LAS VEGAS, Nevada (February 3, 2020) – The 20th edition of the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) in 2019 provided a new milestone in the tournament’s history when Scott Coles toppled a field that had 668 entries and 522 individual players to become the event’s youngest ever winner at age 34. Making his victory even more impressive was the fact that the Illinois native was playing in the NHC for the first time.
Since earning the $800,000 first-place check and Eclipse Award for Horseplayer of the Year, life has been a whirlwind for Coles heading into NHC2020, where he will attempt to become the first in the history of the event to win the title twice.
In the days leading up to the 21st NHC Presented by Racetrack Television Network, Caesars Entertainment and Bally’s, set for February 7-9, Coles shared his thoughts on what life has been like as the reigning Horseplayer of the Year and what he needs to do to make history – again – this week.
Q: How has winning the NHC changed things for you? What has the past year been like as the reigning champion?
Coles: “It’s been an incredible year for a lot of reasons. Being able to get rid of a law school loan debt and student loan debt that had carried over and racked up interest year after year. It was like paying a double mortgage. Having that gone and being able to use my money more proactively is nice. But I mean, after that it’s been all the people I’ve gotten to meet. People that I used to look up to and now they’re in my phone and just being able to talk to people on a daily basis, because I didn’t have anybody growing up that knew much about horses. I had one friend in Vegas, but he’s a professional poker player and doesn’t play (horse racing) regularly. This is something I’ve always done on my own and now to have a network of people to bounce ideas off of and talk to and just the programs keep getting better.
“I’ve gotten to partner with STATS Race Lens this year and working with them has been incredible because their database and the things you can do with it have changed everything for me. Getting to make regular appearances on things like the In the Money podcast with Peter (Fornatale) and Jonathon (Kinchen) has been a dream come true because they’re the ones I’ve listened to for advice for years and years before I ever got to meet them. I got to see so many amazing places and be on so many cool shows – Quigley’s Corner and NBC at the Derby – and things like that. I got to work with ABR (America’s Best Racing) and some of the TVG people. It was incredible all the year-long opportunities that I had. I’m just so grateful for all the cool things that came with it.”
Q: When you won NHC, it was your first time playing in the tournament. How did that impact your mindset or your strategy going in? Was it almost a blessing to not have a preconceived notion of how you ‘should’ approach it?
Coles: “I’m a very competitive person so I don’t know if it was a blessing. I would definitely prefer to have an idea in my head, but I went there early and I think it forced me to be overprepared – not that you can be overprepared – but just making sure I had everything down. I walked through the room the day before. I didn’t know how to use a card at these tournaments. I didn’t know where the lunch buffet was. I didn’t know where I was playing, where I put my seat card thing. There were so many little things that were kind of nerve-racking before the tournament even began. But I knew that there was no way with all the amazing handicappers there that I was going to be the best handicapper in the room. So I was formulating a strategy that I thought, by the numbers, made sense. I’m a very data-driven person, and there are a lot of things that I’d heard people talk about over the years and statistics and things that they do in tournaments that didn’t make any sense to me but that I thought I could exploit from a strategy standpoint. But I knew I had to come with a pretty crazy and special game plan, something a little bit different than most of the people do to put myself in the best spot. Fortunately, it all kind of came together.”
Q: Last year’s final table was very tight with several lead changes. I think you were fourth and then you hit a 12-1 shot that vaulted you to the front. What went into that pick and your strategy in general?
Coles: “I remember just about everything. It was a Golden Gate allowance race and I think I started the Final Table in ninth. I was never in the lead. I led for all of five minutes in the whole tournament. That was after this race. It was I Love Romance, and I knew the guy in first was consistently playing the favorite and the favorite looked tough in that race so there was no way I could pick that horse. We knew we were down to a four-horse field because it had come off the turf, and you knew you were going to have very limited opportunities to make your move in the last race. So I knew it was the time, if you were going to win the tournament it was right there. The second-betting choice, I figured one of the second or third players at least were going to play that horse. Fortunately, they both did. So I was looking for a horse that kind of would be live and still had a good chance. It was her first or second start as a 4-year-old, (trainer) Jonathan Wong, it was an angle that STATS Race Lens says he does well with, but it was kind of a contrarian angle because he does all right claiming to allowance – which is an angle most people will not want to use because it is a terrible class angle. But he had done fine with it and it was the price I needed and the horse I thought had a lot of reason to improve. In a situation like that, you’re dealing with a lot of unknowns, but it was the type of the horse who was still young enough and horses turning from 3 to 4 are horses I like to look at for an improvement angle. The horse just ran the race of her life. It was close and I’ll never forget it, but the work wasn’t done because both people behind me had picked that horse as well. So I still had to pick the winner in the last. Luckily, Mike Smith somehow stuck around for a four-horse race off the turf and gave the horse (Fiery Lady) a good ride in the last won it.”
Q: You work as a futures trader. Is there any part of that skillset that you believe helps you when it comes to handicapping?
Coles: “Oh a ton. I think it’s pretty similar as far as you’re kind of looking at a bunch of pieces of information and trying to make the best decision you can in the moment, and we are constantly back-testing data and looking for new ways to exploit certain paths in the market, which is very similar to a horse race. So that’s what made it for me to transition over to STATS Race Lens because a lot of what we do is very similar in concept. I use ideas from work in horse racing, and I sometimes I use ideas from horse racing in work in terms of how I’m looking at the data and looking at number sets and looking at percentages and odds. It’s taking a very mathematical approach to both and it’s a very good pairing for me.”
Q: You didn’t grow up in the horse racing industry. What was it about this sport that ultimately drew you in and what can racing do to lure more new blood, so to speak, into the sport?
Coles: “I learned how to bet, honestly, I think when there was a Greyhound track in Kenosha, Wisc. that used to be open that my family lived close by. So we used to go up there and have some fun on a Friday or Saturday once in a while and I learned how to read a racing form and place simple bets. My dad did know that much, he wasn’t a serious handicapper but he knew how to do those things. So he was able to teach me all that. I would look at the serious people who looked like they were making the most money and I would be like ‘There has to be more to this’. So slowly, I would kind of study things and we would always watch the big days, the Triple Crown races. But if you didn’t have the special horse-racing package – especially back then – you didn’t get to see much else. And it wasn’t legal in Illinois, the online ADWs. I kind of really turned it up once that became legal, I think it was 2013 right before Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes. I think I watched TVG at the time and TVG all of the sudden was legal for Illinois players, so I don’t think I was seen the rest of the weekend. I got right to betting and learning a lot of things the hard way. The American Pharoah Triple Crown is where my love for the sport kind of took off. I just love that horse so much. I watched him as a 2-year-old and every step of the way as a 3-year-old. It was so crazy and I still get goosebumps watching the highlight reel of that horse, and I wish we would have gotten to see more of him after that. But that’s what kind of drew me in. I love puzzles and I love handicapping and in a way, it doesn’t really feel like work to me. It just feels like solving puzzles. It’s very comparable to everything I’ve done in my whole life.
“That kind of leads me into the next segment. I think getting the word out as to how similar (handicapping) is to the daily fantasy world and the poker world and players like that who are doing similar things would help (bring in new people). Just finding ways to make data more accessible and not completely insane with the prices for what people need to do the work. There are some companies that are doing better. I think STATS Race Lens is pretty affordable and there are usually promo codes available. Things like TimeformUS you can get a decent idea. Anyone who provides data and allows people to see it or do promos and give people free stuff for the weekend to try it out. Things like that are great to get people involved. Things like that and more videos and more reach. I think people are just intimidated, kind of like when you walk by a craps table and see a million things going on. But then, once you learn the game, you kind of get hooked pretty easily and see that it’s just amazing and there are so many sides to it that are really cool. The horses are just amazing animals and there is just a lot of cool stuff. I think certain people have a jaded view of racing. They think it’s people down to their last dollar and being in a real grimy place. They don’t know that horse tournaments and things like the NHC Tour are top-class events all the way and have a lot of really good people who are so welcoming to newcomers. We just need to get the word out that tournaments are a great option.”
Q: No one has won the NHC twice. What is it about the tournament that makes it so challenging to not just win once, but have repeated success in?
Coles: “I guess there is a reason no one has done it twice. There have been 20 different champions in 20 years, and I don’t even think anyone has crossed over and won the BCBC (Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge) and the NHC. Part of it I think is just the quality of the field. There are so many really good handicappers and there are so many different ways to get to the winner of a horse race. I hate to say you need to get lucky, but at times you do need racing luck. You have to be winning photos. You have to be getting a few high-priced horses up at the right time, just a little bit of racing luck. You also have to be good for three straight days, which is hard to do with so many great players coming at you. A lot of things have to go right. But I look forward to the challenge. I hope that I’m back for enough years to at some point have a legit shot at being the first person to win it twice. It’s just an incredibly tough tournament. Looking back at how many things had to go right for me last year, I’m so excited to have the opportunity, but obviously the odds of anybody winning at any given year are not exactly high.”