By Jennie Rees
Actually, in this case, they’re on. Among the 568 individuals in this year’s 19th NTRA National Horseplayers Championship Presented by Racetrack Television Network, STATS Race Lens™ and Treasure Island Las Vegas are Travis Stone, the voice of Churchill Downs, and Vic Stauffer, track announcer for Oaklawn Park.
After Friday’s first round, Stone was tied for 203rd at $64.40, while Stauffer was tied for 237th at $60 with one seat and 388th at $40.60 with his other.
Stone qualified by finishing ninth at Keeneland’s fall NHC qualifying tournament; Stauffer by finishing third in the Belmont Handicapping Challenge and ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. Stone is a first-time qualifier, while Stauffer is here for a second time. He also qualified last year but did not participate, given it was his first year in a new job at Oaklawn. His new contract allows him to take three days off to participate in the NHC if he qualifies.
This time a year ago, Stone was calling races at Aqueduct, a post he relinquished because of the grind of constantly moving. Now he only calls Churchill’s three meets.
“I don’t play in too many tournaments because I was always working,” he said. “And if I did play, it was more for having fun and seeing everybody. I’ve probably tried to qualify in a legitimate contest 10 or fewer times.”
Asked if being an announcer helps with handicapping, Stone said, “When you call races, you see things. The binoculars are so powerful that you can see little idiosyncrasies that happen in a race. When you apply that to horse-playing, handicapping it definitely helps. You can tell when horses are empty, or when they get in legitimate trouble versus perceived trouble.
“I’ll be honest, over the past few years I’ve come to appreciate jockeys more and more. They play a big role in the outcome of races. When you call races, you really start to notice who puts horses in the right spots, things like that. So it’s helped in all areas, really.”
Stone said he doesn’t go looking for races with horses he’s called when selecting his optional races top play in the NHC. In fact, he said, “As soon as they cross the wire, I don’t remember anything. If you’re in the booth and you say, ‘Hey, who won that race just now?’ sometimes I have a hard time even remembering who won, because it’s all short-term memory stuff. So even if it’s a horse that raced at Churchill in November, I have to go back and watch the replay to remember what happened. Kind of crazy, really.
“The one thing I will say, if the track is playing a certain way, I do remember those things…. I like data, I enjoy doing statistics. So I let that guide me in terms of the optionals and races I think are more likely to produce long shot winners.”
Stauffer, the announcer at Hollywood Park until its 2013 close and who formerly called at Gulfstream Park, agrees that being a race-caller helps your handicapping “100 percent.”
“And, also, handicapping makes me a better race-caller,” he said. “Sometimes if I get like in a little doldrum with my race calls, I’ll grab the Racing Form and handicap nine races and put $5 to win and place on a horse in all nine races. And I’m just more in-tune to it. If things happen that are a little more dramatic, I know. If it’s just any ol’ day and it’s a 60-1 shot, I might not even know that in a race call. But if I’m handicapping, yes.
“And conversely, being a race caller helps with the handicapping. I think a big edge is seeing so many horse races and watching so many replays. One of my big keys to my handicapping philosophy is films — doing film work. Being a race caller not only helps that, because I’ve seen so many races, but I can identify the horses better in my film work and it goes faster. Because one card of film work is like five hours.”
Stauffer said he likes to keep his optionals to the racing he knows best: Southern California, New York and Oaklawn.
“If I can come up with 10 options from Oaklawn, Santa Anita and New York, I won’t even look at the other tracks,” he said. “Because that’s not my stomping grounds. I might be missing a $40 horse at the Fair Grounds. But I know what I think I know, if that makes any sense. I don’t know what I think I know at Tampa.”
When Oaklawn isn’t running, Stauffer says he plays handicapping tournaments and officiates high school basketball and baseball games. “Then I also do something else really cool – I volunteer and officiate games at San Quentin prison, where the inmates play against teams from the real world.”
Stauffer is a really big guy. But he said that doesn’t stop the inmates from getting on his case. “Constantly,” he said cheerfully. “A guy who is a three-time felon, a technical foul is probably not going to affect him all that much.”
Of being in the NHC, Stone said, “This is a great event. One of my favorite parts is the camaraderie and seeing everybody, friends that you make throughout the year in horse racing. It’s as much horseplay as it is catching up, having fun and enjoying the day. Horseplayers are the people who drive this industry, and the game needs to recognize their impact and the role they play, and this is one way to do it.”