Thoughts From the NHC

I’m back from vacation now. If there was ever a vacation that one needs a vacation after, it’s a trip to the NHC.

The most recent renewal was my 19th NHC, but my first as an actual player. It was kind of nice not spending 30 minutes each morning getting dressed in a tuxedo. Still I found the three days fun, difficult, time consuming, exhilarating, frustrating and physically challenging all at the same time. I think I enjoyed it all, but I’ll know better after my vacation from my vacation is done. Maybe by then, my 613th-place finish will be a little less top of mind.

As far as those who fared a bit better, I thought champion Scott Coles was not only a deserving but, in some ways, a refreshing winner. And I don’t say that simply because, at 34, he is the youngest NHC victor ever.

First of all, the Illinois-based Coles brought the title home to the U.S. from those damn Canadians who have held it hostage (and the most recent Horse Player World Series title too) for the previous two years.

Seriously, though, I appreciated the dignity and humility Coles displayed in victory. If there was any strutting or chest pounding going on, I missed it. I also enjoyed when he commented that, at 34, it was nice to once again be considered “young.” Everything in life is relative, I guess.

Coles’s route to victory was also, in some ways, inspiring. After a weekend that saw Marcos Meneses gun a seemingly hopeless looking cap horse to a wire-to-wire win at Gulfstream, and a trainer I’ve never heard of send out a cap-horse, first time-starting Arkansas bred to victory at Oaklawn, one can sometimes come away with the feeling that bombs are all we should be shooting for.

This was hardly the case with Coles. Here’s a link to a fascinating article done by Ray Paulick (attending his first NHC) for The Paulick Report.

Coles played just four horses (out of 53) that went off at greater than 20-1. No winner of his paid more than $32.80 in the top slot. Thirteen of his plays went off at 3-1 or under. So there’s something to tell your “The NHC is nothing but a stabfest” friends.

Our winner aside, I thought this was the most exciting final table ever. Chris Littlemore bidding for back-to-back championships was a big part of that, but an even bigger part was simply how the competition played out.

At one point, it seemed as if the results of the final table races were being scripted so as to produce the tightest possible leaderboard. Having the competition’s final race be a four-horse off-the-turf race was an undeniable bummer, of course, but even there, the tightness of the leaderboard made the outcome extremely tense and consequential for Coles and his nearest pursuers Jim Meeks and Matt Vagvolgyi who were each just a few dollars behind.

Regarding that off-the-turf last race…chances are if you were playing in the tournament, you had a very good idea — between reading the weather forecast and in knowing the modus operandi of Santa Anita — that the race (a down-the-hill event) had a good chance of coming off the grass. So why was it used?

I thought the mandatory race committee did an outstanding job throughout the three days (and, as a player, I really appreciated how early the mandatory races were communicated to me). The final-table races presented a unique challenge, though. Sometimes a prescribed time window paints you into a corner, leaving you with little room for backup options. In this case, seven races had to be picked between roughly 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Pacific time. The Santa Anita race prior to the off-the-turf race – a 5-horse San Vicente – wasn’t a viable option either. And you can’t really end a tournament paying $800,000 to the winner on a small-purse, small-betting pool race (i.e. Golden Gate). Hypothetically (and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight), you might have been able to add an additional Gulfstream or Fair Grounds race earlier on…but then you possibly would have had to start the final table sequence earlier, reducing the semifinal/consolation round by a like amount. Oh, and you would have looked really stupid if you did that and the Santa Anita nightcap had stayed on the turf. (Or if you passed on Santa Anita in favor of Oaklawn and Oaklawn had canceled as it looked like they might at one point.)

Sometimes (not often…but sometimes) you just have to play the cards you’re dealt in picking these races and cross your fingers. If a good alternative to the ultimately-off-the-turf race existed, I’m sure it would have been used. I just don’t think there was one.

As Mark Twain said, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Another thing NHC players seemed to do an inordinate amount of talking about was the buffet room.

The second-floor Caribbean Room was changed this year from a contest area to a buffet room. The displaced players had their choice of the main ballroom, the racebook or a new contest area (which drew nothing but positive reviews from what I saw and heard) in a first floor meeting room that seemed exceedingly comfortable and well laid out.

The new buffet room looked promising too—within easy access of the main ballroom. I believe the main inspiration for the change was to cut down on costs by making it easier to keep non-players out via a color-coded wristband system and the presence of security guards…but it also helped keep the second-floor hallways clearer during the day. The one “problem” — other than a few visitors being denied some cold cuts — seemed to be the entry and exit doors to the buffet.

To enter the buffet, you had to leave the ballroom (no problem), have your color-coded wristband on (no problem there either) and then walk to the far end of the buffet room to enter. Once you got your food, you departed at the near side of the room—the one closer to the main ballroom (problem here).

Hungry and or weary players seemed to want to save a few steps and enter through the exit area…or go, as Led Zeppelin might have said, “In Through The Out Door.” The Treasure Island security detail did not take kindly to such maneuvers…and some renegade players did not take kindly to the security guys not taking kindly to them.

One player took heated exception to the one-way traffic flow and bellowed at a guard, “I hope they pay you a lot of money for doing this. You guys are like the food Gestapo!” At first I though the player was joking…but it was pretty obvious that he wasn’t.

It all hit me as fairly hilarious—to the point where, by Saturday, I found myself hanging out by the exit door in between my races just to be there when the next scene transpired (and there were a few). It’s just one of those funny things that happens sometimes when you are planning an event. You can make what you think is a perfectly logical improvement (and on balance, it was), but things can unravel simply based on something as small as which door you designate as “Enter” and which as “Exit”.

That’s always been one of the things about the NHC—the good stories often come from the least likely sources. Two more of those this year were the tournament exploits of Anthony Laurino and Frank Klich.

Laurino had fought the good fight all year long trying to qualify for the NHC, coming particularly close one day last August at Laurel, but he came up short. He played in all of the final online qualifiers too—to no avail. Then came a call on February 2, less than week before the NHC, from tournament director Diana Harbaugh at Laurel.

“Hi Anthony, it’s Diana. Do you want to go to the NHC?”

Laurino couldn’t believe his ears. It turned out that one of the players who had finished in front of him at Laurel was utterly unreachable since the August tournament. Neither phone calls nor emails nor snail-mail letters mustered any response, so Harbaugh did the only thing she could and reached out to Laurino, who WAS reachable and mulled her offer over for less than a millisecond before excitedly accepting.

Of course, as seems mandatory in situations such as these, Laurino went on to finish in the top 10% after the first two days, and went home with an NHC check for $4,000 thanks to his strong handicapping, his schedule flexibility and, I guess you could say, his reachability.

Then there was Frank Klich.

Frank is an octogenarian horseplayer who doesn’t venture too far afield from his Maspeth, N.Y., home to play tournaments, but you can’t keep him away from the NHC with a stick—even when he hasn’t qualified.

In fact, it seems that more often than not, Klich, indeed, comes to the NHC unqualified, gives the Last Chance tournament a shot, comes up a bit short, then hangs around for the next three days to enjoy the ambience and spread his warmth and friendliness around to his fellow handicappers. For the last several years, the NHC has been unquestionably—and significantly—richer for Frank’s presence.

This year, Frank Klich was richer for the NHC’s presence.

Again he came to Vegas unqualified…but this year was different. A late longshot earned him a victory worth a seat to the next day’s NHC plus $25,000 in Thursday’s Last Chance tournament.

Frank wasn’t done yet.

On Friday and Saturday, he worked his way up the standings like a hot knife through butter. He made it to Day 3, and lost his bid for a seat at the Final Table only in the very last semifinal race. In the end, he finished 14th, good for another $22,000. If you think, Frank was feeling down over missing the final table by so little, you don’t know Frank. His smile could have lit up the Las Vegas Strip.

It’s stories, and people, like these, that have made the NHC what it is during its first 20 years—and why I hope to make it back to Year 21.

Thanks for reading…and please visit the STATS Race Lens Booth on your way out.