If there were such a thing as live, futures wagering on who the winner of the 2023 Players Championship would be, you might have gotten 2,000-1 on Lucas Van Zandt as Friday’s Day 1 neared its completion.
The middle leg of the 2023 Tourney Triple series attracted 243 entries, and it required players to make 15 daily plays from among 30 eligible races each day at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Keeneland and Santa Anita.
Here’s how Van Zandt was doing with just three contest races left on Friday:
There is nothing wrong with your television screen…no glitch in our scoring mechanism. Van Zandt had made 13 plays and hadn’t achieved so much as a runner-up finish from any of his “charges”.
“To be honest, I decided to have a couple of cocktails by that point,” the 53-year-old Berlin, Conn., stockbroker admitted. “I did think to myself, ‘It looks like you’re playing for day money tomorrow.’ But I’ve got no quit in me, so I kept going. We all know the feeling when you have a bad first day in a contest and someone will tell you, ‘All you need is a big day tomorrow.’ But that’s what actually happened to me.”
Van Zandt’s basic M.O. is to enter all of his selections at the beginning of the day, and to only make changes if a horse’s price is lower than anticipated. The final two of his 15 Friday picks were Long Mayshe Reign in the 7th at Santa Anita and Club Cal in the 9th at The Great Race Place. He stuck with them.
When Long Mayshe Reign won and paid $27.00, and Club Cal finished second at odds of 43-1, suddenly Van Zandt’s nightmare Friday didn’t look so bad after all.
“I love finding bombs,” Van Zandt laughed. “I look for value on the sheets—maybe a horse that’s forging or a pattern that I like—and I don’t care if it’s 50-1, I just fire.”
Make no mistake, though—when Day 1 concluded, Van Zandt still had plenty of work to do. His late flurry had gotten him $62.00 in scoring but he was still mired in 73rd place behind Day 1 leader Paul Shurman.
The NHC Hall of Famer didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start, himself, on Friday, but a run of later-in-the-day collections that included Ashland Stakes longshot Defining Purpose landed him in first place, which earned the Long Island attorney the top day money prize of $10,631.
Not all the stories were cheery, though. In fact, there were some very anxious moments on Friday for McKay Smith and the crack HorseTourneys Accounting staff.
By virtue of his victory in January’s Flo-Cal Faceoff, the above-pictured David Wolff entered the Players Championship eligible for a million-dollar bonus if he annexed the Players Championship—and the early results had Smith and his bean counters scurrying to expedia.com in case they had to quickly go into hiding.
Unfortunately for Wolff, he wound up finishing the two-day tourney in 71st place. Smith, meanwhile, continues to reside in greater St. Petersburg, Fla.
Saturday’s Day 2 opened with a bang as longshots took the first three of 30 contest races. The first one, Tryinmyheartout ($48.60, $11.20) at Aqueduct, vaulted Paul Matties to the lead over fellow NHC Hall of Famer Paul Shurman.
The second one, 11-1 Here Mi Song, at Keeneland, sent Bruce D’agostini shooting to the top.
The third one was One Flew South ($36.20, $16.80) in the 3:00 pm opener at Santa Anita—and now Clint Littlejohn was in the lead.
Here’s what was easy to overlook amid all that shaking up at the top: Lucas Van Zandt used his first two picks of the day on Here Mi Song and One Flew South. In the space of four plays covering just six contest races (the final three on Friday and the first three on Saturday), Van Zandt’s score had gone from $0.00 to $152.14, and his place in the standings had skyrocketed from dead last to 6th!
At that point, Van Zandt cooled off a bit, reeling in just one $7.40 place collection over his next 5 plays. In the meantime, things had really gotten tight at the top.
Almost impossibly, just 46 cents separated the top three on the leaderboard—Anthony Mattera, Clint Littlejohn and Jim Settle—and there were just 18 contest races remaining.
In race 5 at Santa Anita, Mattera broke the logjam by hitting Awfully Naughty ($25.20, $9.00), but Van Zandt had the Charlie Whittingham Stakes winner too, and they now occupied the top two spots.
Suddenly, the crazy nature of his comeback was starting to sink in for Van Zandt.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening,’” he said. “I started to feel like Jay Trotter in Let it Ride.”
Less than a half hour later, Van Zandt connected with Weekend Rags in the 10th at Aqueduct. He was now in first place.
With five contest races left, and Van Zandt clinging to the lead over Mattera, it was time to consider strategy. Should he save those picks for the final three races?
The thing was…Van Zandt liked General Mathis in the 8th at Santa Anita…and he decided to pull the trigger now and ask questions later. It was a good move. General Mathis won and returned $17.60 to win and $5.80 to place. His lead was now all the way up to $27.86.
It wouldn’t stay that comfy for long.
In the 10th at Santa Anita, Van Zandt used his next to last play on a horse that ran 3rd. Using his second-to-last pick, Mattera opted for Elm Drive, who entered the starting gate at 11-1.
When Elm Drive reported home first, it looked to all the world—including Bill Downes and Chris Larmey on the HorseTourneys live YouTube webcast—like there would be a new leader. Unfortunately for Mattera, however, Elm Drive dropped all the way down to 7-1 in the last flash, and his parimutuel returns were “only” $17.20 to win and $8.80 to place. Van Zandt was still in front by $1.86.
Now strategy absolutely did come into play for Van Zandt. He and Mattera each had one pick left with two races to go, and Van Zandt thought the favorites in each race—Faiza in race 11 and Ancient Peace in race 12—both looked imposing…and he thought Ancient Peace might pay the same or a little more than Faiza should both win. So he skipped race 11, but as it turned out, Mattera passed on race 11 as well.
Faiza won race 11 as expected at 4-5, no one gained significant ground, and so Van Zandt went with Ancient Peace in the contest finale, hoping maybe for a block but, at the very least, forcing Mattera to have to use a horse other than Ancient Peace to go past him in a 5-race, off-the-turf heat. Indeed, Mattera went with second choice Chloe’s Crown.
The race wasn’t close. Here’s what it looked like turning for home.
Chloe’s Crown got up late for second, but well behind Ancient Peace. Van Zandt had completed a miraculous comeback and took home the winner’s share of $153,090.
When the dust had settled, Van Zandt had also won an additional $1,063 for having the 4th highest “Day-2-only” total. That boosted his grand total to $154,153.
Steven Meier collected the top Saturday day money prize of $10,631 for having a day-best score of $195.20. Second on the Saturday-only board was Thomas Blosser ($6,379), our first-ever Flo-Cal Faceoff champ, and third was Anthony Mattera ($3,189).
Of course, Mattera was also second—good for another $61,236—in the overall standings. His total winnings for the weekend were $64,425.
Anthony Mattera played a terrific tournament, obviously, and if not for a bit of bad parimutuel luck in the 10th at Santa Anita, he could have won the whole thing.
By the way, Mattera also seems to deliver his very best work in these HorseTourneys Tourney Triple events. In 2021, he won both an NHC seat and a BCBC berth for finishing first in that year’s Tourney Triple series. He accomplished that by remarkably finishing first in all three events (Flo-Cal Faceoff, Players Championship and Spa & Surf Showdown) in 2021.
As of now it appears that Paul Shurman is in a strong position for 2023 Tourney Triple honors. He was 16th in this year’s Flo-Cal Faceoff and 9th ($9,568) in the just completed Players Championship.
Special kudos to the others who finished in the Players Championship top 10: Jim Settle (3rd place, $30,618), Steven Meier (4th, $22,964…and 13th with his other entry!); one-time leader Bruce D’Agostini (5th, $19,136), Kenneth Arnerich (6th, $17,223), Gary Machiz (7th, $15,309), Thomas Blosser (8th, $13,395), Paul Shurman (9th, $9,568) and Dylan Donnelly (10th, $7,655). Here is the full list of those finishing in the money:
As for Lucas Van Zandt, he and David Wolff will be the two million-dollar-bonus-eligible contestants in the third and final leg of the Tourney Triple—the August 5-6 Spa & Surf Showdown, which will feature a guaranteed purse of $400,000.
Tomorrow, we will get to know Lucas a little better in a special profile of our 2023 Players Championship winner. So come back then for more Players Championship fun.