After four lead changes in the last seven races of the National Horseplayers Championship, the tournament – and the sport – crowned a young champion. Someone who wants to infuse some youthful elixir into a game that could use it.
Scott Coles, 34, took the lead for good backing a 12-1 winner in an allowance race at Golden Gate Fields on Sunday afternoon. That successful bet in the NHC’s next-to-last race was what made him the winner of an $800,000 first prize in the three-day championship here at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino.
Not bad for a first-timer who qualified for the $2.9 million championship with a pair of wins in on-line competitions on the 2018 NHC Tour.
“There were a lot of nerve-wracking moments,” Coles said. “I didn’t know how to make a bet on the machines. I didn’t know where a lot of the stuff was. Once I got comfortable, it was just handicapping. I was fortunate enough to have the right horse at the right time.”
The 4-year-old filly I Love Romance was that horse. When she won the eighth race at Golden Gate, Coles added $38.20 to his imaginary bankroll in a tournament that requires the eventual winner to place $2 win-place bets on each of 53 races. With $367 at the end, he won by only $10.40.
“It ended up being between two horses in that second-to-last race,” Coles said. “My two favorite horses were the two horses I thought would be blocked (bet by players ahead of him) if I played them. My plan worked out. I just needed (I Love Romance) to run a big race, and she did.”
After that, Coles consolidated his victory by betting the winner – Fiery Lady – in a Santa Anita finale that was reduced to four horses when the race was taken off the turf. The way the betting shook out, eventual runner-up Jim Meeks of Elko, Nev., was the only player left who could catch Coles. Fiery Lady saw to it that there would not be a fifth lead change.
Matthew Vagvolgyi of Albany, N.Y., finished third, $13 behind Coles. The only former winner to make the finals – defending champion Chris Littlemore – finished seventh, meaning Coles became the 20th different winner in the 20 years of the NHC.
“I’m just hyper-competitive,” said Coles, a 2007 Academic All-Midwest Conference relief pitcher for the Division III Monmouth College baseball team in western Illinois. “This is where you can let out that steam. Competing in this has just been absolutely amazing.”
Coles is admittedly not a lifelong horseplayer. Far from it. He said that he got serious about the game during American Pharoah’s Triple Crown campaign in 2015. Before that, to scratch the itch left behind from his baseball days, Coles has played in poker tournaments. He also considers himself a competitor in his work as a futures trader for a firm in Chicago.
“I was just doing what I do at work,” he said. “I’m running the numbers vs. the probabilities to give myself the best chance vs. trying to out-handicap some of the greatest handicappers in the world.”
Unlike the conventional tournament wisdom that calls for players to look for overlays in live odds, Coles said he just tried to compress his bets around horses that he thought could win without necessarily shopping for long odds.
“I was playing a smaller fields where other people wouldn't,” he said. “I was just trying to find the best horse as much as possible. A lot of people were trying to play as many long shots as they could. I was trying not to watch the odds as much.”
Coles was $70 out of the lead after the first day of competition Friday. He was still $62.20 behind through Saturday, but he had moved within $2.40 of the top 10. After 6-1 shot Homefieldadvantage won a maiden race Sunday at the Fair Grounds, and then 9-2 Moro Texas scored in a claiming race in the slop at Oaklawn Park, Coles found himself in eight place through the semifinals, which comprised 67 entrants. That put him at the table of 10 for the seven decisive races in Sunday afternoon’s finals.
“I just kept trying to grind out winners instead of trying to find 20-1 shots,” Coles said. “I just kept moving up knowing if I got to the final table, as close as this pack was, anybody could have a chance.”
Coles considers himself a hybrid between an old-time form player and the new wave of numbers crunchers who have been known to significantly move the needle on track odds at the final click at post time.
“I’m very much trying to get on up on the new technology,” he said. “I was using all sorts of programs. But I start with pace and move from there. I look at the pace of the race and think how it’s going to play out and start to handicap based on what I think the pace scenario is going to be.”
Holding the de rigueur, oversized check for $800,000, Coles said he can climb out from under the even more oversized debt that go back to his time just out of college when he went to law school.
“I had law-school loans,” he said, “I actually owned my own law firm for a couple of years. So those loans were deferred, deferred, deferred. The amount of interest on those doubled pretty quickly in my early 20s and mid 20s. To be able to put those behind me, make some money, and now when I have a good year at work I can actually move forward rather than giving it all to pay off interest on a big loan.”
And Coles hopes that young gamblers like him will look away from fantasy football and poker to be inspired by what he did in a such a short time learning the game.
“I’m such a lone ranger in this,” he said. “I have no story about how my dad take me to the track. I did this all on my own and discovered it on my own. I just love the game. I just wish more people my age did it. It would be a lot more fun. I would be glad to promote that in any way possible.”
TVG host Dave Weaver won the top prize of $10,000 in Sunday’s consolation contest for the 601 players who did not make it to the semifinals.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition centers on the NHC. Horseplaying author Peter Thomas Fornatale talks about the types of strategies likely to be used during the competition. Bookmaking legend Roxy Roxborough discusses Kentucky Derby futures and the impact of legal sports betting on horse racing’s future. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse starting with “N.” The RFRP is also available at providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.