize money, I needed to have an epic day. My phone rang on Saturday morning at about 6:30am. I was in the process of cranking out some cardio in the Treasure Island gym, so ordinarily I wouldn’t answer. But a glance at the phone revealed I was receiving a call from someone who shall henceforth be referred to as Good LucK ChArm (GLC for short). To make a long story short, I told Good LucK ChArm that I needed to have an epic day in order to make Day 3. And then, GLC proceeded to tell me something unrelated to horse racing which had the potential to take my mind completely off of the NHC…if I let that happen. Which I didn’t. More on this later. For now, back to the horses.
Yada yada yada, I started Saturday poorly, missing with my first four plays. And then at about 11am PST, something that would change the course of the day took place. It was Race 5 from Gulfstream Park. A maiden special weight event on grass. The night before, I had tabbed #4 Panther Hit as a first-time starter that might be live.
I respect anything that owner Don Alberto Stable breeds and/or races. I don’t consider Tom Albertrani to be someone I have to focus on with first-time starters. But he’s burned me before with similar horses in contests, so I put Panther Hit on my list of potential Saturday plays. But when the tote board opened, she seemed totally dead. And since I had missed with my first four opinions and didn’t want to burn through half of my optional bullets so early in the day, I passed on Panther Hit. She then proceeded to run a fantastic race at 37-1 paying $36 to place and costing me a capped $22 in contest points. Had she won the race, I would have played my remaining NHC bullets as a pick-and-pray, left the room, and began drinking. I could deal with missing out on $22. But not $64.
Then GLC called. I literally said out loud “Not fu*king now!!!” and sent the call to voicemail. I knew a non-racing conversation was about to happen. I knew I was in a bad mood about passing on Panther Hit. And I knew the call with GLC would not go well. So directly to voicemail she went. My NHC tablemate asked “Was that her?”. I responded “Of course”. He responded “Somehow they can sense when you don’t want to talk to them. And that’s when they call.”
When the tote board opened for Tampa’s 6th race less than an hour after I passed on Panther Hit, the price on Barrel of Destiny was way lower than I had hoped for entering the day.
I think her odds were as low as 4-1 at one point. I was still in a funk due to Panther Hit and my mind wasn’t right. And just as I was starting to feel like it was a bad idea and possibly bad luck to have ignored Good LucK ChArm’s call, she called again. This time, I left the room and answered the phone. I got some things off my chest. The call ended well. And as I re-entered the tournament room, I had a perfect view of the TV showing Tampa Bay Downs. Had I not taken that call, I am telling you as sure as the Sun shall rise tomorrow in the east that I would NOT have noticed Barrel of Destiny’s odds had climbed up to 9-1 with one minute to post. I rushed to the window, made my play, and she won to the tune of $31.80 in points. Boom!!! Good thing I took that call.
At this point, I am trusting my stuff and moving up the board. The Panther Hit opinion was a good opinion. Points or no points. And Barrel of Destiny had me up in the $90 range with bullets left to fire. I could smell Day 3. And I knew I had to trust my stuff.
The very next race at Tampa was another on my radar. Because of a first-time starter named Zorb.
I don’t know if you can call this handicapping, but I had reasons for liking Zorb. For one, I just could not believe those two published works at a training center I had never heard of were the ONLY two times this horse had worked. This felt sneaky to me. Like one of those sneaky moves you read about where everyone connected to the horse knows something. Also, the trainer was off to a good start at the meet and was protecting this one by running in maiden allowance. And then, on the simulcast feed, the rider warmed up Zorb hard. They really took off after the post parade. So I played him and he won. $33.20 in points. Back-to-back optional scores at Tampa. And thanks to a place score in a mandatory in between, I am now sitting in the low $130 range.
Fast forward. I missed a few more optionals and had only one bullet left with only three “wheelhouse” races on my radar. I figured I needed to get to $180 to make Day 3. And with just one optional play and one mandatory race left, I had to hit something big. The first of the three remaining races that I felt were my kind of races was the 8th at Oaklawn, a maiden race in the slop. I am like a moth to a flame in situations like this. And a horse I had identified the night before was a big price.
I treated Raphael like a first-time starter. Off since Saratoga, where he ran poorly but at least he had foundation. Nick Zito already had a win from just two starts at the meet. And the price was right in this field of non-winners over a quirky Oaklawn surface. It felt like anything could happen. And anything did. I watched the race from downstairs in the Treasure Island racebook. I just didn’t want to he among all the successful tournament players when my last bullet missed the target. And when Raphael came flying as late as possible to win, everyone in the racebook thought he had lost. But I knew otherwise. And contrary to the fist pumping and yelling my tablemates saw from me the previous two days, I barely reacted. No idea why. I just didn’t. $64 in points took me to $195.80. It seemed certain to get me to Day 3. But was it enough?
I missed the final mandatory, and with as many as six races remaining for other players to catch me, I was sitting in 33rd place and completely out of bullets. Well above the cut line of 67th place. As Tom Petty said, the waiting in the hardest part. So I did what I had not done even a single time in my three days in Las Vegas. I had a drink. And then another. And then another. And they were going down quickly and flowing very nicely directly into my empty stomach. By the time Steve Byk and Pete Fornatale had me on their show, I was full-on drunk.
I can’t tell you one thing I said while on-air, but I am pretty sure I referred to the ownership of Raphael as Monterosso, the Dubai World Cup winner (I had him, thank you very much) instead of Mossarosa.
And then the waiting ended. The cutoff was around $185. I was in the semi-finals in 41st place. And a minimum $4,000 was guaranteed to me.
Sunday was a disaster. I hit the winner of the first at Gulfstream, made my way up to 33rd, missed with several opinions, made one or two mistakes while arguing with myself about whether I should go for the final table or try to move up the leaderboard and take home a bigger check. I made the wrong move at every turn, passing on two lowish-odds winners and ending the NHC in 47th. Good for $6,000 and no regrets.
And with that, a break. Not sure how long. Not even sure why. But a break feels right. I am a very good handicapper. But I am not great. I am not elite. And I need to be elite to be a force in this game. I am roughly 18 months into this trip along the contest circuit. Some of my luck has been good. Most of it has been bad. We all need more good luck than bad luck. But I can say one thing with absolute certainty: The best don’t depend on luck. And I want to be among the best.