TORONTO, July 27 – The highlight of Sheldon Usprech’s long handicapping career occurred just last January when the retired teacher and administrator from Toronto earned $25,000 at the NHC in Las Vegas from an 11th-place finish in the field of more than 600. For many of us, a performance like his would feel like something of a crowning achievement…an arrival.
Not for Usprech.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “For example, I love a 20-1 shot tomorrow at Del Mar, and I’m not sure how to play it. Should I just play him to win? To win and place? Should I wheel him up and down in exactas? I don’t have the answers to all that.”
And yet the ongoing, almost daily search for such answers is what has made horse racing handicapping such a compelling pursuit for the academically driven educator, who spent 36 years teaching English, Philosophy and Drama before retiring five years ago.
Usprech’s philosophical nature showed itself following the most recent NHC when he missed the 10-player “Final Table” by just $1.50. He looked to be in great position to advance to the final round when his final pick won at Tampa Bay Downs. But during the very last moments of wagering—after his selection had already been made—Usprech’s horse got knocked down from 3-1 to 5-2 and the slightly reduced win and place payoffs that resulted from the late money kept him out of the final 10 and effectively ended his tournament.
It seemed like incredibly bad luck, even to an experienced player accustomed to late odds shifts. “But then it hit me that I had 10 shots to move up that day and only cashed on two of them,” he said. “So that’s really what beat me. Not the last race.”
With $75,000 in contest earnings and six NHCs—including the last three in a row—under his belt, Usprech attributes his parimutuel and tournament success to a data-driven approach that befits a person of his scholarly bent.
“I’m an extremely analytical guy,” he said. “I don’t like taking flyers. I don’t need the action. To me, information is key. Every day, I try to be as prepared as possible. If everyone else is using either Daily Racing Form or BRIS past performances, then I use both. I’ll also use Thoro-Graph and other software, and I just ordered a one-month subscription to Optix to learn what that’s all about. I like making decisions based on as much information as possible, and I can do that because I am comfortable sifting through it all. I like being overprepared. Horse racing is a hobby, but I treat this leisurely pursuit as work.”
Usprech has won, by his count, approximately 30 tournaments, including online competitions. He has only missed one local, onsite contest (“Woodbine does a great job with its tournaments.”) in the last 18 years, and he’s also a fan of those offered at Arlington, Monmouth and Hawthorne. Other than that, most of his play is online. He has yet to compete in a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, but he feels less adept in live-bankroll situations.
“I’m still learning in live-money games,” he admits. “I have the basic precepts—collect what you can early and send it all in late—but I just feel as though I’m a much better handicapper than I am a gambler.”
Not that he’s a bad gambler. He’s currently enjoying his best year since his retirement five years ago, with about 60% of his 2017 winnings coming from parimutuel play and 40% from his contest pursuits. Much of his betting bankroll is targeted on Woodbine and the NYRA circuit. But his favorite betting meeting of the year has just begun.
“I love Del Mar, and will play it every day,” he said. “It’s a closed community, similar to Woodbine. Horses don’t ship in and out, and they run more than once at the meeting. The pools are huge and the California jockey colony is like a horseplayer’s paradise. There’s a kid coming up, Evin Roman, who is very good. Kent Desormeaux, when he feels like it, can make mincemeat out of the others. Corey Nakatani is especially good on the grass. And give me Agapito Delgadillo at 16-1 or 17-1 going 5 ½ furlongs! There are so many little spot plays I find myself loving there.”
When not smoking out longshots, Usprech enjoys going out to restaurants and attending movies and the theatre with his wife of 44 years, Ina. And becoming a grandfather a year and a half ago has put an additional spring in his step. Other family members don’t follow the races like Sheldon does. But he’d love to see newcomers join in the fun so that the sport—and contest play, in particular—can continue to grow. Ask Usprech what advice he would give a prospective contest player, and school is very much back in session for the career educator.
“Number one is to read,” he said. “Read contest books like ‘The Winning Contest Player’ by Peter Fornatale. I know a couple of guys who started from scratch and read that book early on, and they found it very helpful.”
His second key piece of advice?
“Don’t be afraid. You can go on HorseTourneys.com or one of the other online sites and play a couple of contests for $12 each. It won’t take very long until you get a feel for what you need to do to win. You can’t play all chalk and expect to do well, but any other style will fit as long as you are open to adaptation as you go.
“Some think tournament play is intimidating, but it’s not. The camaraderie, even for a newcomer, will surprise you. Contests are a great way to get deeper into a card—a way to expand your base by playing other tracks. They require you to open up the paradigm you use in playing the races. They’ll teach you that there is value in prices you may not have looked at 10 or 15 years ago. Contests are a terrifically engaging sidebar to regular horse play.”
TOURNEY NOTES—The Woodbine Mid-Summer Handicapping Tournament—the second of four major handicapping competitions here during 2017—takes place on Saturday, July 29: Players will be battling for $50,000 in cash and prizes, including two seats to the 2018 National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) in Las Vegas. Entry is $500 with half going to your live betting bankroll and half to the prize pool. Lunch, Daily Racing Forms and programs are included. See how you measure up to Sheldon Usprech and the other top handicappers here at Woodbine!
The Woodbine Mid-Summer Handicapping Tournament is part of the new Woodbine Player of the Year Series. All who register for and participate in at least three of the four 2017 tournaments here at Woodbine are automatically eligible and entered into the Series. At the conclusion of each tournament, points will be awarded based on final standings and the size of each pool. Following the September 16 Woodbine Mile Handicapping Tournament, prizes will be awarded to the three highest points earners:
1st prize–$6,500 plus a fully-paid entry into the 2018 Woodbine Mile Handicapping Tournament
2nd prize–$500 plus a fully-paid entry into the 2018 Woodbine Mile Handicapping Tournament
3rd prize–$400 plus a fully-paid entry into the 2018 Woodbine Weekend Handicapping Tournament
Carol Johnson of Oakton, Virginia is the current leader in the Woodbine Player of the Year Series by virtue of her victory in the June 24 Woodbine Spring Meet Handicapping Tournament.
Want to sharpen your game? Be sure to view the replay of a seminar Woodbine hosted in May featuring Daily Racing Form’s Matt Bernier and top tournament winners Ray Arsenault, Tommy Massis and Brian Troop.
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.