Two players who competed in the 19th NTRA National Horseplayers Championship have a unique perspective on horse racing: they usually watch races from the announcer’s booth. But earlier this month, Vic Stauffer of Oaklawn Park and Travis Stone of Churchill Downs took their expertise to Treasure Island in Las Vegas to test their skills against other top handicappers in the industry who qualified for the NHC.
Neither Stauffer nor Stone were in the top 10 percent of players who advanced to the final round of the tournament, but both thought the experience was valuable and would like to repeat it in the future.
Stauffer is an avid tournament player who has qualified for the NHC three times. He played in 2016 and qualified in 2017 but did not go to the tournament since it was his first year to announce at Oaklawn Park. He was glad to return to the tournament this year.
Stauffer started playing tournaments in 2015 when he stopped being a California steward, a position that did not allow him to wager. His first successes came in online tournaments, and his first big victory was in the 2016 Del Mar Fall Challenge. He won the 2017 Santa Anita Preakness Challenge, placed third in the Belmont Challenge and was competitive in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge the past two years.
“The allure of the NHC is they give you an Eclipse Award if you win the darn thing. And the prize money is by far and away the most we play for. It’s almost 3 million dollars. Absent a bonus, it is the most money you can win in a tournament,” Stauffer said. “And you are up against the best handicappers in the world. So it’s about ego, it’s about bravado, it’s about bragging rights. And that’s why it’s so attractive.”
Stauffer didn’t do as well in the tournament as he hoped, but financially, he said it was still a success.
“The tournament forced me to do the work that led me to a pick 4 that paid me $17,000. So I was pleased,” he said.
Stauffer highly recommends tournament play to horseplayers considering it.
“You can begin by playing tournaments online for $10 or $20,” Stauffer said. “Start with these and learn everything that goes into it. If you put in the time and effort and do the work, you can graduate up to playing the best.”
Stauffer said his wife, Tina, is an incredible asset to him in tournaments. She helps keep him informed of updated odds and works by his side.
“There is no chance that I would be as successful as I am in these tournaments without her help,” Stauffer said.
The Stauffers, who are Broadway aficionados, also saw Absinthe while in Las Vegas.
Stone is a casual player, who currently enters two tournaments at Keeneland a year. This was his first time to qualify for the NHC.
“I’ve played tournaments for several years but extremely passively and casually,” Stone said. “The best part is getting to hang out and see friends.”
Stone and six of his friends competed in the NHC together.
“We are an eclectic group. We literally come from all parts of the country, and we met through racing,” Stone said. “The NHC is fun. It’s intense, but you’re spending the time with friends talking racing, talking life.”
Stone said he likes the NHC because it is an event that recognizes horseplayers.
“I consider them the core customers of horse racing. I understand the impact horseplayers have. To see them getting recognition is a good thing,” Stone said. “So that, without a doubt, was the one part of it I enjoyed the most.”
Stone said participating in tournaments makes him a better handicapper and a better race caller.
“It helps in both directions, and I definitely think it helps the race calling – understanding how races shake out,” Stone said.
To horseplayers thinking about making the NHC a goal, Stone said, “Reach out to current tournament players and find someone who can serve as a mentor. Learn some of the ropes. Talk about decisions you made and plays you made and how tournaments shake out. Play more tournaments. Get in there and understand what it’s like to be in these things. It’s like anything else in life: the more you do it, the better you get at it.”
While in Vegas, Stone said he and his group “enjoyed some good dinners, a lot of camaraderie, dabbled in the tables and just had a good time. It was more like a reunion for us in many ways. It’s about catching up and having fun and giving each other a hard time – guy stuff.”
Horseplayers interested in qualifying for 2019 can join the NHC tour here.