If Scott Coles wanted to leave the 20th NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) with the $800,000 first-place check and an Eclipse Award to his name, he figured that acting like the best handicapper in the room wasn't going to cut it.
He had to play fields that weren't obvious attractions. He had to focus on picking winners and not get hung up on odds. He had to find a way during his first ever try at the NHC to stay one step ahead of those who had been there and done that.
“There are so many amazing handicappers here and I feel like I had a good strategy, because I knew I wasn't going to be the best handicapper here,” the 34-year-old Illinois resident said. “There are legends here, people who have been doing it forever. I had to come up with a different game plan.”
Coles' plan worked to perfection when it counted most. A longshot pick in the next to last mandatory race at the 10-person Final Table propelled him to the front of a tight leaderboard en route to earning the title of 2019 NHC champion with a mythical bankroll of $367.
The upstart Coles toppled an NHC field that had 668 entries, second largest in NHC history, and 522 individual players. This year marked his first time qualifying for the NHC and he became the tournament's youngest ever champion when his total bested runner-up Jim Meeks by a margin of $10.40 in a Final Table showdown that featured four lead changes in seven races.
The National Horseplayers Championship was presented by Racetrack Television Network, STATS Race Lens and Treasure Island Las Vegas
Heading into the eighth race at Golden Gate Fields, the penultimate mandatory race, the top eight were separated by just over $41 with veteran J. Randy Gallo holding a $10.20 lead over Steven Simonovic. Coles, who was sitting fourth at the time, $15.80 behind the leader, took an educated swing and placed his wager on 12-1 shot I Love Romance – and then watched as the dark bay filly prevailed by a neck to vault him into first place with one race to go.
“I was pretty confident at that point that the leader was going to keep playing the favorite,” Coles said. “I knew that if you were going to win the tournament, you had to win it the race before. I was between the 11 and another horse I can't remember but I knew I had to win it right there or else I risked being blocked by the two horses I liked. My plan worked out. I needed the 11 to run a big race and she did.”
The final mandatory race, the ninth at Santa Anita Park, scratched down to just four horses when it came off the turf. With a $5.80 advantage heading into that last race, Coles took second-choice Fiery Lady and got to start his celebration early when the mare won by two lengths.
Coles, a full-time futures trader for a firm, said he only began playing the races about seven years ago and really got serious during American Pharoah's Triple Crown year in 2015. He began focusing on tournaments the last two and a half years and got dual qualified this summer on back-to-back weekends in a pair of HorsePlayers.com online tournaments.
“I started playing the (NHC) tour at the very end of 2016. Didn't qualify. Tried last year on and off, didn't get there,” Coles said. “This year I was fortunate to get double qualified. Navigating through (the NHC) was interesting. There were a lot of nerve wracking moments.
“I was trying not to watch the odds as much and just pick winners and just keep moving up knowing that if you get to the Final Table with how close the pack was, anybody had a chance. All in all I was just trying to grind out winners rather than worrying about finding 20-1 shots.”
Meeks finished second with a bankroll of $356.60 to take the $250,000 runner-up prize. Matthew Vagvolgyi, who like Coles was playing in the NHC for the first time, ended up third with a total of $354 to earn $125,000.
“No. 1, I want to get back here,” Vagvolgyi said. “No doubt about it. NHC should stand for National Horseplayers Convention because I met so many good people here, really good people. I was rooting on people at my table, they were rooting for me. It's just a great environment. It's just a great tournament and a very difficult challenge to get through multiple days to do it.”
Gallo, who made a massive charge on Saturday to sit second heading into Sunday's semifinals, earned his highest NHC placing ever when he finished fourth ($337.40). Simonovic ($327.20) was fifth followed by Joe Perry ($324.40), 2018 NHC champion Chris Littlemore ($298.40), Robert Gilbert ($297.40), Marshall Gramm ($276.90), and Frank Drew ($268.80).
Coles, Meeks, and Gilbert are all STATS Race Lens users.
The NHC was held for the eighth straight year at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
The 2019 NHC finals awarded cash to the top 67 finishers (the top 10 percent overall) from a total purse of $2,863,000. An additional $50,000 went to the top 20 in today's Consolation Tournament, which was won by TVG racing analyst Dave Weaver.
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