Long ago, Tim Hughes had the weekend of August 6-7 circled on his calendar. He had plans for those days—big plans. It’s just that none of those plans had anything to do with horse racing.
A 59-year-old C.P.A. from Point Pleasant, N.J., with three grown children, Hughes and his wife Bette had planned a weekend getaway to Charleston, S.C., where one of his daughters lives. As Tim and Bette’s flight pulled back from its United Airlines gate late Thursday afternoon, August 4, the couple looked forward to what would be a wonderful family reunion that would include their other two kids, who would also be rendezvousing in Charleston.
During taxiing, however, the plane suddenly halted for no apparent reason. Then it returned to the gate. The Hugheses were told the issue was weather. Then after having to deplane, they were told there was a mechanical issue with the aircraft. Whatever the reason, the flight was now canceled. Along with dozens of other frustrated would-be travelers, Tim and Bette headed to the United Airlines counter hoping against hope for a satisfactory resolution, and—against all odds—they got one. There was a 10:00 pm flight to Charleston out of Kennedy Airport that they could make if they hustled.
Tim and Bette retrieved their car and headed back up the New Jersey Turnpike bound for JFK. The traffic was mercifully light, and they got to JFK in surprisingly good time. With a renewed spring in their step, they walked into the United terminal—only to learn that this second flight had just been canceled as well.
“This trip just isn’t meant to be,” Tim thought to himself.
It was a rather somber drive back to Point Pleasant after a long, tiring and fruitless day. While Bette was in the passenger seat, silently tapping away on her smartphone, Tim did allow himself to see one small bright side in the debacle.
“You know,” he mentioned almost apologetically to his wife, “there IS a big contest coming up this weekend. Maybe I’ll play in that now.”
Bette stopped typing on her cell phone, looked over at him and, with more than a hint of exasperation, said, “Well…if you do, win a little money for clothes—because now our luggage is missing.”
So it was that Tim Hughes wound up buying in to the Spa & Surf Showdown on Saturday morning — an unlikely preamble to what would be the score of a lifetime. As for the Showdown, itself, Tim was certainly excited about the Saratoga races. The Del Mar ones? Not so much.
“I’m an East Coast guy,” he said. “I love Saratoga. With Del Mar, I could usually throw a dart and land on better horses than what I would come up with on my own.”
While Tim may have felt unsure about the West Coast races, he was certain about the strategy he would employ.
“It’s 10-1 or better for me,” he said. “At the NHC, that’s my strategy too…hoping to grab onto something, If a favorite comes in—5-2, 3-1 or something like that—that’s not going to hurt me. I know I can make that up.”
Tim was a man of his word. Even though a few small fields were part of the 44-race, two-day menu, 31 of his plays carried double-digit odds. Not a single one of his horses went off at less than 9-2.
His first contest collection was a big one—Dynadrive at 23-1 in race 5, the Lure Stakes at Saratoga.
“When Tom Morley has been teaming up with Flying P Stable, those horses have really been running lately. And the horse had a win in his only start at Saratoga. That one was a no-brainer for me. Of course, he did only win by a nose,” Tim laughed.
His other Saturday winner was 9-1 Vasco in the 6th at Del Mar.
“She was a speed horse cutting back just a bit to 5 furlongs,” Tim said. He went right to the lead last time and I was hoping he’d do the same thing and hang on this time. The one thing was he hadn’t been on the grass before, just synthetic, so I had my fingers crossed that she would take to the turf.”
Hughes finished Saturday in 26th place, and he was happy with that position. Maybe the weekend wouldn’t be such a lost cause after all.
“I’m doing great…I’m within striking distance,” he said to himself. “I hit one cap horse…I’m right there.”
Tim was even happier with his position after Sunday’s opener at Saratoga. He hit first-time starter Gilcrease at 26-1 in a maiden turf sprint, and now he was all the way up to 7th place.
“I played that one because I saw that the dam had won her first two races sprinting, but to be honest, I was playing it hoping for a place price. I thought the Wesley Ward horse, Talkin Pharoah, would roll, but something must have gone wrong. He essentially got pulled up in the stretch.”
Hughes then went on a bit of a dry spell, landing just a single $6.10 place collection from his next 10 plays. He wasn’t overly concerned, though.
“Mostly favorites were coming in during that stretch, so I wasn’t looking at the standings much at that time. I wasn’t really worried at that point.”
Tim WAS looking at the standings after the 3rd at Del Mar. That’s where he had 44-1 turf race winner Bear Mountain, a victory that rocketed him to the lead.
“I just saw that the horse was by Kitten’s Joy out of an Unusual Heat mare and figured that was pretty good turf breeding. I also noticed that he had taken a little money—9-1—in his only previous start and was 20-1 in the morning line. I made most of my picks in advance and obviously this one went off at quite a bit above the morning line.”
Just seven minutes after the Del Mar race went off, Hughes extended his newfound lead with a $15.40 place return on 20-1 shot Splendid Summer.
“This one I really liked. I loved the replay—Prat had so much trouble in the previous race. He had to hold him…and hold him…and hold him. I felt that one was one of my better plays going into the day. He wound up not being able to beat the Chad Brown horse, but the place payoff was a big help.”
Hughes’s final Sunday collection came in the 5th at Del Mar on a 13-1 shot than ran second and paid $11.20 to place.
“Del Mar is so not in my wheelhouse that I was really grasping to make a selection there,” he said. “I saw that Peter Miller was the trainer and figured, ‘His horses usually run really well there.’ So I went with it.”
Tim’s next six plays went off at odds ranging from 5-1 to 20-1. None of them managed to run first or second, but the next best thing happened. Favorites were coming in, and his lead was still intact.
As the end of the Spa & Surf Showdown drew near, he had plenty of support from Bette (who had salvaged her weekend by spending much of it at the beach near their house) and on the phone from his son Kieran, a 28-year-old medical school graduate finishing his residency in Tennessee. Kieran had finished his work responsibilities in Tennessee at around 6:00 pm and had spent the next four hours on FaceTime with his dad, furiously trying to assist him in coming up with viable Del Mar plays.
“Going into the last race, my lead was big enough that the first four choices couldn’t hurt me, so I went ahead and played the fifth choice,” Tim said. “But I was watching and rooting for Victor Espinoza on the favorite the whole way, and we he won, there was suddenly a lot of screaming going on in the house!”
Tim and Bette haven’t given a whole lot of thought yet as to what they’ll do with the Spa & Surf Showdown prize money of $222,552. Ten years ago, their home was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and rebuilding their deck was one thing they just hadn’t gotten around to yet, so that is definitely in the offing. That’s about all they’ve figured out at this point.
Tim can certainly be forgiven for having trouble fully thinking through the ramifications of such a momentous victory in a contest that, 48 hours earlier, he had absolutely no expectation of playing, let alone winning. Some things—like the trip to South Carolina—just aren’t meant to be, but some things are.
That Peter Miller 13-1 shot that Tim made his final collection with? The horse’s name was Perfect Flight.
“Sums up the weekend,” said Tim.
Then, on Monday afternoon with Tim still joyfully numb from his triumph, Bette entered the room.
“United Airlines just called,” she exclaimed. “They found our luggage!”
When you’re hot, you’re hot.