By Noel Michaels
Qualifying for the National Horseplayers Championship was never meant to be easy – and it’s not – yet many players continue to win their way to Las Vegas every year, year after year. A growing group of tournament players have even managed to get to the handicapping finals 10 years or more, and amongst that elite group an even smaller subset of handicappers can almost be counted on like death and taxes to qualify every year. When you get to the very tip-top of the NHC pyramid you will find a select few standing alone amongst the “sure things” that might as well have their names engraved on their very own NHC seats.
Nobody has been to the National Horseplayers Championship [NHC] finals more times than hall of famer David “Trey” Stiles III of Houston, Texas. Stiles shares the record of NHC finals appearances at 17 along with veterans Sally Wang Goodall of Las Vegas and Paul Shurman of Long Island, NY. In Stiles’ and Shurman’s case, the 17 NHC years have been consecutive, giving them the longest streak in the history of the NHC.
Stiles recently extended his NHC qualifying streak to a record 18 straight years this summer when he tied for second in the Lone Star Park tournament on July 13. That berth insured that Stiles would be there when the finals of NHC 21 return to Bally’s on Feb. 7-9, 2020 for the first time since 2008. It’s a locale that Stiles knows well – he was there for all six of the years Bally’s previously hosted the NHC from 2003-2008.
It’s mind-boggling to think that there is a player or two still playing whose last time NOT qualifying for the NHC was back in the third year of the event in 2002 when Stiles and many other of today’s players were just beginning to play in tournaments or had not yet even begun. Some of today’s players were still in diapers.
“I was not aware of the NHC the first two years and did not try [to qualify], Stiles said. “When Sam Houston had a qualifier for NHC III, it was my lone attempt to qualify that year and I just missed. At that point it was just another way for me to play the horses. However, after the first time I got into the NHC, I was hooked.”
Stiles qualified for the first time at NHC IV where he went on to finish in 33rd place, and he has never looked back ever since, qualifying through consecutive years through the rest of the first decade of the NHC when fields were limited to a couple hundred finalists. Also back then there were no online contests, there was no NHC Tour, and it was much, much more difficult to qualify than it is today. It should also be noted that Texas tracks do not host many qualifiers and Texas residents are hindered by the inability to have an online wagering account or play any contests they offer. Before the advent of online contest sites such as HorseTourneys.com, Stiles became the master of making the best of very limited qualifying opportunities at live on-track contests.
“My first NHC was my favorite. It was an awesome experience that literally changed my life. I had a blast and it fueled my desire to get back each year,” Stiles said. “I liked the head-to-head side bonus they had long ago. I won $1,250 that way in NHC IV.”
Cash payouts have mostly eluded Stiles through the years. “Some of it has been bad luck,” said Stiles. “The year I finished in the top 10 after Day 2 was the first year they added a Day 3. However, with 17 years under my belt, I cannot attribute the lack of big victories to short term bad luck. When the NHC was smaller I believe I was still learning. These days it is difficult to finish in the top 10 out of 600.”
Not all the luck for Stiles has been bad. Good luck has also played a role.
“The streak would have ended at NHC XI had Southwest Airlines not had a late fare sale for holiday tickets to San Diego,” Stiles reminisced about what he remembers as his favorite contest ever. “It was the last contest of the year at Surfside/Del Mar. I had given up and accepted that my qualification streak was over, but a couple days before the contest airfares plummeted and I decided to go. I was shooting for Tour points and I ended up finishing 13th. I only cashed for $650, but I got the last Tour points slot in the last contest of the year for a contest I decided to attend at the last minute. That was cutting it close!”
Stiles’ tournament play and qualifying streak earned him a spot in the 2019 NHC Hall of Fame induction class along with the late Bryan Wagner. “The NHC hall of fame is an incredible recognition that will never be lost on me. I am very honored to be included in this group,” said Stiles.
Stiles is a fan and strong supporter of the win-place contest format, and hails the NTRA steadfastly keeping the National Horseplayers Championship a mythical-money tournament.
“With the proliferation of live money contests and decline of win-place format contests, except online, I feared the NTRA would be tempted to go this route with the NHC. I am very glad they have not. I believe that a format like the NHC that requires multiple wagers is more likely to result in the best handicapper/player winning. In my opinion, live money contests frequently turn into one- or two-race all-in moves.” said Stiles. “I also like that the win-place format takes the advantage away from big dollar players. A wealthy contest player will play a $10,000 contest like the BCBC different than an inexperienced rookie, because you have to be willing to lose your entire bankroll in those contests or else you are playing at a significant disadvantage. The NHC win-place mythical money format takes that edge away.”
And so, as one of the great on-track win-place format handicapping tournament players in history, what is the secret to Stiles’ success? What’s the advice Stiles can offer on how to become a better player?
“I can’t say it’s solely pace, speed, class, pedigree, etc. I try to use it all as appropriate,” Stiles said. “I think many contest players give up on their strategy too soon when they get behind early. You have to know when to change course [and when not to.] I may switch to a borderline long shot if down early, but generally I try to stick to my original plays as long as I can. There is nothing worse than getting off your original plays only to miss a run you would have made with them.”
Stiles considers himself a rich man thanks to his many years of tournament play, and fortunate to have the success that he’s had.
“The NHC also has opened numerous doors that I never could have walked through otherwise.” Stiles said. “I had a blast writing for Horseplayer Magazine for several years. I sat next to Lafitte Pincay on Quigley’s Corner this spring. I was co-host of the Sam Houston Race Park pre-race show. None of these opportunities would have presented themselves if not for NHC and contest play.
“The best thing about the NHC is the friendships. Not just my inner circle of closest friends I sit with at the NHC, but all the people I see year round at various events as casual friends. The NHC draws lots of great folks I enjoy being around,” Stiles said. “I hear some complaints about the NHC for various reasons, but for me it has all been worth it.”