Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Nicolle Neulist had never taken a day off from work. A self-described “perfect attendance kid,” they had always figured that, short of an emergency, why not just go in? After all, who wouldn’t want to show up to work every day if your job was to go to the racetrack and watch horse races? This was Nicolle’s dream job, and in June of 2019, not long after the start of the Arlington International Racecourse meet, Nicolle had been working as Equibase’s chart caller at Arlington for a little more than two years and had never taken a day off. But then one day Nicolle got an email. It was an email they had been hoping to receive for a long, long time. Well before they had started working for Equibase. They had been waiting for this email since 2009. It was an email that said Nicolle had been selected to audition to be a “Jeopardy” contestant.
Nicolle Neulist is more than just the Equibase chart caller for Arlington and Hawthorne Race Course. Nicolle is a self-described “loud-mouthed, blue-haired weirdo”; a prolific freelance writer who runs the blog “Blinkers Off” and who has written about horse racing for many publications, including this one; and a former lawyer who left a career in law to become a computer hacker, then left a career in computer security to work full time in horse racing. Nicolle Neulist has worn many hats (and hair colors) and done many things. And along the way of this circuitous journey from law school to the Arlington press box, Nicolle has been dominating trivia leagues in the pubs and on the internet alike. Nicolle has what they call “trivia brain”: an uncanny ability to soak up facts like a sponge and retain them. Forever.
Everyone with a talent wants to put their talent to the ultimate test. If you train racehorses, you want to win in a Grade 1 stakes. If you play poker you want to play in the World Series of Poker. If you sing … “American Idol.” And, if you have trivia brain, there is no better arena to prove yourself than on “Jeopardy.”
To get on “Jeopardy” isn’t so easy, however. First, you have to take an online test. Every year about 100,000 people take the timed, 50-question online test. Of those, only 2,000-3,000 people are invited to an in-person test. In 2009, the first year Nicolle took the online test, they got an invitation to audition. From there, after playing a mock round of Jeopardy on stage with other contestants, if you score high enough and make a good enough impression, your name goes into the contestant pool for that year and you could get called to be one of the 400-500 contestants who appear on the television show each year. “Spoiler alert, they did not call me,” Nicolle told me this week.
So, Nicolle tried again in 2010. That year they didn’t even get called for an in-person audition. And so it went, year after year, until 2014, when they got called to do an audition again. Again, no follow-up call. And then again in 2017. Went to the audition, no call. So, when Nicolle got the email invitation to the in-person audition in Chicago in 2019, it didn’t seem at first glance like something worth skipping a day of work for. After all, Nicolle’s new job was more than just a job, it was their passion.
Their love affair with the sport of horse racing began in 2007 during a work trip with a group of lawyers to Arlington. “I probably should have figured out that day that I was eventually going to catch the racing bug because by about halfway through the day, the people had carpooled and went from the city were like, ‘OK, we've had enough of this, let's go to the mall.’ And I'm like, ‘No, that's OK. Y'all go to the mall without me. I'll just take the metro train home. I want to stay at the races. I want to watch this.’ And I didn't know how to read a program. I didn't know how to handicap a horse race. I didn't know a thing except for, you know, the horse that got to the finish line first won. I was betting horses with funny names all day. And I ended up leaving the track with more money than I came with.”
The horse that Nicolle won on was named He’s Hot Sauce. “That name is ridiculous!” they said. So, Nicolle bet $5 on He’s Hot Sauce to win and win he did at 8-1 odds. After that day at the races, Nicolle spent hours online reading Wikipedia pages about Arabian stallions and watching YouTube videos of old races … soaking the sport up like a sponge. But what they didn’t do is go back to the track. Not for four years, anyway. Then, one day in 2011 Nicolle went to Arlington on a random Saturday with their roommate and fellow trivia buff Kevin on a lark. Four years separated these two random trips to the racetrack, yet would you believe that He’s Hot Sauce was running again? And Nicolle would cash yet another ticket? The universe had sent Nicolle a sign. And Nicolle accepted it. “So, I went back again and had a blast. Then again. Then, I found out there was another track in Chicago I had never even heard of. So, I went to Hawthorne. Every two weeks became every week became every day I could get off work.”
In 2014, Nicolle started blogging about horse racing and became a part of a national community of horse racing fans, writers, and bloggers. And in 2017, when they heard about a job opening to be a chart caller at Arlington International, Nicolle didn’t hesitate. “It seemed crazy to leave a full-time job in a career like computer security,” Nicolle said. “But I couldn’t imagine not trying to do it and I took that leap of faith.”
If you've ever been to the racetrack, you've seen what a chart caller does. You open the program and see the notes about how far apart the leader was from the rest of the field and the short comments in the chart describing the trip. That was all written by a chart caller. That's all data collected or written by a chart caller.
“It boils down to getting all the info and describing it in the most useful manner,” Nicolle explained. But there is no such thing as chart-caller school. Nicolle took this new job with no training, no experience. They had to learn it all on the fly and develop methods for watching races and recording information that was a mixture of other people’s best practices and their own ideas and techniques. “And trivia brain certainly helps in that case. Because if you're doing something new, no matter how interested in it you are, there's always going to be some facets that you don't know about if you're moving into a particular role. And the quicker you can internalize them, tie them to other facts in your head, the quicker you're going to get the hang of how to do the job and how to do the job well. And I really have always been a pretty quick learner.”
Trivia brain helped Nicolle in more ways than just enabling them to quickly adapt. In a way, the chart caller at the racetrack is a historian. They are recording all of the information and observations that make up the historical record of each day at the track. They are in every way the scribe, the chronicler of racing history. And what, if not historical minutiae, is trivia? And who better, if not a trivia brain — a sponge that retains all it absorbs forever and ever — to do this job?
Yet when Nicolle got that email in 2019, it wasn’t immediately clear whether or not they wanted to continue to try to test their powers on “Jeopardy” anymore. It felt like a fine enough challenge to test their powers on the racetrack at Arlington every day. Still, they did take the online test every year for 10 years for a reason. Something inside of Nicolle still wanted to know if they could compete with the best. So, sheepishly, they emailed their boss at Equibase, Steve Peery, to see if it might be OK to take a day off to go to Chicago to try out for “Jeopardy.” The reply came back: “Yes, go, go! Take the day off! Go try out!”
So, Nicolle went to Chicago and auditioned for “Jeopardy” in person for the fourth time. And just like every other time, nobody called back. Soon after, the world shut down, gripped by a global pandemic. Not long after that, Alex Trebek, the host of “Jeopardy” for 37 seasons, passed away at the end of 2020.
The world eventually started to come back to life from the pandemic. And “Jeopardy” started taping again, albeit with a slate of guest hosts (each ostensibly doing their own in-person audition). And 18 months after doing their in-person audition, Nicolle got the call from “Jeopardy” they had waited 12 years to get: “would they like to appear on an episode of Jeopardy?” Yes. Yes, they would. Of course, when Nicolle heard the date of the taping — May 4 — their first thought was “that’s three days after the Kentucky Derby!” Just like the audition, however, Nicolle’s boss had no problem letting them have the time off. While everyone may not have trivia brains, everyone loves “Jeopardy.”
When Nicolle arrived to tape their episode (the show tapes an entire week’s worth of episodes in a single day) they met the current champion coming into their week, a soft-spoken Ph.D. student named Matt Amodio who said he was on a 13-game winning streak. “We couldn't tell if he was telling the truth or he was pulling our leg to get us intimidated,” Nicolle said. “But, sure enough he was telling the truth.”
Amodio then proceeded to win game after game that day. Nicolle got worried they’d have to face this absolute force of nature. “I’m telling myself. ‘This is your one shot to play ‘Jeopardy.’ Whether you end up playing Matt Amodio or not, you're not going to let this scare you.”
Sure enough, by the time it was Nicolle’s turn to play, Matt Amodio had racked up 17 straight wins and $547,600, making him the third-highest winner in the show’s history behind Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. Not only that, Nicolle’s game would be the final game of the season.
Nicolle felt confident that their experience as a gambler would help. “I've watched so many people lose games they should have won because they didn't bet properly. Between playing the horses and playing a lot of poker in my life, I've got plenty of experience.” But that kind of edge really only helps when the trivia brains matching up against each other are of relatively equal strength, which is usually the case on “Jeopardy,” where 400 out of 100,000 people make it on the air. Amodio, however, had proved to be in a league of his own. “Not only is he very good with making aggressive wagers, and not only does he have an aggressive style on the board, going for the larger amounts to build a big lead early,” Nicolle says of Amodio. “In addition to that, he also knows a lot of trivia. You can't be a player like that and lean into those thousand-dollar questions the way he does without knowing a lot of trivia.”
All those years ago, the universe sent Nicolle He’s Hot Sauce and changed their life forever. It was a kindness the likes of which most of us are never lucky to experience. But now, after 12 years of effort to get on this show, the universe sent Nicolle Matt Amodio to crush their dreams. It seemed the opposite of the universe’s last gift; a cruelty. But that’s presumptuous. After all, like any chart caller will tell you, you can’t record the winner until the race is run. Nicolle could be the dream crusher. Nicolle could win. Either way, like any horseplayer will tell you, there’s always another race after this one.