By Eric Wing for woodbine.com
TORONTO, May 26 – The name Ali T. Aksoy is becoming an increasingly familiar one in handicapping tournament circles. The Toronto resident has had a pretty darned good 2017—even if outright victory has eluded him thus far.
In fact, the 70-year-old native of Istanbul, Turkey claims to have never—ever—won a tournament of consequence. “I’m always second,” Aksoy says with a chuckle.
Last April, even a second-place finish was beyond the reach of the retired civil engineer/exporter/translator at Keeneland in the Keeneland Spring Challenge and the Keeneland Grade One Gamble. But his 6th place finish in the Challenge and his 9th place effort in the Gamble made him one of the first 2017 players to earn two entries in the 2018 National Horseplayers Championship (NHC).
The good-but-not-perfect finishes continued a trend that has both frustrated and amused the affable Aksoy, who first came to America from Turkey in the early 1970s to earn his M.B.A. degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I played in the big August tournament at Woodbine last year and was leading heading into the last race when someone threw a Hail Mary and beat me at the wire. So I was second there. I came back and played in their Woodbine Mile tournament a month or so later and was way ahead until three people connected on Hail Marys, leaving me in fourth. On the first day at Keeneland this year, something similar happened, and I wound up sixth. So right now, I’m busy trying to develop a Hail Mary repellant.”
Aksoy’s penchant for getting nailed at the wire has extended even to his dalliances with horse ownership.
“I’ve only owned two horses. One didn’t win until he got claimed, and then he won right away. The other ran second three times in a row before he suffered a knee injury and we retired him. Either I gave him seconditis or he gave me seconditis—I don’t know!”
Despite not having visited the winner’s circle in North American contest circles, Aksoy’s name has appeared frequently near the top of leaderboards at numerous live and online contests over the past year. And he has done very well wagering—both here and in his native country. Though it was in the U.S. that Aksoy was first bitten by the racing bug.
“While studying at the University of Pittsburgh, some friends went to the harness races at The Meadows, and I went along. One of the guys– a devoted, revolutionary Marxist—was a big racing fan, and it wasn’t long before I got hooked. I did well enough that I began to wonder why I was spending all this time studying when such profits were there for the taking at the harness races. This proved to be a misconception, of course,” Aksoy deadpanned.
After working some eight years for a steel fabrication construction company near Pittsburgh, Aksoy returned to Turkey where he began a successful enterprise exporting wild mushrooms (“Local people didn’t eat them, but they were a delicacy in places like France and Switzerland.”).
When not busy sending expensive side-dish ingredients to Maxim’s and the like, Aksoy found himself drawn to the races in Istanbul. “The racing there is basically split between Thoroughbreds and Arabians. But the main difference between Turkish racing and ours here is that traditional win, place and show wagering is not popular. Over there, the big event was the Pick 6.”
Following the lead of his countrymen, Aksoy threw himself into the Turkish Pick Sixes—offered on both local and international races—and hit several of them for a total of approximately $200,000.
It was in 1987 when Aksoy, a regular business traveler to Toronto, played in his first-ever handicapping contest. It was at Greenwood, and he finished second (of course!) in a field made up of both serious handicappers and media celebrities. In subsequent years, however, contests never really took root in Aksoy’s mind—in part because he spent so much time in Turkey during the period that the NHC and other big events were gaining popularity in North America.
It wasn’t until two years ago—when he was working in Toronto translating legal and technical documents—that Aksoy went to Woodbine and played in his second-ever handicapping tournament.
“All I got was a free lunch,” said Aksoy of his luck that day. But rather than wait another 28 years for his next contest, Aksoy was back at it at Woodbine the following year and this time his results were markedly different–finishing second in the July Mid-Summer Tournament and earning his first ever trip to the NHC.
How did he do last January in Las Vegas? Aksoy sums it up in one word: “Terrible”. But he learned an important lesson there that has served him well in the days since.
“I didn’t study hard enough,” he confessed. “There were parties on Thursday night and I went to those instead of handicapping the races in my room. Next year out there, I’ll be better prepared. You have to put in the time to study properly. I have to give each race at least 20 minutes. When I do that, I do well. Otherwise, I might as well be buying a lottery ticket.”
What does Aksoy focus on when studying the past performances? In the broadest sense, he is looking for races in which he believes the expected value of a wager will be positive. “You can pick a lot of winners and still go broke,” he warns. To advance his quest for positive expected value, he assesses three basic elements.
“The first is a horse’s class (including his speed figures) to identify who is capable of winning a given race,” he explains. “The second is form. Who is in good shape? If a horse is not in good current form, he just isn’t going to win. Third is what kind of trip I expect him to get. If a good horse has a bad post or has a disadvantageous running style, I’m far less interested in him. Then I weigh all this, and I bet depending on what the public is doing. If the public agrees with me, I don’t bet. If I think the public is wrong, then I bet.”
This isn’t to say that Aksoy is only looking for longshots. If he deems a horse to have an 80% chance of winning, he will bet—and bet big—on a horse that is even money. And this approach is a key aspect of his tournament strategy.
“In live bankroll events, I hope to find two horses that I am very confident in. And even if, say, a contest calls for you to bet a total of $2,000 in five races, I won’t just sit there and bet $400 a race. I’ll play $1,000 on each of the two horses I like a lot and then worry about the other required plays later. That’s the approach you have to have.”
In 2017, that approach has served Aksoy very well. His entries to the NHC already earned, he still plans to play all four tournaments this year at Woodbine (June 24, July 29, August 26-27, September 16) in order to earn additional NHC Tour points that can mean significant bonus money. And with respect to the August and September competitions, Ali hopes to win his first-ever entry into the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.
The goals seem very realistic and fitting for a man who has devoted so much of his life to education, and to then successfully putting that education into practice.
“I’m retired now and I’m taking this racing thing even more seriously,” he says with a laugh. “I love contest play—it makes your life interesting. And the great thing about horse racing is that you’re never too old to learn. You can always improve.”
TOURNEY NOTES—On Saturday, May 27, Woodbine will offer a free “Playing Handicapping Tournaments” seminar. The host will be Daily Racing Form’s Matt Bernier—a successful tournament player and one of the co-stars of the Esquire Network series “Horseplayers”—and guest speakers include three of the game’s most accomplished tournament performers: 2017 NHC Champion Ray Arsenault, 2015 Breeders; Cup Betting Challenge winner Tommy Massis and 2010 NHC victor Brian Troop.
The seminar figures to serve as an excellent primer for Woodbine’s first onsite tourney of 2017—the Woodbine Spring Meet Handicapping Tournament on June 24. For a buy-in of just $150 ($50 live bankroll + $100 to the prize pool), players will compete for two NHC seats as well as cash prizes. You can register for the event starting on May 27.
As a special offer for those interested in playing all four of Woodbine’s 2017 Handicapping tournaments, you can save $300 by registering and paying for all four events by June 23. For further information, contact Woodbine’s Sue Clark at 416-675-7223 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
June plays host to a couple of other top events prior to the Woodbine Spring Meet Handicapping Tournament: On June 3, Monmouth Park hosts its popular “Pick Your Prize” tournament where players select from a variety of available prizes including BCBC seats, NHC seats and cash prizes. The higher you finish, the sooner you pick, and the more you get to pick from. Registration closes May 28. Contact Monmouth’s Brian Skirka (email@example.com) for more details.
Then on June 9-10, Belmont holds its lucrative Belmont Stakes Betting Championship. This high-end, live-bankroll competition features a $10,000 buy-in and first-rate amenities geared around the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Contact James Dillon at Belmont (firstname.lastname@example.org) for additional information.
And online qualifying for both the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) and the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC) is in full swing and continues all month long at HorsePlayers.com and HorseTourneys.com.
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.