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Horseplayers championship is full of pressure

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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The National Horseplayers Championship ends Sunday with the winner collecting $725,000 in cash. (Ron Flatter photo)

Las Vegas

Betting on horse racing can be a lot like graduating from elementary school to junior high to high school to college. The first step up to each new level is intimidating.

Think about that first time going solo to the betting window and not wanting to hold up the line. Then really understanding past performances and putting them to work. Then that first handicapping contest. And then finally to the equivalent of horse-racing college, the National Horseplayers Championship.

“It’s intimidating when you come here for the first time,” said Jon Lindo, 61, who has been stepped in Southern California racing as an owner, journalist and handicapper for decades. “With all the people in there and all the action going on, you see a long shot win, and it sounds like 200 people had that horse. Then you shake your head like, ‘Oh, no. I’ve already lost.’”

More than 450 horseplayers know that feeling. They have been in and out of the Bally’s Event Center since Friday, when this year’s NHC got started. COVID pushed the event back six months and reduced the cash purse from nearly $3 million to about $2 million. But the pressure is still just as palpable.

Thomas Goldsmith, 58, was taking part in his second NHC when he won it last year. With both his entries this weekend, he made it to Sunday’s semifinals, ranked 38th and 42nd of the 56 who made the cut. With each entry guaranteed at least $10,000, Goldsmith is assured of no less than $20,000.

“The first time I came here I was intimidated,” Goldsmith said in a horseplayers roundtable conducted Thursday by Horse Racing Nation and the VSiN racing podcast. “My friends told me, ‘You’ve been doing this your whole life. What are you intimidated by?’”

Easier said than done. The pressure does not wash away easily, especially for the 95 first-time players who started this year’s NHC – and others who tried but failed to crash the party by way of the last-chance tournament Thursday.

“I’m kind of a half-moron,” said George Allan Bryant, 40, a Thoroughbred owner from Arlington, Texas, who made it into the 2020 NHC but came up short Thursday. “I walked in here last year thinking I was the biggest, baddest dude on the planet. Not knowing what’s going on, completely ignorant, not knowing that there’s some sharks in here. I swore I was a shark. Instead, I was like a little guppy.”

Bravado is one way to stare down intimidation. So are skill and luck, both of which Judy Wagner had when she was a first-time player in 2001 in the second-ever NHC. Which she won.

“I had this underlying ‘no guts, no glory’ approach,” said Wagner, a former member of the Louisiana Racing Commission who is in her 16th NHC. “I had no expectation of winning, but I wanted to win. I think you have to have a level of confidence, and you cannot be intimidated if you finish last.”

Swing for the fences, and don’t be afraid to strike out, especially going after the pitch you were looking for. The baseball adage applies to betting horses.

“You can’t be afraid to lose,” Lindo said. “You’re going to see guys get zeroes, but those are the guys trying to win.”

There is no magic wand for betting the horses – or for playing in the NHC, which has never had anyone repeat. Of the nine previous winners who returned this year, only Goldsmith and 2014 champion José Arias, currently second, made it to Sunday’s semifinals.

“Everything went right that weekend last year,” Goldsmith said. “You have to have that two- or three-day magic. After I won this, the next week I get home, I’m playing horses, and I couldn’t get a horse to come through on the rail. They’d get stopped. All bad trips.”

Everyone comes into the NHC with angles and tools that range from speed figures to computer algorithms to just plain horse sense. Whether it is new software or old-school paperwork, they are all spread out on the dozens of tables that fill Bally’s converted jai-alai frontón.

Just like the lure of the loud winner who keeps going back to the window at the racetrack, there is that underlying temptation to copy someone who is on a hot streak in the NHC. But Goldsmith, Wagner, Lindo and Bryant all agreed there is no sense in changing a successful approach to handicapping just because it unfolds in a room filled with the best horseplayers in North America.

Wagner said it is important to have confidence in what has worked in the past. It is also important, she said, to do handicapping homework on the races before making those final picks.

“I have confidence in my approach, but my approach doesn’t always get me to the top of the leaderboard,” Wagner said. “You look back through the years. For the most part the people that have won have not been the people that you think are the best handicappers in the country. It’s like our Congressmen and Senators. You know which ones are really doing the work. They’re not on Sunday morning talk shows. They’re back home doing work.”

The top players in this year’s NHC will have made mythical win-place wagers on 52 races around the country. As if the mental challenge was not enough, the days are long. Races ran for 11 hours each of the first two days. Couple those with the long hours of cramming for the next day’s handicapping, and there is a physical toll, too.

This year there was also the change in taking players’ selections. Instead of giving them to clerks at betting windows, NHC competitors have been using software terminals installed by Sportech. That added one more version of the question, “Where do I go now?” And one more reason to be intimidated.

“It's just getting comfortable with what’s going on,” Lindo said. “You have to get used to the noise. The whole idea is to stay within whatever you do as a handicapper that makes you successful. Stay with it. Don’t adjust off of what you do to play something else, because now you’re taking away your best game.”

Just getting to the NHC is half the battle. Since COVID wiped out so many in-person contests last year, most of the players had to play online to qualify for this weekend. The average cost was about $7,500 to enter those events. Success in those competitions was the only way to make it to Las Vegas.

Once a horseplayer makes it to the NHC, then the sky – or the $725,000 first prize – is the limit.

“Surely, anybody can win,” Wagner said. “You’ve just got to be able to string it together for three days.”

With a profit of $283.30 on his $140 of mythical bets, Justin Mustari, 26, part of a family of NHC qualifiers from Des Plaines, Ill., was the top qualifier for the semifinals, $5.30 ahead of Arias.

Goldsmith went into Sunday needing to make up at least $48.70 on Mustari in order to be the first back-to-back NHC winner in the event’s 22-year history.

“I’m not going to win it again,” Goldsmith said Thursday. “That’s so impossible. If I did win it, though, in my speech I would say, ‘Can you say three-peat?’”

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