By Jennie Rees
LAS VEGAS, Nevada (February 7, 2020) – No one came farther to the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) Presented by Racetrack Television Network, Caesars Entertainment and Bally’s Las Vegas than Trish Dunell of Auckland, New Zealand. The thoroughbred owner-breeder qualified for the 2020 NHC by winning the top prize in a series handicapping competitions in her country.
“I was lucky enough to win through a crazy bet,” she said. “We were betting on harness racing as well in New Zealand, and the very last race of the whole competition was a trotting race. My son had seen this horse that he liked a lot. I put basically everything I had on this horse to place, which you would call show, because it finished third and paid $11.90 — and I had $2,000 on it. So we jumped to the lead by $800.”
Not only has Dunell had to overcome jet lag — Friday morning in Las Vegas was already Saturday in New Zealand — she’s having to learn different racing terminology and style of contest. While the American “place” bet requires a horse to finish in the top two, in New Zealand a place bet is the top three. Dunell also was playing in live-money competitions, while the NHC is based on a mythical $2 win and place wager.
There also is no dirt racing in New Zealand, even for harness racing, with the closest being a track made out of crushed oyster shells, she said.
“It’s really scary,” she said cheerfully of facing almost 600 of the best handicappers in the world. “I’m at a huge disadvantage, but that’s fine. I know nothing about dirt racing. We don’t have that, and apparently most of the racing here is dirt racing. I’ve just got to liken the dirt racing to all-weather racing (in Singapore)… What’s so scary for me is I can’t understand the performance lines.”
While New Zealand doesn’t yet have an all-weather track (one is being built), she’s familiar with such surfaces from Singapore. One of Dunell’s top horses to breed and race is 2014 Emirates Singapore Derby winner and Singapore champion Spalato.
Dunell views just earning the trip to the NHC as being a winner. Her goal, she said, “I think just having fun and not being too stressed. At the moment, I’m a little bit stressed. Making sure I don’t miss a race is probably my biggest goal. It’s very difficult. I don’t have access to what a lot of these people already know in their minds. I’m just going to have to have fun.”
Jockey agent Bredar changing mindset for this NHC
As a topnotch jockey agent and former racing secretary at some of the biggest tracks in the country, Doug Bredar is adept at handicapping horse races. After all, it’s his job to put Florent Geroux on as many winners possible this winter at the Fair Grounds and elsewhere for stakes races.
But the Louisville-based Bredar says that extensive experience analyzing horses and races doesn’t necessarily bring an advantage at the NHC, which runs Friday through Sunday.
“There are times where I see something that maybe the general public or a horseplayer doesn’t see, but it can be very subtle, and it might help you and might not,” Bredar said. “Just kind of streaks in the game. Sometimes when a certain rider isn’t riding as well as in the past. Or you know a trainer that never wins turf races, and there’s a race coming up where they have the favorite. But just as often as you see something, it might disappear just as quickly.
“I know that a guy who plays the races on a daily basis, obviously positively, has an advantage over me. Because I’m really trying to focus on the Fair Grounds. I certainly watch Gulfstream and Oaklawn, and if my rider rides somewhere else. But the horseplayer who is playing multiple racetracks on a daily basis has a huge advantage over me.”
Bredar finished third at Keeneland’s $400 Spring Challenge to qualify for the NHC, in which he’s played on three prior occasions. He acknowledges live-money tournaments play to his strengths more than the NHC’s mythical $2 win and place wagers. His best NHC finish was last year, when he came in 191st.
“This is really out of my element,” he said. “If you look at my record in the past, it’s atrocious. I’ve made attempts at trying to do things I know I’m not capable of doing, which is picking 20-1 ‘cappers.’ No, I’ll go into this NHC with a completely different mindset. I am going to try to pick winners— if I get laughed at by picking prices that are a little lower than the professional horseplayers who qualify for this thing do. I don’t want to finish in the back of the pack again, (instead) where I can kind of be in the hunt to where if I do have to start picking long shots at least I’ve got a shot to make some ground up, instead of being bottom 10 percent. After Day One, if you’re not in the hunt, you must pick long shots. So it’s very challenging.
“You can’t look at the leader board, because they’ll be hitting bombers left and right. You just have to accept that’s how they play. I don’t play that way…. I have a better skill set and mentality to be able to crush a race (in a live-money competition) than to be able to find some obscure price horse that in a million years I might have included it in some sort of vertical or horizontal (multiple-horse) wager. But it wouldn’t be the focus of my bet. I can survive in these contests, I just haven’t really thrived.”
One thing that has taken a potential advantage away from Bredar in past NHC competitions is that, under contest rules, he cannot play any race in which Geroux rides. If Geroux, one of the country’s top riders, is in one of the contest’s mandatory races, NHC officials assign Bredar a different race (the same is true with owners and trainers). He also cannot use such a race as an optional, negating much of his insight into Fair Grounds racing.
But Bredar notes that Geroux rides only two races at the Fair Grounds on Friday, neither being a contest mandatory, and rides Saturday at Delta Downs, which is not one of the contest’s tracks.
Of course, he still has his day job of trying to put Geroux on the best horses he can.
“My phone will start pinging at 3 in the morning, because that’s when it starts going off in the East Coast or Central,” he said. “There are many days when entries haven’t been drawn yet, and I’m looking at my condition book more than the third at Aqueduct or the second at Laurel.”
All the same, Bredar loves the NHC.
“It’s a tremendous skill set,” Bredar said. “You have to be right on the mandatories, and you have to pick the right optional races. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very intense from the time the first race is run until the last race. You’ve got to be on your toes and must be able to spot any opportunity possible. Then the first day is over — and you’ve got to do it all together again. I go right back to the hotel and start studying again.
“But winning a tournament or being in the hunt is an incredible rush. It’s more fun than you could ever imagine.”
Last year’s Tour Rookie of the Year back at NHC
Joe Rosen, who owns pieces of horses through the Little Red Feather and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners syndicates, came into last year’s NHC as the 2018 NHC Tour Rookie of the Year.
“It was nerve-wracking when I got to the NHC,” Rosen said. “It was a lot of fun competing all last year. The first tournament I did was a cash tournament on a day when they also had a free tournament for the NHC. I’d never played a tournament before in my life, and I actually won the cash tournament and finished 20th in the NHC. I said, ‘This is fun. I should do this more often’ and I started playing more tournaments to get here.
“I didn’t even know about the total points as to Rookie of the Year until one day I went on the site and said, “Wait, there’s a Rookie of the Year standings.’ One of my best friends (Eric Adler) was leading, and we didn’t even know we were competing. That led to a major competition between us, where I think I ended up with 26,000 points and he ended up with 22,000. I think his total would have won any other year, except we just went at it. Probably went overboard but we both had a great time and we both qualified to be here last year. He’s taking off this year because he has a newborn. He’ll be back next year hopefully. We decided we’d be back here as many times as we can.”
Rosen was motivated to get into tournament play because Little Red Feather offered a $1 million bonus to its partner who finished with the most points on the NHC Tour and then went on to win the championship competition.
“So I had incentive,” he said. “I fell in love with waking up on a Saturday or Sunday morning, going at the racing forms, looking on Equibase and everything else and choosing 12 races. Especially for the Pick and Prays (where all selections are made in advance), I can put it in, walk away and come back four hours later and see how I did, because you don’t change your picks. The live competitions obviously take more time and effort.
“For the person on the street, it’s just a lot of fun. You’re going against people across the country who have the same interests as you who are yelling and screaming as the horses are coming to the finish line. It’s great to be around people who have the same passion as I do. I enjoyed it as an owner, and I make myself known at the track when my horses are running by the way I yell and scream. And I guess I made myself really well-known last year, based on the videos that got put on Twitter, as to yelling and screaming when my (contest) horses are on the TV.”
Defending NHC champion Scott Coles discussing trying to become the first two-time winner, for which he’ll have two entries after gaining a second seat by finishing 11th in Thursday’s Last Chance/First Chance contest at Bally’s Las Vegas.
Kevin Kerstein, Churchill Downs’ 30-year-old communications manager, talks about his preparation for and expectations for the NHC shortly before Friday’s play begins.
Last year’s NHC Rookie of the Year Joe Rosen talks about his return to NHC.
Trish Dunnel talks about her NHC experience and crash course in American racing.
Draft Kings is the exclusive sponsor of the NHC Final Table. Official Partners of the 2020 NHC include STATS Race Lens, TVG, Daily Racing Form, Insurance Office of America (IOA), and NYRA Bets.