NHC Q&A: Gary Russell

Gary Russell of Columbus, Ohio, is a newcomer to the NHC Tour but plays with the smarts of a contest veteran. The wise-beyond-his-years savvy can be traced, in part, to the help of a willing mentor in NHC regular Mike Elsass, also from Ohio. The 35-year-old senior financial analyst for a major retail company, who just joined the NHC Tour earlier this month, teamed with the 69-year-old abstract painter, a six-time NHC finalist, to win Saturday’s inaugural NHC Qualifier at Indiana Grand Racing & Casino. It was Russell’s first attempt in an on-track NHC qualifier and already he’s punched a ticket to Sin City for the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping tournament, the $2.8 million (estimated) Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas, Jan. 27-29, 2017, at Treasure Island.

What made you want to play in the Indiana Grand contest?

“Mike is a veteran on the contest circuit and we grew up in the same small town, Botkins, Ohio. We got to know each other through his nephew, who is one of my best friends. I really only got started a few weeks ago. Mike had qualified for the Wynn tournament and couldn’t go because of a family reunion so he asked if I’d sit in. That didn’t go so well but that was when I first got my NHC Tour number. We decided to play two entries together at Indiana Grand and we split the cost. Mike doesn’t like taking a lot of credit but we really are a team. We talked strategy in the morning and compared who we liked but I was the one who went over there.”

How did you manage to win? Can you describe the day?

“So many things that could have gone wrong for us went right instead. For instance, one of my early picks was a 20-1 shot at Del Mar, Souper Knight, and that one hit and put us in the lead. Right after that we had a 6-1 shot at Saratoga so we were feeling pretty good. Then we went cold for a while but the other ticket started picking up. We had a 12-1 at Del Mar, a 19-1 to place at Saratoga and a couple winners at Indiana Grand.

“Then we get to Race 7 at Del Mar and I go put the pick in, come back, start counting my picks, and I thought I still had one left but it turned out I’d just used my last one. Wouldn’t you know it, the 5-horse, Coldspell, came across at 10-1, and that put our other entry on top. After that the races kind of chalked out and we won. It just turned out feeling like it was my day.”

You hit pretty much every decent price at Del Mar that afternoon. How’d you come up with Zapperkat?

“We went into the contest thinking we didn’t want to play many favorites. That was a maiden race and he was a first-time starter, 12-1 on the morning line. I liked the trainer (Richard Baltas) and the trainer-jockey combination (Baltas and Norberto Arroyo Jr.). Both Mike and I liked him and we always feel better when we can pick a horse that both of us like.”

How did you react when you realized you were going to win the contest?

“I’m not one to yell and scream at the track – that doesn’t do you any good – but I definitely felt good on the inside. I think after being so quiet all day when I told my waitress I thought I’d won she didn’t even believe me.

“I got home and e-mailed my parents the pictures and the press release from Indiana Grand. My mother, I love her to death but she’s pretty straight-laced when it comes to gambling. Her e-mail back said, ‘Wow, that’s really neat, be sure to bring the trophy home.’ I don’t think anybody could have predicted that my mom would find pride in my gambling but here we are.”

What was it like playing in your first NHC qualifier at a racetrack?

“I didn’t even realize beforehand that this was their first NHC qualifier at Indiana Grand but that makes the win even more special. I can’t say enough about how great Indiana Grand was. It’s a beautiful facility, the buffet they offered was probably the best meal I’ve had all year, and their people were all so courteous and customer service-minded. The Indiana Derby should be bumped up to a Grade 1 just on the basis of how great their staff is!”

What tools do you use to handicap?

“I learned on Daily Racing Form but I also use Brisnet’s Ultimate Race Summaries, which are very good, and in the last two or three years I really like the product TimeformUS puts out. I never thought I could get away from a paper Form but now that I handicap on my laptop I’m not sure I could use anything else. After looking at all that we just end up going with what our guts tell us.”

How did you first get interested in horseracing?

“My first job out of college I was living in Lebanon, Ohio, and it became a Thursday night tradition for me and a couple of buddies to go up to Lebanon Raceway. It was just simulcast but another time we got the bright idea to drive the 45 minutes to River Downs. I started going there a few times a year but as I got older I realized that most of the things people do on weekends in their early 20s weren’t near as much fun as they used to be. I had to find something else to do with my time and I drove past Scioto Downs and was like, that’s it. Then it became a twice-a-month hobby, then once per week.

“Another person who helped get me started was an accounting professor at Wright State, Dr. John Talbott. He grew up in Kentucky so a lot of our lessons in accounting class centered around bourbon and horseracing. One of my first trips to the track was when he took a case-study team that I was on to beautiful Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio, and he helped me learn to read the Form.”

What do you think NHC 18 in Las Vegas will be like? Will you do anything to prepare between now and January?

“I know there are a lot better handicappers out there than me but I feel good about my game. The format will be the same as what we had at Indiana Grand so I’m hoping to employ some of the same strategy I used there. It’ll be a big-time challenge – 600 entries, three days, high stress. Hopefully I just go out there and have fun, enjoy the camaraderie with the other players, and even if I fall flat on my face and have no money to show for it I’ll always have the memory and the knowledge that I was the first champion at Indiana Grand and nobody can take that away from me.”