We all enjoy tournament play, but some of us seem to get an extra big charge out of the competition and camaraderie. One of those people is Lucas Van Zandt.
If you bump into Lucas at a contest—and chances are you have—it doesn’t take long to notice his positive attitude and infectious enthusiasm. And that’s always the case regardless of how his horses are running that particular weekend.
Once you spot Lucas at a contest, it’s 1-5 that his wife Kara is not far away. Not surprisingly, she is as friendly as Lucas. Kara is always willing to lend a hand, whether it’s to help her husband get organized before a big tournament…or even to help contest administrators get set up before an event. (Let’s just say that Kara Van Zandt will be a member in very good standing at all future on-site editions of The BIG One!)
Lucas got plenty of good counsel and emotional support from Kara and his brother Adam during his triumphant effort, worth $154,153, in last weekend’s Players Championship. Then again, racing has always been a family affair for the 53-year-old stockbroker from the Hartford suburb of Berlin, Conn.
At age 5, young Lucas would tag along with his father Peter on visits to Belmont, Aqueduct and even Saratoga from their home in Long Island. By the time he was 8, Lucas would listen and re-listen to audio cassette tapes by Len Ragozin on speed figure methodology and application. The boy was hooked.
Lucas played the races enthusiastically for years, but he didn’t really get into contest play until 2015. However, he did manage to attend the second-ever NHC way back in 2001 at MGM Grand. Why? He was there to root on his father, who qualified that year and again the year after.
When Lucas qualified for his first NHC in 2016, he though a lot about his father, who had passed away in 2008. And he found himself unexpectedly obsessed with the thick “welcome book” handed out to all contestants.
“It was really special,” he said, “to flip to the back of that book where they list all of the past participants and see my dad’s name in there.”
Lucas’s general contest philosophy—one he employed to great effect last weekend—is to swing for the fences. He’s not merely looking for high odds, though.
“I love finding bombs…but I love “pass” races too,” he said. “In a contest like the Players Championship, you need to not play 15 races, so figuring out which ones those are has value too. In fact, I try not to even watch the “pass” races just so they don’t get into my brain. Once I figure out the 15 horses I AM going to play, I’ll enter those selections at the beginning of the day, and, typically, I won’t change them unless the odds are too low or something unexpected happens.”
As it turned out, something unexpected did happen on Day 2 of the Players Championship. After a 0-for-13 start to the tournament on Day 1, Lucas was now fighting for the lead. This is where Lucas’s brother Adam enters the story.
Adam had been in frequent contact with Lucas on Sunday, and as Lucas continued his improbable ascent up the leaderboard, things got more and more exciting…and tense.
Near the end, when Lucas was battling tooth and nail for the $153,090 grand prize, Adam texted Lucas, asking him who he liked in the next race. Lucas checked his picks—the ones he had arrived at early in the day—and mentioned a longshot.
Adam was well aware of his brother’s predilection for high-odds horses, and he was equally cognizant of the great position Lucas was in now because of that very type of horse. Still, with Lucas clinging to a lead of less than two dollars, Adam grabbed his phone again and offered some brotherly advice:
“Don’t die on your longshot sword.”
Lucas got the message—literally and figuratively. He realized then that switching to a more conservative mode of attack was, indeed, the proper course of action during these final few races, and it was that strategy that enabled him to hold on for a $4.86 victory over his dogged pursuer Anthony Mattera.
“I got so much great support during the weekend,” Lucas recalled. “Not just Adam and Kara…but also Francis and Connie Boustany who were at my table at the recent NHC. It was such an inspiration to me to see Francis doing so well. I was lucky enough to experience that vicariously in Vegas, and he was in touch with me quite a bit on Sunday.”
Craig Hom was another player who helped Lucas. After Lucas realized that Santa Anita had decided, part way through its Sunday card, to move its remaining turf races to the main track, he felt a bit flummoxed.
“Kara!” he shouted with considerable alarm to his wife in the next room. “When were these races taken off the turf??”
Lucas hadn’t handicapped those races for the dirt! What was he supposed to do now?
It was Hom who reassured Lucas via text by telling him that the resulting shorter fields in the later races could prove to be a big advantage. There would now be fewer opportunities for those far behind to leapfrog him with high-priced horses. Almost immediately, Lucas felt calmer.
“It was just so nice…all the kindness and help I received,” Lucas said. “The money I won is fantastic, but pride is half of it for me. To compete successfully against so many tough players is both gratifying and humbling.”
Almost everyone is motivated by money, of course, but two days after his rich victory, Lucas also admitted to having been motivated a bit by fear.
“There’s so much pressure at the end, and you feel like if you don’t finish it…it’s not just the 90 grand difference, but feeling like you’re a loser…that you choked with a lead. It would have been hard to get over that.”
Thanks to some good selections, an ability to maintain a positive attitude in the face of early failure, and some well chosen words of support from family and friends, Lucas Van Zandt doesn’t have a bad memory to “get over”. Instead, he has a happy one. One that will likely last a lifetime—just like the ones of days spent with Dad at the track.