By Eric Wing for woodbine.com
TORONTO, August 30 – When Carol Johnson of Oakton, Virginia, won the June 24 Woodbine Spring Meet Handicapping Tournament, she became an immediate frontrunner in the Woodbine Player of the Year series. So it only made sense that she and her husband Brent—an avid contest player who is already double-qualified for the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC)—would make a return trip to Woodbine for the August 26-27 Woodbine Weekend Handicapping Tournament.
The couple were planning to travel that weekend anyway. The couple had the thrill of a lifetime when their modestly-sized Bushwood Stable campaigned the venerable turf distance specialist Better Talk Now during the early 2000s. The gelding, who won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf en route to career earnings of $4.3 million and who raced successfully until 2009 when he was 10, had a stakes race at Saratoga named for him on August 28, and Brent and Carol would be presenting the winner’s trophy. So they planned a drive from Virginia to Woodbine, then over to Saratoga Springs before heading back home.
The Woodbine leg of the trip was supposed to be mainly about Carol, of course. She purchased the maximum three entries to the $600 ($300 for live bankroll, $300 to the prize pool) buy-in competition. Brent just bought himself one. With four of the five tournament seats in the prize pool dedicated to the NHC—for which Brent had already qualified the maximum two times—the 54-year-old retired investment advisor figured the main allure for him was the one available $10,000 (U.S.) Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry that would likely be selected by the winner.
Carol, unfortunately, never got any real traction with her plays over the course of the Woodbine weekend, and she finished off the board with all three of her entries. And things started off pretty grimly for Brent as well. He finished Day 1 of the two-day tournament with a grand total of 75 cents.
The poor Day 1 showing, however, was neither demoralizing nor completely unexpected for Brent.
“On the Monday before the tournament, I sat down and really studied the rules,” he said. “I knew from past experience that it would take roughly $2,000 to win a contest like this. But you were only allowed a starting bankroll of $150 each day of the tournament. Whatever you won on Day 1 would be added into your final total, but you couldn’t bet any of that on Day 2. Your Day 2 bankroll was $150 and you were required to make 10 $15 bets during the day or else you would be disqualified.”
Johnson told himself that the way to win at Woodbine would be to get in position—at some point—to reach $2,000.
“Under no circumstances would I have allowed myself to finish Day 1 with $500 or $600, because then I would have been in the position of having to protect that Day 1 money with my $15 bets on Day 2. I wanted to finish Saturday with either about $1,500 or zero.”
Johnson, indeed, succeeded all too well in going broke on Day 1. So now it was on to Plan B—an uber-aggressive approach on Day 2 that would either put him into contention for the win…or end his day early. What he needed were some solid horses to parlay.
Johnson made a couple of requisite $15 plays that lost, then went all-in with $120 to win on First Appeal in the 7th at Saratoga. First Appeal won and paid $4.60, which gave Brent $276. He made three more compulsory $15 bets that lost. Then took his remaining $241 and put it all to win on Ginger N Rye in the 9th at the Spa. When Ginger N Rye won and paid $8.80, Brent was up to $1,016.
The leader had $2,100, though, so Johnson needed to strike one more time. He scanned the remaining races available to him from Woodbine, Saratoga and Gulfstream and decided that he would rest his hopes on Gray Phantom in the 10th at Woodbine. Gray Phantom won and paid $4.30, leading Brent to his victorious final total of $2,250.05 that no one else managed to top. The road was bumpy, but Brent’s combination of handicapping skill and strategic acumen had earned him that final bankroll total, a $600 bonus for having the top Day 2 score, and the coveted Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry. And now both he and Carol figure to be formidable forces in the quest for the Woodbine Player of the Year bonus which offers $6,500 and a seat to the 2018 Woodbine Mile Handicapping Tournament to the best overall performer.
The accomplished tournament player Allan Schaffer of Toronto finished second with $1,985. He and 3rd, 4th and 5th place finishers Michael Eisen ($1,415.75), Daniel Horvat ($1,257.90) and Howard Rubin ($1,257.50) each won NHC berths along with their cash. Rubin also won an additional $600 for having the highest Day 1 score ($934.75).
Look for these players to all be back for a return tangle with the Johnsons on September 16 in the Woodbine Mile Handicapping Tournament ($3,500 buy-in), which is expected to offer $165,000 in cash and prizes.
And expect some good-natured banter between Brent and Carol (a CPA) leading up to the 16th.
“Fifteen minutes after the contest was over, I told Carol, ‘I finished with $2,250. When you won, you only had $2,235.’ She said, ‘Well, yeah, but you started with $300, and I only started with $50.’
Eric Wing is the Communications Director at HorseTourneys and the longtime emcee at the National Handicapping Championship. Prior to joining HorseTourneys, Wing headed up Communications at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and The New York Racing Association. Eric’s Player Profile will be published monthly on the last Friday of each month on woodbine.com.