Last Friday I called up 2013 NHC Tour winner Brent Sumja, a 49-year-old professional handicapper and former trainer from San Anselmo, Calif., to get a few quotes for a press release about his triumph. In addition to winning $75,000 as the tour champion, he is now eligible for a $2 million bonus if he can win the Jan. 24-26 National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island Las Vegas. Our conversation was so enjoyable I thought you might like reading more of what he had to say, slightly edited for clarity. Here he discusses his training background, the tour win and what he’ll do with his winnings.
On his background in racing: “I trained horses for 15 years. I was on the backside of the racetrack from 1989 to 2006. I started in Louisiana with Tom Amoss as his assistant. He’s still, to this day, one of my best friends. He’s a really good guy and one of those guys that would do anything for you. He sent me on my way and then I came here to Northern California as the assistant to Randy Gullatt, from Twin Creeks Racing, in 1990. I went out on my own in 1993 and I finished second to [Jerry] Hollendorfer probably 20 meets. So to see him go on and do what he’s done makes me feel pretty good because I knew I was up against one of the best there was. Back then he was King Jerry of Northern California but now he’s King Jerry of anywhere he goes!”
On deciding to take the NHC Tour seriously: “I think it was on HorseTourneys.com back in May. It was a ‘Pick and Pray.’ It was perfect for that day because we were very busy in the backyard. I went upstairs, not knowing how I’d done, and I looked and there was one race left and I was in the lead. It’s May, so I’m not thinking about the tour at all. I had no desire or idea. My friends Joe Kouri and Mark McGwire, they both said to me, you know, you really are in a good position, you should start really playing and give it a shot. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“I only started doing this [playing in handicapping tournaments] in October of 2011. I tried one tournament and I won it, then I played in the championship and did awful. So my head was kind of spinning and I didn’t know what to expect. Last year, I played a little and qualified, but I was more going to tournaments for the social part of it. It’s really a great group of people. Sometimes at the racetrack you don’t always run into the greatest group of characters but the ones on the tournament circuit are really good, genuine people.”
On his hot streak: “Around Labor Day, Derby Wars was hosting an event and at that point I hadn’t had that much success trying the tour, through July and August, so I really didn’t have my head fully into it. Even though I finished second in the first half it still didn’t seem like anything overwhelmingly important to be doing – until that one week. In that one week, I believe I won three tournaments in a six-day period. That equaled the number of wins that the eventual second-place player had for the year.
“I was really fortunate in the Derby Wars contest because the two guys ahead of me – they knew I was double-qualified already – they had to be concerned with people who were looking at $20 or more. I loved the winner, Egg Drop, who has gone on to be an incredibly nice horse. I was able to take that horse and get a win out of the tournament. You’ve got to be good but you also need luck. Any sport, football or whatever, you need luck and that was my luck, for sure. I just ended up in a perfect spot to be able to use the horse I wanted to use. When we do tournaments we say that if you can make it to the last race and get to use the horse you want to use you did your job and there’s nothing more you can do.
“I won the Labor Day one [Derby Wars] with a huge score, almost $11,000. It was a live-money tournament, and second-place had $3,000. I stuck $500 to win and place on a first-timer toward the end of the day that was about 10-1. I had about $3,000 or $4,000 and that got me up to about $11,000. That one I won relatively easy but it was still the last race of the day and that horse got up late to win and didn’t win by a lot.
“I won two contests back-to-back [Sept. 6 and Sept. 7, both at Surfside], both on the last race of each day. That second day it just felt like one of those days where you’re in the zone and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you just have that feeling. It came again on the last race and I was waiting for this horse and it won.”
On clinching the Tour: “I never really had it locked up. McGwire and Kouri were the ones guiding me through this thing because I didn’t really know where to go and what to do. Mark had finished third last year so I knew he was a good source to listen to. He was telling me, look, you’re 95-percent to win this, you don’t have to worry, don’t go anywhere or do anything, just sit tight. But I’m not the type of person to sit tight and have someone go by me when I could have played.
“I stopped playing online – except for maybe one Pick and Pray because I really like those and feel like I have a good, strong hold on those – but I kept playing a little to keep my training because if you don’t play these things you get rusty.
“I just wanted to play a little bit and I played one right at the end on the last day. Once I won those three and I got a pretty nice lead, I still realized, someone like Streiff just needs to win two and he’s such a good handicapper he could get hot and win two in a week. That could happen. All these other guys that are chasing online without two live wins, I’m not so concerned about because you have to win the live ones to really have an effect on the leaderboard.
“The problem was, at that point, I had five wins and a second. For four months only a win could help my score (because only a player’s top six finishes get counted toward their Tour score). So you may have a strategy that you normally use in contests, but you have to throw it out the window because unless you win, you’re wasting your time. It becomes really hard because I’ve spent almost two years formulating strategy and ways to play and I had to sit and watch the leaderboard and change what I’m doing almost race to race. Meanwhile, they’re also live cash tournaments and I really was unable to play the way I wanted to and did not perform very well.
“But it did come back to me once I said, you know, you can’t worry what other people are doing because you can’t do anything about it. If Mark Streiff or Brian Chenvert or someone jumps up, well, you’re going to have to win another one anyhow. Once I went to Keeneland and Turfway that weekend (Dec. 7-8) I had a mindset that I wouldn’t look at the leaderboard and I had a very good weekend – 12th at Keeneland and sixth at Turfway. But in reality it was never wrapped up until [Dec. 29], at Surfside.”
On what he felt once he had clinched the Tour win: “It was just a tremendous amount of relief. I still played that next day but I was so relaxed knowing I was finally back to where I could play the way I would normally want to play.”
On 2012 Tour winner and 2013 Tour runner-up (and first half winner) Mark Streiff: “He is phenomenal, having won last year and he sat there in first or second most of this year. Unless you’ve done it, you don’t realize the grind on you, mentally.”
On setting an example: “I have an ex-girlfriend with a boy who lived with me from about age three to eight and he’s 15 now. He’s trying to get to college on a golf scholarship and he’s got people around him saying, you know, the normal things, like, it’s not going to happen and you’re not good enough. So I told him during the year, look, I set out to do something and I want you to watch. And that was a chance to take because I was basically setting myself up for failure. But I wanted him to see and once it was actually coming true … there’s this great video of Kevin Garnett when he went to the championships and did that interview and he can’t compose himself after winning it all and he just looks up and screams, ‘Anything’s possible!’ It’s really great and I kept using that for this guy who I’m like a big brother to, who’s like my Godson, to show him what can happen if you set out to do something and you work hard.
“I never didn’t go to a tournament because I didn’t want to say, gosh, if I’d only shown up that one weekend. I covered them all and I was either going to go down fighting every fight or not be good enough, one of the two.”
On what he’ll do with the $75,000: “All along I wanted to use this stage for the retirement of the horses. Through this whole thing I thought, if I win this I’m going to donate a nice chunk of money to Katie Merwick of Second Chance Ranch in Washington State. Somehow, through social media, she knows me and had one of my horses. She came from the type of background where she could have done anything but she dedicated her life to saving horses.
“I know we all have IRAs and 401k plans and all kinds of retirement plans, but these horses have nothing. There are some great people doing what they can but these horses don’t have retirement plans. You hear these horrible stories and too many people on the outside, the bettors, think they’re not an owner or breeder or trainer and they don’t have that responsibility. I’ve been on every side of it and once you’ve held one while it’s being euthanized after breaking down and watch the life drop out of it, you understand how fragile they are. When one has run its whole life and given us all the joy of betting on them, all the stories we have and all of the camaraderie we get to feel, it’s because of them, the horses. So I donated $5,000 of my winnings to Second Chance Ranch in hope that, as a bettor, a person using the horses for entertainment.”
On making it easier to support horse retirement: “If you’re a bettor at the track and that exacta you hit paid $100 instead of $110, you would never miss that money. So take $100 or even $20, whatever it is, and have a list available of the horse retirement funds that are checked and verified, and let people from our side of the sport put money into this, too. If we can get everyone doing that it will work because there are some great organizations out there and they just need money.”
On the possibility of a $2 million bonus if he wins the Jan. 24-26 NHC finals: “If that happens it won’t just be Second Chance Ranch, we’ll need to sit down and get a whole 20-year game plan together for all of the horse retirement funds.”