By: Eric Wing for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, October 26, 2018 – When Nick Noce won the Midsummer Horseplayers Tournament in July, he knew he had established himself as a prime contender for the 2018 Player of the Year Award, which is based on overall performance over Woodbine’s four major handicapping tournaments. However, going into the final leg—the Woodbine Mile Horseplayers Tournament on September 15—Noce knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Noce figured that a top-five finish could land him the year-end honours, which include a Sovereign Award as Canada’s top handicapper, an entry worth $3,500 into the 2019 Woodbine Mile Tournament and a $6,500 cash bonus. However, the September 15 field of 51 was the toughest the 61-year-old Rochester, New York native had ever faced.
“When I walked in and and looked at who the contestants were, I said, ‘Oh boy, this is not a normal tournament.’” Noce said. “The last two NHC [National Horseplayers Championship] winners, Chris Littlemore and Ray Arsenault, were there. So was Paul Shurman, who’s a legend. Tommy Massis and Peter Behr had each won Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenges. John Kimove won the Keeneland Grade One Gamble this year. Bob Montgomery took the Horse Player World Series in March. Ali Aksoy won last year’s Woodbine Mile tournament. Michael Eisen was last year’s Player of the Year. It was intimidating. Then it got worse.”
A few races into the tournament, a young Asian man from New Jersey walked into the contest area, causing the player seated next to Noce to mutter aloud, “Oh, no!”
“What’s the matter?” Noce asked.
“Don’t you know who that is?” came the reply. “That’s Tony Zhou…they call him Tony the Terminator!”
Known for his fearless style, Tony Zhou is considered one of the best live-money tournament players anywhere, and this event’s format seemed made to order for someone like that—a $2,000 starting bankroll and the requirement to make five plays of at least $400 each plus a wager of half one’s bankroll, or $2,000, on one of the two final races that day at Woodbine.
The $3,500 buy-in amount for the Woodbine Mile Day event was not lost on Noce. In fact, his wife Barb had earlier expressed concern about him putting that much money up. She relented when he explained what was at stake, though, and he told her he planned to purchase just one entry, rather the maximum of two that was permitted.
After finishing his handicapping, however, Noce found that he liked the Woodbine Mile Day card, quite a bit, and on the three-hour drive to Woodbine, he decided to spring for a second entry. Based on past experience, Noce figured that if he could run his starting bankroll of $2,000 up to $4,000, he could at least get himself into fifth place, and a second entry would double his chances of doing that.
A few races into the tournament, neither entry seemed like a worthwhile expenditure. His first three plays on his first entry and his first two on his second entry all bombed. Noce was left with $800 and $1,200, respectively, on the two tickets—but his best bet of the day, Dragon’s Cry, was coming up in the fifth race. The Jim Ensom-trained gelding was making his second start off a layoff and Ensom was switching the riding assignment to Gary Boulanger, a rider with whom Ensom had enjoyed a 38 per cent success rate.
Displaying the kind of guts that would impress any of the big names on the contest circuit, Noce decided to go “all-in” on not one, but both his entries. He bet $400 to win and place on Dragon’s Cry on one entry and $600 to win and place on him on the other ticket.
Noce’s faith—and guts—were rewarded. Dragon’s Cry won by three-quarters of a length and returned $14.10 to win and $5.50 to place. Noce’s two entries were now in first and ninth places with $5,880 and $3,920, respectively. Best of all in Noce’s mind, he had eclipsed that $4,000 mark that he felt would secure him at least a fifth-place finish and the Player of the Year honours (plus an NHC seat) that would go with it.
“After the race, I sat back in my chair and said to myself, ‘I did it!’” Noce recalled. “I was patting myself on the back. As it turned out, I had done nothing. There were still lots of good players alive and they were betting lots of money.”
One of those heavy hitters was The Terminator, Tony Zhou, who made a big plunge on $25.30 winner Starship Jubilee in the ninth race, the Canadian Stakes, and catapulted his bankroll all the way up to $19,000. Meanwhile, Allan Schaffer, also in the mix for Player of the Year honours, had hit a $400 exacta to propel himself up in the standings as well.
“After the fifth race, I was leading, and after the ninth, I was in ninth,” Noce said. “’What has gone wrong?’ I asked myself. Now I was stressed.”
With two races left, Noce studied his options. He had to bet at least half his two bankrolls (or $2,000, whichever was smaller) on one of those two races, but the last race, a $10,000 claimer with a very large field, seemed to him like a total mind-bender. So he focused on the next-to-last race, the Northern Dancer Stakes. Noce liked Mekhtaal (GB), a 3-1 shot trained by Graham Motion. After a few requisite but losing plays earlier, Noce’s better entry was down to $4,500 and his lesser entry was at $1,900.
Rather than play a second horse that he didn’t like as much as Mekhtaal, Noce studied the leaderboard and made the clever decision to bet all $1,900 of his lower entry on Mekhtaal to win and $2,000 of his $4,500 entry on Mekhtaal to place.
The race was won by 16-1 shot Johnny Bear, a horse that proved key for eventual Woodbine Mile Horseplayers Tournament winner James Metzger thanks to a $1,700 win wager on him that took his total to $31,950. But finishing second was Mekhtaal, who paid $4.60 to place! Noce’s lesser entry was now dead, but his “good” entry now had $8,100, which put him squarely in fifth-place with about $400 back to the sixth-place contestant.
Now with just one entry and one race to think about, Noce elected not to think much at all.
“I figured that it’s always easier to lose a race than to win one, and if I was going to get knocked out of fifth-place, someone was going to have to make a big bet on a very difficult race,” he said. “I decided to sit tight and root for the favourites.”
The two favourites in the last race ran almost exactly to Noce’s wishes, finishing first and third. Noce then waited nervously through a 25-minute or so wait for the scores to be tallied and finalized, but the wait was worth it. He had held on to fifth-place. Allan Schaffer had moved himself into second place, but given Noce’s fifth-place finish, Schaffer’s second wasn’t enough… the Player of the Year title belonged to Noce!
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” Noce said. “The adrenaline was really flowing. I was ecstatic—and I feel so honoured to be getting a Sovereign Award next April. The $6,500 in cash and the entry [into next year’s tournament] are great, but it’s the Sovereign Award that I’m over the top about. It’s by far the highlight of my handicapping career.”
For his fifth-place finish, Noce also earned an NHC seat, the second he earned at Woodbine this year. If he were to win the NHC, Noce would then earn an Eclipse Award to go with his Sovereign Award.
“Now that would be worthy of a Hollywood script,” Noce laughed. “If I win the NHC, I’m going to call it the Can-Am Slam. Hey, at least it rhymes!”
On the drive back from Woodbine to Rochester, Noce excitedly told his wife Barb about his big day. When he arrived home, Barb did point out one detail of the day that her husband had somehow failed to mention during the phone call.
“I went online and saw that you won with ‘Card B,’” Barb said, working hard to hold back a smile. “Now…wouldn’t that imply that you bought more than one entry?”
Even a Player of the Year has to answer to someone.
TOURNAMENT NEWS—With the four Woodbine Horseplayers Tournaments in the books for 2018, the eyes of the contest world will be focused on Churchill Downs, site of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC), the most prestigious live-bankroll tournament in the world. The event has been won in the past by Canadians Peter Behr (winner of $324,000 in 2013) and Tommy Massis ($320,000 in 2015). Both will be back to the BCBC, looking for a second title—and they will be joined by Sheldon Usprech, who won a BCBC seat at this year’s Midsummer Horseplayers Tournament at Woodbine, and James Metzger and Allan Schaffer, who won BCBC seats for finishing in the top two at the Woodbine Mile Horseplayers Tournament. Woodbine wishes good luck to all of the competitors—and especially those representing “Team Canada.”
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. Wing’s Player Profile will be published monthly on the last Friday of each month on Woodbine.com.