Horse Owner Shows that in Tournaments, the Rules Can Rule

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent Johnson recently after his victory in the August 26-27 Woodbine Weekend Handicapping Tournament.

Some of you may remember Brent as the principal of Bushwood (named after the unforgettable country club in “Caddyshack”) Stable, which campaigned 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now among others.

Johnson still owns racehorses, and he has always been a devoted handicapper. But since reducing his role in the investment company he has led for many years, he has spent more time handicapping. Last year, he discovered tournament play. And the 54-year-old has picked things up pretty quickly.

By the time of the recent Woodbine tournament, Brent was already double qualified for the 2018 NHC. So the Virginia native traveled to suburban Toronto hoping to garner the available Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat—and he did just that.

In the course of asking Brent about some of his more crucial selections and wagers during the two-day, $300 live bankroll tourney, it gradually became clear that he may have “won” the contest nearly a week before it began.

Brent Johnson

“On the Monday before the tournament, I sat down and really studied the rules,” he said. “I knew from past experience that it would take roughly $2,000 to win a contest like this. But you were only allowed a starting bankroll of $150 each day of the tournament. Whatever you won on Day 1 would be added into your final total, but you couldn’t bet any of that on Day 2. Your Day 2 betting bankroll began at $150 and you were required to make 10 $15 bets during the day or else you would be disqualified.”

Johnson told himself that the way to win at Woodbine would be to get in position—at some point—to reach $2,000.

“Under no circumstances would I have allowed myself to finish Day 1 with $500 or $600, because then I would have been in the position of having to protect that Day 1 money with my $15 bets on Day 2. I wanted to finish Saturday with either about $1,500 or zero. If I had gone into the last race on Day 1 with $500 or $600, I would have bet it all—even on a horse I didn’t really like.”

Johnson not only followed his strategy to the letter, he put it to a supreme test. He finished Day 1 at Woodbine with just 75 cents.

On to Day 2.

With $150 to play, Brent adopted an ultra-aggressive strategy that would either put him into contention or send him on his way back home early.

He made a couple of required $15 plays that lost, then went all-in on a horse that paid $4.60, which gave him $276. He made three more requisite $15 bets that lost. Then took his remaining $231 and put it all to win on Ginger N Rye in the 9th at Saratoga. When Ginger N Rye won and paid $8.80, Brent was up to $1,016—just $1,000 or so behind the leader.

When Gray Phantom captured the 10th at Woodbine, paying paid $4.30, Brent was on board with another all-in bet that gave him a victorious final total of $2,250.05.

Brent’s performance that weekend (really his performance starting on Monday) reminded me of three things.

Number one. If you’ve listened to what top players have advised regarding contests, you’ve heard at least a couple of them stress the importance of immersing yourself in the rules. Sometimes this can seem about as exciting as reading an owner’s manual cover-to-cover before driving off in a new car. Why bother? Especially when the rules of so many contests out there seem pretty basic.

But tournament rules can vary—especially at live contests—so it pays to read and, yes, even study them.

Number two. The great philosopher Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the face. Johnson didn’t let his 75-cent performance on Day 1 deter him from his strategy. This speaks not only to the soundness of his strategy going in, but to the importance of keeping one’s head and remembering the route to success…rather than cursing one’s luck and giving up.

Number three. Strategy combined with fair and honest gamesmanship can mean the difference between winning and losing in any number of endeavors. Without finding some winning horses, Brent Johnson wasn’t going to win anything at Woodbine. And without talent and guts, Better Talk Now would never have won millions of dollars on the racetrack.

But Brent’s handicapping skill at Woodbine was clearly augmented by his strategy—just like Better Talk Now was sometimes aided in races by his speedy stablemate Shake The Bank.

You can never write the rules. But you often can have latitude in how you play by them.