Scott Coles wasn't born yet when Andy Beyer wrote his breakthrough book “Picking Winners” in 1975, but that's the mantra the 34-year-old Illinois resident followed last weekend when he defeated some of the most seasoned handicappers in the game and won the $800,000 first-place prize in the National Horseplayers Championship. Presented for the 20th time by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the tournament was sponsored by Racetrack Television Network (RTN), STATS Race Lens and Treasure Island Las Vegas.
An analysis of Coles' 53 theoretical $2 win-place bets over three days shows that the first-time qualifier to the NHC made twice as many plays on horses at 8-1 odds or less (36) than he did on horses above 8-1 (17). His highest-priced winner came with his third bet on day one, Friday, Feb. 8, when Wicked Boy paid $32.80 to win and $13.40 to place in the fourth race at Tampa Bay Downs. His lowest-priced winner came in his final play of the tournament when Fiery Lady paid $4.80 to win and $2.40 to place in Sunday's ninth at Santa Anita, a race scratched down to a four-horse field after it was taken off the turf and moved to the main track.
Coles won with a bankroll of $367, $10.40 more than runner-up Jim Meeks, with another first-time NHC qualifier, Matthew Vagvolgyi, third with $354. Tournament veteran Randy Gallo was fourth with $337.40.
The tournament format called for $2 win-place bets on a combination of mandatory and optional races from specific racetracks over the first two days. The top 10 percent from the 668 entries that qualified for the tournament competed in Sunday's semi-final round, making 10 $2 win-place bets from eligible racetracks. The 10 contestants with the most points (the sum total of their successful win-place bets in all rounds) competed in Sunday afternoon's Final Table round, which consisted of $2 win-place bets on seven mandatory races from Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park.
There was a maximum payout of 20-1 odds to win ($42 maximum) and 10-1 to place ($22 maximum) throughout the tournament.
The 16 winners Coles selected from 53 plays averaged $13.40 to win. He played just four favorites from those 53 bets, though 13 of his plays were 3-1 or under; 23 were more than 3-1 but no higher than 8-1. Nine were between 8-1 and 12-1, four between 12-1 and 20-1, and only four were higher than 20-1 odds.
Coles wasn't stabbing or shooting for the moon. As he said when the tournament ended, he was just trying to pick as many winners as possible.
Following Friday's first round, Coles was in 21st place, with five wins and two seconds from 18 win-place bets ($72 in mythical wagers) totaling $128.20. His winning plays paid $32.80 and $13.40 to win and place in the fourth at Tampa; $7.40 and $4.80 in the sixth at Fair Grounds; the maximum $22 to place (though the actual pari-mutuel place price was $28.60) in the fifth at Oaklawn; $3.80 to place in the ninth at Fair Grounds; $17.40 and $6.00 in the 12th at Gulfstream; $7.40 and $3.80 in the sixth at Santa Anita; and $6.20 and $3.40 in the seventh at Santa Anita.
After Saturday's second round, in which he selected six winners and one second-place finisher from 18 plays for a total $98.60, Coles stood in 12th place with a combined bankroll of $226.80 from $144 in mythical wagers. His winners paid $7.60 and $4.20 in the fifth at Tampa; $11.00 and $4.60 in the third at Santa Anita; $9.80 and $5.80 in the sixth at Fair Grounds; $7.60 and $4.40 in the sixth at Oaklawn; $8.40 to place in the 11th at Gulfstream; $9.60 and $5.20 in the sixth at Golden Gate; and $12.80 and $7.60 in the 10th at Santa Anita.
Coles made the Final Table with two wins and two seconds from 10 races in Sunday's semi-final round: $6.60 to place in the fifth at Gulfstream; $3.60 to place in the fourth at Tampa; $15.80 and $5.40 to win and place in the fourth at Fair Grounds; and $11.60 and $6.00 in the third at Oaklawn.
Coles was in eighth place after compiling $49 in that round from $40 in bets. His cumulative total of $275.80 (from $184 in wagers) put him $26 behind the leader, Jim Meeks.
There were six lead changes as the 10 Final Table players battled it out for the $800,000 first prize and an Eclipse Award as champion horseplayer. After getting moved up to second from third via disqualification and collecting $4.20 in the 11th at Gulfstream, Coles was one of three players to select Heavy Roller in the eighth at Oaklawn, getting rewarded with a $26.20 and $10.20 payout. He picked up $5.20 to place on a 4-1 play in the ninth at Oaklawn, then moved into the lead in the next to last contest race with a $26.40 and $11.80 payout on I Love Romance, winner of the eighth race at Golden Gate.
Fiery Lady's $4.80 and $2.40 win at Santa Anita secured the victory for Coles, giving him $91.20 for the Final Table round and $367 in the tournament, with 16 wins and seven seconds from 53 $2 win-place bets that would total $212.
Traders, Analysts And Economists
The NHC winner is an interesting case study. He called himself a “Lone Ranger,” saying that none of his friends (some of whom play poker) are interested in betting on horses or playing in handicapping tournaments. “I wish more people our age would get involved,” he said.
Coles, a graduate of Monmouth College in Illinois and Valparaiso University's School of Law in Indiana (he said the prize money would help him pay off his student loans), works as a futures trader and lives in Chicago. In other words, on a daily basis he buys and sells commodities based on an assessment of their future value. Not that dissimilar from handicapping and betting on a horse race.
Coles became interested in racing on his own, saying he doesn't have a story about how his dad first took him to the track as a kid. He watched the Kentucky Derby and other big races on television and became fascinated with the game. A numbers guy who has been playing the races about five years, the last 2 ½ years in tournaments, Coles embraces technology in his handicapping and said the first thing he looks at is how a race shapes up from a pace standpoint, using TimeformUS as a guide along with Daily Racing Form. He also looks at angles using STATS Race Lens, a service owned by Equibase that has a variety of products and prices, including a $999 annual subscription.
“Being a trader, technology was going to be my advantage over people who didn't want to use it,” Coles said. “I brought my 3K laptop so I could fit it all on the same screen and use all the programs simultaneously.”
Coles was not the only one embracing technology. Third-place NHC finisher Matthew Vagvolgyi, a financial analyst from Albany, N.Y., who won $125,000, is another under-40 horseplayer who spends a lot of time sifting through the numbers. He's written his own algorithms using data purchased from Equibase and said he thinks more people his age would embrace racing if the data was more accessible.
A third top 10 finalist in this year's NHC is Marshall Gramm, Ph.D., an economics professor and head of that department at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Gramm, whose ninth-place finish earned him $52,000 in prize money, has taught a course on the economics of racetrack wagering markets and has written numerous academic papers relative to wagering, including “Efficiency in Parimutuel Betting Markets Across Wagering Pools in the Simulcast Era” and “Determinants of Betting Market Efficiency.” A founding partner in the Ten Strike Racing that campaigned Grade 1 winner Long On Value and many others, Gramm is a proponent of lower takeout, speaking on the subject at the University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing in 2017. Gramm also said at the Symposium that racing is making a mistake by charging for data – that access to free data would encourage more people to write programs and develop betting systems.
“If baseball, football, other sports data is out there and available, there's no reason horse racing data shouldn't be,” Gramm said in 2017, before the Supreme Court ruling made sports betting legal.
It's been 44 years since Andy Beyer explained in “Picking Winners” how he developed speed figures that revolutionized how many people handicap a horse race. Personal computers were in their infancy and very few people knew how to write a program.
Things are different today. While picking winners is still the name of the game, many of today's horseplayers are not content to pore over printed past performances or adhere to the structure and style that Daily Racing Form created more than 100 years ago. They want to write their own programs and have unlimited access to data to develop handicapping and betting systems. If that data isn't available in horse racing, they'll find it in other sports.
There is no doubt horse racing's decision makers want this game to appeal to more individuals in this new generation of computer literate data analysts, but are they willing to make the changes necessary to attract and keep them engaged?
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