Creative Approach to Making Money Betting the Fair Grounds Oaks
When the 500-player field of finalists convenes in Las Vegas for the 24th annual $2.25 million NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) on March 10-12, one of the players the spotlight will shine brightest upon will be Dylan Donnelly, a young horseplayer coming off an exceptional year of contest play in 2022 that netted him several tournament titles and left him knocking on the doorstep of Thoroughbred handicapping’s greatest prize.
In the span of the past three years, Donnelly has been on the precipice of some of tournament play’s biggest accolades. He comes into the 2023 NHC Finals fresh off a third-place finish on the 2022 NHC Tour, a year-long series that awards $300,000 in purse money to the top points earners based on wins or high finishes in sanctioned NHC qualifying tournaments online or at racetracks or horse betting outlets around the country.
Donnelly’s third-place 2022 NHC Tour finish was worth $20,000 in prize money and adds to his other outstanding accomplishments of the past few years, which also include five online contest wins in 2020 and a third-place finish in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC) for his biggest cash payday ever that amounted to $256,000. He finished a close second in the 2020 NHC Tour and, if not for a Covid-era rule that converted the classification of the BCBC from an on-track contest to an online contest, Donnelly’s BCBC finish would have scored him enough points to be the 2020 Tour champion. Instead, he took home $50,000 as runner-up behind that year’s winner, NHC Hall of Famer Sally Goodall.
Donnelly, a 31-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has yet to make a dent on the leaderboard in his three prior appearances at the NHC finals in Las Vegas in 2020-’22, but his experience, his tournament play abilities, and particularly his competitive instincts have only gotten stronger during those years.
Turn back the clock and you will learn where Donnelly got his love for horse racing, his ability to handicap, and most of all his competitive spirit.
Donnelly was exposed to horse racing since a young age when his horseplayer grandfather, who lived 10 minutes away from Santa Anita Park, would “babysit” Dylan at the racetrack every Wednesday through Friday and on big stakes days.
Donnelly first heard about handicapping tournaments, like so many other young players, by watching the short-lived but highly influential reality TV series, “Horseplayers,” which aired on the Esquire Network in 2014. The show followed a colorful cast of racetrack characters including Kevin “Brooklyn Cowboy” Cox, Matt Bernier, the father-son duo of Peter Rotondo Jr. and Sr., and the late great John Conte, a former NHC champion whose declining eyesight forced him to carry a giant magnifying glass with him to the track like some kind of a wise-cracking cross between Mr. Magoo and Inspector Clouseau.
“I watched the show ‘Horseplayers’ and I just couldn’t wait to get to that stage,” Donnelly said. “I knew when I got older and had a bankroll I would love to participate and compete with the best.”
Donnelly began competing in handicapping tournaments after Horseplayers in 2015, but in 2017 a life-changing event happened that put everything else in Donnelly’s life on hold.
On Thanksgiving weekend 2017, Donnelly was involved in a serious car accident that almost killed him. The crash left him with a broken C5 vertebra in his neck and unable to walk. The injury has since resulted in 2-3 days a week of physical therapy.
As a young adult, Donnelly considered himself very physically active and loved to compete in sports. That all changed because of the crash, but he has since settled instead into a routine of physical therapy and of studying horse races, watching race replays, keeping trip notes, and competing in tournaments.
“I can't play sports anymore so participating in these tournaments is my way of competition,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly began his focus on the NHC Tour in 2020 when he says he finally had enough time and cash to compete on the tour and in cash tournaments.
“I went full speed ahead,” Donnelly said. “It’s a lot easier to make money when you have money.”
Since the second half of 2022, few players have been more prominent than Donnelly. He won the 2023 Tampa Bay High Rollers Contest, 2023 February Santa Anita $500 challenge, 2022 Santa Anita Closing Day Challenge, and the 2022 Los Alamitos Fall Handicapping Challenge in addition to some cash tournaments on HorseTourneys.com.
Donnelly again was in contention throughout the year for the 2022 NHC Tour title, which came to conclusion in mid-February 2023 with Donnelly finishing third. Donnelly is left still in search of the big handicapping prize that has so narrowly eluded him in his BCBC and NHC Tour near misses in 2020 and 2022.
Perhaps Donnelly’s big breakthrough will come in the 2023 NHC main event, which is now only a week away. He’ll be part of the field heading into the NHC on March 10-12 at Horseshoe Las Vegas with hopes of winning the $725,000 first prize and the Eclipse Award title of Handicapper of the Year. If Donnelly takes down the top prize, it certainly would come as a surprise to no one and would cap off Donnelly’s rapid ascent that has made him one of highest-profile young players in the handicapping tournament universe.