Growing up in New Jersey’s Bergen County, David Wolff was not one of those people who first went to the races by tagging along with his father or an uncle. It was more like the other way around.
“It was 1981, and on my 16th birthday that year, I begged my parents to take me to the Meadowlands,” Wolff remembered.
There was something about the intellectual exercise of studying the past performances and trying to predict the result of each race that really appealed to Wolff. Later, when he’d go to the races with some of his high school friends, they noticed he had a somewhat unusual skill.
“For some reason,” Wolff laughed, “after a race ended, but before it was made official, I was good at adding up the toteboard numbers in my head and predicting what the top three horses would pay to place and show.”
As the years went by, Wolff’s interest in racing deepened—particularly thoroughbred racing due to the bigger pools and greater number of variables involved in “solving the puzzle.” By 2015, he and his wife of 25 years, Shirley, were devoted fans who would make a pilgrimage each year to the Breeders’ Cup. The whole world of contest play, though, was still foreign to them both.
That all changed at Keeneland, about an hour before the start of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup.
“Shirley and I didn’t have seats, and we wound up in standing room at a bar,” said Wolff. “I told Shirley to hang out for a few minutes, and I’d see if I could find something for us. When one of the security people wasn’t looking, I snuck up the first-floor escalator and saw a crowded room with a bunch of tables, including one with a couple of seats open.”
David sat himself down and, after a few minutes, Shirley was able to join him. Not long after that, David got curious and asked someone else at the table what all the buzz in the room was about.
“You’re in the BCBC,” came the reply.
David was perplexed.
“I had no idea what that was,” he chuckled. “I figured that one of the ‘BCs’ stood for Breeders’ Cup, but as far as what the other ‘BC” meant, I had no idea.”
It was now about 11:35 am, not long before the first race, and out of the corner of his eye, David saw a woman going around checking credentials.
“Shirley,” he whispered as he leaned up close to her, “I think we’re going to have to leave.”
Sure enough, the BCBC worker made her way to the Wolffs’ table and, upon seeing no credentials, broke the bad news to David and Shirley. Suddenly a light bulb went on in David’s head.
“Well,” he asked the BCBC woman hopefully, “can you still sign up?”
The employee wasn’t sure, but she directed him to an information stand on the other side of the room. David went over there, and a few minutes later, he returned to Shirley at the table.
“Honey,” he said, “I have some good news and some bad news…I got us these seats and we can stay in them all day today and all day tomorrow. There’s also an open bar and free food.”
Shirley couldn’t believe her ears. “Wow, that’s great,” she exclaimed. “What’d it cost?”
David’s voice dropped an octave as he responded: “Ten thousand dollars.”
So began David Wolff’s first foray into contest play—and if there’s such a thing as beginner’s luck, David enjoyed some of it at Keeneland that weekend. He finished 8th in the BCBC and earned an NHC seat in addition to his nicely-profitable live bankroll.
When he made it to Treasure Island in Las Vegas for the NHC early the next year, he found himself utterly amazed.
“All these people who love handicapping as much I do all together in one room…it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen!”
David wound up re-living the NHC experience five out of the next six years. The highlight of that stretch was last year when he won the Sunday consolation tournament and Shirley made it to the Final Table, finishing 8th. Still, all that pales in comparison to last weekend when David, a 57-year-old attorney, topped a field of 384 and won a total of $187,425 in the fourth annual Flo-Cal Faceoff here at HorseTourneys.
On Saturday morning, Wolff purchased one—and only one—entry to the Flo-Cal.
“I’ve been double qualified for the NHC before, and I’ve found it difficult,” he said of playing more than one entry in a contest. “One year, I had $165 on one entry after Day 1 and $4 on the other. The next day, my good entry collapsed, and they both wound up with about $175 and neither one advanced. To me, having one entry makes you focus more and keeps you from going back and forth.”
Early in the Flo-Cal Faceoff, it seemed like Wolff could use a second entry—because the one he was playing certainly wasn’t accomplishing much.
“It was horrible,” he said. “We were 14 races in, and I hadn’t picked a single winner. I was in something like 300th place.”
Wolff got off the schneid thanks to Horn of Plenty ($20.40, $8.20) in the 15th race of Day 1, the 5th at Santa Anita. Then, against all odds, he elevated himself all the way to 3rd-place by picking three of the last five Saturday winners.
“To be honest, the only one of those late winners that I really liked was the longest-priced one, Stay in the Game,” Wolff recalled. “With Duvet Day, I was basically just taking a shot. With Stay in the Game, he had Tiago Perreira up who had just won a maiden-fifty on him…I had seen the replay…I thought he could get the same trip he got that day, and he did!”
Wolff began Day 2 optimistic. However, his early results brought back unhappy memories of the year at the NHC when he was playing two entries, had one really good one going and then hit the skids with it.
“I said, ‘Here we go again.’ I had almost nothing after the first four races and, to make matters worse, a couple of those races were three- and four-horse fields. At that point, I felt as though I wouldn’t have been able to pick a winner in a one-horse race.”
Wolff prefers not to pick chalk in contests like these, but he held his nose and went with Roll on Big Joe and Meetmeinkingston, who won Gulfstream races 5 and 8, respectively, at short odds. Those seemingly innocuous collections would later prove important.
Before they could be important, though, Wolff had some serious work to do. In the 2nd at Santa Anita, he came up with Flat Out Joy who won at 9-1. Suddenly, Wolff was right in the thick of things.
An hour later, he hit Agree to Settle ($24.20, $7.00) in the 4th at Santa Anita. Day 1 leader George Bosch had finally been dethroned from the top spot after being there all day…and Wolff was the new leader.
Wolff did not credit himself with particularly outstanding handicapping when it came to either of his $20 horses, though.
“I just thought there was a bunch of speed in both races, and that they could fall apart,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
Wolff now had the lead with five races left. After short-priced horses captured the next three heats in Arcadia, the top three in the standings remained unchanged.
In race 8, Wolff was torn between two horses and opted for the one—Princess Adaleigh—that was the longer price. The other horse Wolff liked wound up off the board, and Gregg Kingma in second place was on the race 8 winner, American Lily, at 6-5. However, Princess Adaleigh managed to finish second and the $5.80 place payoff she returned allowed Wolff to retain his lead, even though things were even closer now.
Wolff’s lead over Kingma was now just $2.70 with just one race left—a maiden turf sprint with five first-time starters among 11 entrants. Now he was faced with having to seriously ponder the merits of one of those first-time starters, the favored #5 horse, Ruby Nell.
“All I knew about the race was that I hated the Wesley Ward horse, the 11.” Wolff recalled. “That horse was my only ‘throw out.’ I really didn’t want to pick the 5 horse. Richard Mandella was something like 4% with firsters…though I saw the workout reports said she had great works…and I saw that the horse cost a million dollars. Ultimately, my decision came down to two things: a) If I don’t pick the 5 horse, which of the other nine DO I pick? And b) Game theory—which says I should pick the 5.”
Indeed, Wolff went with the favored #5 Ruby Nell, who was sent off at 2-1.
When the gates opened, Wolff quickly refreshed the HorseTourneys leaderboard to see who Gregg Kingma had selected. When he saw that Kingma had gone with the 11, who was the 5-2 second choice, Wolff felt momentarily confident only because that was the one he didn’t care for. He didn’t check anyone else’s picks, nor did he pay attention to any of the other horses’ odds.
By now, you probably already know what happened next. Ruby Nell broke tardily and rallied belatedly for second. The Wesley Ward 11 horse, Playlist, never seriously threatened for Gregg Kingma. The winner, in convincing, wire-to-wire fashion was #4 Ag Bullet who was 10-1 while entering the gate.
Plenty of players were on Ag Bullet–most notably Michael Somich in 4th place. Somich entered the nightcap just $20.70 behind Wolff.
A 10-1 winner for Somich was going to do it for him, even with Wolff’s horse running second. The problem for Somich was…Ag Bullet got bet down in the last flash all the way down to 6-1.
Watching from his home in New Jersey, Wolff had no idea that Ag Bullet was 10-1 prior to the race. That wasn’t something he was tracking. All he knew was that she was 6-1 when she crossed the wire in front.
All of a sudden, it was like a scene from Wolff’s teenage years at the Meadowlands. Immediately, he began checking the pools, trying to mentally calculate what the win and place returns would be for Somich’s winner and his own runner up. Given what was at stake, it was a stressful calculation. Then, after a few seconds…
“I think I’m going to hang on,” he told himself.
He was right.
In the background, Wolff had on HorseTourneys’ live Youtube webcast of the Flo-Cal Faceoff, and it was only then…when he heard Chris Larmey mention the late odds drop on Ag Bullet…that he realized the extra degree of unlikeliness inherent in him holding on for the victory.
“Thank God!” he said to Shirley as both of them stood watching and listening in a near state of shock.
The $187,425 windfall was by far the biggest score of Wolff’s life. Even a full day after the victory, David admitted that he and Shirley were still having difficulty winding down from the weekend—and especially the stressful final five races of the Flo-Cal Faceoff.
When things in the Wolff household did calm down just a bit, there was room for some humor. At that point, David mentioned to his NHC Final Table spouse that, now, maybe he was almost as good a handicapper as she is.
David was also able to see a touch of irony in his journey from BCBC “crasher” to Flo-Cal Faceoff champion.
“In my seven years of playing contests, I had always considered myself a better live-bankroll player than mythical win-and-place player,” he said amusedly. “I may have to reconsider that now.”