In a converted jai-alai frontón full of 564 accomplished competitors sporting multiple laptops, new-age angles and proprietary algorithms, an old-school form bettor defeated them all to win the world’s biggest and most prestigious contest for horseplayers.
“I’m not a numbers guy,” said Thomas Goldsmith, who took the lead with five races left Sunday and never gave it up on the way to winning the three-day National Horseplayers Championship at Bally’s Las Vegas.
For Goldsmith, 56, who lives 130 miles north of San Francisco in Montgomery, Calif., and manages a trucking company, the $800,000 first prize was easily the biggest score in four decades of playing the ponies.
“It’s a life-changer,” he said. His biggest previous wins? “In a contest? $50,000. At the track? $15-16,000. I forget. It was years ago.”
This one is more likely to be unforgettable.
Goldsmith’s $404.10 total from 53 mythical $2 win-place wagers since Friday put him $19.80 ahead of runner-up John Vail, who was unable to hold the $18.90 lead he took from Sunday’s semifinals to the last seven races for the 10 finalists.
Trailing by $20.40 going into the final table, Goldsmith set sail on his victorious run with Sweet Mia, the 4-1 winner of the ninth race at Gulfstream Park. His big move came in the next race – the ninth for maiden fillies at Aqueduct – in which he bet on Gringotts, a 3-year-old that had lost her three starts by an average of nearly 14 lengths.
At odds of 24-1, Gringotts finished second, added $33.40 to Goldsmith’s total and pushed him into the lead.
“I look for horses that are in trouble,” Goldsmith said. “Bad breaks, excuse trips, bad trips, whatever. And in this place you’ve got to bet long shots. Most of these horses I’m not going to easily play.”
With Vail only $2 behind with three races to go, Goldsmith padded his lead by backing the 9-2 winner Misty Blue in the ninth at Oaklawn. His $404.10 was the second highest in NHC history, trailing only Ray Arsenault’s $407.70 from three years ago.
Despite losing the lead that he took into the finals, Vail, 55, an attorney from Lyndhurst, N.J., was upbeat about finishing second and earning $250,000 in only his second time qualifying for the NHC.
“It absolutely is the best second I’ve ever had,” Vail said. “I actually didn’t have any big, big plays (Sunday). I had a couple of winners, a few seconds – nothing big to get me along to first place. I would have never have thought I’d be second.”
Arsenault made a bid to become the first-ever two-time winner in the 21-year history of the contest, carrying the second-best score to the final table. He added $32.20 to his total to finish third.
“It would have been nice to have won it twice,” said Arsenault, 68, a transportation broker from Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. “I wasn’t really prepared. I did well with the horses that I won with.”
Where Arsenault brought in the experience of an 11-time NHC veteran, this was only the second time Goldsmith had made it to the contest, qualifying the weekend of his birthday last July in a live-money contest at Lone Star Park, Texas. Four years ago he finished 539th with only $51.60.
“Two big days I got lucky,” he said, wearing a red San Francisco 49ers polo shirt that was not so lucky last Sunday. “What did I go the last year I was here? Zero? I forget. Those days come.”
Better days arrived for Goldsmith at a new venue for the NHC. After eight years at Treasure Island, the contest was moved back to Bally’s, where it had been from 2003 to 2007. But it is a different Bally’s now after undergoing a $125 million renovation that was completed in 2018. The old frontón that is now the Bally’s Event Center provided much more space in a single room than Treasure Island could offer. The hospitality extended by Caesars Entertainment race and sportsbook director Bill Sattler also received high marks.
If Goldsmith wants to try and break the curse of past winners in the 2021 NHC, he might see to it that he ends up back here at Bally’s at the table where he spent the past three days. Table 13.
“I’m never going to top this, right?” Goldsmith said. “$800,000? How am I going to top that. I got lucky, I’ll tell you that.”
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher and is sponsored by Xpressbet.