Spa & Surf Showdown the Richest Victory Ever for Paul Shurman…and a Tough Pill to Swallow for Chris Fischer

“This is the most I’ve ever won.”

Those words can carry vastly different meanings depending on who is speaking them. When they’re uttered by famed tournament player Paul Shurman, it is a significant statement, indeed.

Paul Shurman

The 64-year-old attorney—and NHC Hall of Famer—from Dix Hills, N.Y., took over first place following the last of 40 contest races over the two days and earned a whopping $109,032 from the overall purse of over $272,000 in the inaugural Spa & Surf Showdown. With his selection of 3-1 winner Passing in Sunday’s 8th at Del Mar, Shurman overtook 2013 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge champ Peter Behr, who had to settle for second place and $43,612. Ryan Flanders, who took over the lead late on Day 1 with Del Mar long shot Madame Vestal and held it for much of day two, checked in third and pocketed $27,258.

Victory in the two-day Saratoga-and-Del Mar-only online tournament was hardly a long-term objective for Shurman. It really wasn’t even a short-term objective.

“It wasn’t on my radar,” Shurman admitted. “I bought in to it on Saturday morning. I had a free weekend and went to HorseTourneys hoping to find one of those Saturday, $30,000 tournaments and saw the Spa & Surf contest so I booked an entry for that one instead.”

Early on, it appeared that Shurman’s $2,000 entry fee might be destined for someone else’s pocket. There were 21 $2.00 win/place plays to be made on Saturday, and from Shurman’s first 18, he picked just one winner. He didn’t get down on himself, however.

“I had eight collections…it’s just that seven of them were places,” he said. “I felt I was picking well…my horses were running…so I just pressed forward.”

Winner #2, an innocuous 2-1 shot came in race #19, but then came the 9th at Del Mar and, like Ryan Flanders, Shurman had Madame Vestal ($35.00, $16.20). The longshot tally, which propelled Flanders to the lead, shot Shurman all the way to 7th place in the field of 154.

“That was big,” Shurman said. “Once you’re that close, you can play what you like instead of what you need. I wasn’t reaching on Sunday.”

We don’t know if Shurman is a fan of the sitcom “Frasier”, but he got off to a good start Sunday with a $6.30 winner, Daphne Moon, in the opener at the Spa. He was a little less “psychic” over the next seven races, however, managing just two place payoffs.

Shurman went to work from there, though. He had four winners from the next six races including A Thread of Blue ($28.40) in the Saratoga Derby, Perfect Alibi ($15.40) in the Adirondack and Offshore ($7.20) in the 4th at Del Mar.

“A Thread of Blue and Perfect Alibi were both sheet plays for me and, as I saw it, A Thread of Blue had had excuses in his last two races,” he said. “Offshore was a workout play.”

The tallies moved Shurman into second place, but just one place collection over the next four events left him $5.70 behind Behr, who chose to go with #6 Go Sammy Go in the final contest race, the 8th at Del Mar.

Would Shurman try to “handicap” who Behr would pick in the finale and then avoid that horse?

“No, no, no!” Shurman said adamantly. “Play who you like! You have no control over what someone else is going to do. In the 6th at Del Mar (the third-to-last race), I played a 40-1 shot because I liked him. No one in the top 30 played that horse. In the last race…initially…I was leaning toward the 6 horse based on workouts, but then I settled on the 10 (Passing). He had a new trainer in Jonathan Wong, he had the best jockey; he had blinkers on; it was a crappy race; he was going to have the lead. I would have liked to have a horse that could have won it for me with a second-place place payoff. My brother Bill is really good at calculating what horses are likely to pay to place.”

After some furious calculations by the brothers Shurman (really, just by Bill), it seemed unlikely that a place collection alone would get it done. However, Paul stuck with Passing—in part because of something else he noted during the tourney’s late stages.

“There weren’t many people coming after us,” Shurman said, referring to himself and Behr inthe top two spots. “The people in 6th through 15th all seemed to be jockeying for position and not going after the big money. If I needed a price, I obviously would have adjusted my thinking, but I just stuck with who I liked.”

Behr’s 6 horse, Go Sammy Go, finished 5th at 9-2. Passing, meanwhile, had a daylight lead all around the track and won by 2 1/4 lengths, returning $8.00 and $4.60. Victory was Shurman’s.

“This is my best format,” Paul said, referring to the mythical, $2.00 win/place setup of the Spa & Surf Showdown. “In many ways, it was just like the old Wynn tournament, focusing just on Saratoga and Del Mar. In other ways, it was better than the Wynn. I’d have to fly out there and get a hotel room. I don’t love playing at home, but this event is more lucrative that almost any one out there besides the BCBC and the Pegasus. The 2011 NHC Tour win will always be very special for me. Same with finishing third at the 2009 NHC and second at the Horse Player World Series, but this one is way up there. It’s the most I’ve ever won.”

After seeing the field, the purse size and the format for the Spa & Surf Showdown, Shurman said he did have one question troubling him both before and after the event.

“Why don’t you guys do this more often?”

It certainly sounds as though the Spa & Surf Showdown will be on Shurman’s radar next year.


There is one player out there who may well enjoy competing in the next Spa & Surf Showdown, but perhaps he will need more time than Shurman to bounce back from the last one.

Chris Fischer, a 59-year-old semi-retired hotel operator, was chugging along nicely in 15th place on Sunday from his home in Pacific Grove, Calif., when he saw a horse that he thought could help him make a big move. It was Crystalle, a 41-1 first timer in a 2yo filly Maiden Special in the 4th at Saratoga.

“She was mostly a pedigree pick,” Fischer said, referring to the daughter of Palace Malice trained by John Kimmel. “The workouts looked decent, and I thought it was a solid pick. I didn’t see a lot of big horses on Saturday so I thought it was a good race to take a shot. The 41-1 didn’t faze me. I just went with it.”

As many of you know by now, Crystalle closed from last to first to win going away. In doing so, however, she was judged (after a long inquiry) to have interfered with the third-place horse (#8, Sparkling Sky), costing that one a chance at finishing second. No one contends that Crystalle wasn’t the best horse in the race. But for costing Sparking Sky that chance at second, Crystalle was dropped to third by the stewards. So Fischer (and the 13 others who had her) didn’t even get a place collection out of the selection.

A Crystalle win would have moved Fischer into first place at that point. Then, despite what had to be trying emotional circumstances, Fischer went on a Sunday tear that got him all the way up to 4th place behind Behr, Shurman and Flanders.

Alas, Fischer went cold, blanking on the final five races and finishing 11th overall with a total of $196.80 which, it should be noted, was just $46.80 (less than a cap horse) behind Shurman’s winning total. Eleventh place paid $4,088—a winning day to be sure, but probably not the score that seemed within Fischer’s grasp on this day.

Chris Fischer

You never know how a given horseplayer will handle adversity. From afar, based solely on his continued strong performance during the post-DQ portion of Sunday, Fischer seemed to handle it  well…but who knew how he was truly feeling? When we contacted him on Monday, we were even more impressed.

His first words were to congratulate US on a great tournament. Then he allowed himself to look back.

“It was an exciting event, and I’m still winding down from it,” Fischer said. “As far as the DQ goes, I blew off a little steam after 10 minutes of waiting—realizing they were going to take her down—and then surprisingly decided to move on. It is a part of the game, but I will admit it was a big one to swallow, and I’m not sure it was the right call.”

What about the call? Somewhat ironically in hindsight, Paul Shurman had the 8 horse, Sparkling Sky, who was moved up to second ($4.60 to place) by the Crystalle DQ.

“That would have changed things a lot,” Shurman said, with respect to a Crystalle victory. “She was the best horse in the race, and yet the horse I had got cost a position. I thought it was the right call. Would I have been surprised if it stayed up? No. It could have gone either way.”

That raises the question of whether Fischer would have played the same horses the rest of the day had the DQ not happened.

“It’s tough to know how I would have handled the lead,” Fischer admitted. “I was a little indecisive down the stretch, but I like to think I would have gotten it done.”

Shurman sympathized with Fischer’s situation, though also offered an overview that certainly rings true regarding the “game within the game”.

“Any horse that wins or doesn’t win affects the rest of your play,” he said. “When I won at Saratoga last year, I had a tough beat, and later hit an 8-1 shot that I probably wouldn’t have played had the previous one won. To win a tournament like this one, you have to have two great days and be luckier than everyone else. You need to be lucky AND good. I know that I have to be in a position to get lucky.”

Fischer’s thoughts strongly echoed Shurman’s.

“Hopefully, I can put myself back in that position sooner rather than later,” Fischer said. “The Travers  tourney [online at HorseTourneys] is in three weeks, and I am planning to be at Del Mar on the 17th. Overall, I was happy with my performance. I was really pushed hard on all fronts, especially strategically. I got off to a rough start Saturday and then bullied my way into contention late. It was a lot of pressure coming down the stretch, and I ended up a little indecisive, but that run in the middle of the day was exciting. It was a great experience for the next time that I’m in that position.

“Congratulations to everyone who cashed. It was a great weekend, and I have a helluva $109,000 story!”

Thanks for sharing that story with us, Chris. The first Spa & Surf Showdown clearly had more than one winner.