Joe Appelbaum (left in photo, with trainer Carlos Morales), a 48-year-old horse owner, breeder and seller based in New York City, cashed a $13,000 cold exacta (Arrogate-California Chrome) on the Breeders’ Cup Classic to win this year’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC). The wager returned $64,000 and earned Appelbaum a first-place prize of $300,000 in the sport’s most popular “live money” handicapping contest. 

On top of his cash windfall, Appelbaum won a second seat to the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping contest, the $2.8 million (estimated) Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship (NHC) presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas, set for Jan. 27-29, 2017, at Treasure Island. As the BCBC champion, Appelbaum is now eligible for the largest prize in handicapping contest history – a $3 million NHC Tour Bonus if he can win NHC 18. 

A Yale graduate, Appelbaum spent seven years as a college football coach before finding enough success with Thoroughbreds to make horses his full-time career. This will be his third NHC appearance.

What did it feel like to win one of the biggest prizes out there for a horseplayer?

“It was thrilling. This was my fifth BCBC and I’ve been on the leaderboard in the past but could never get over the finish line. I was really fortunate and happy to do that.”

Why did you like Arrogate over California Chrome?

“California Chrome has been consistently excellent throughout his career but he’d never run a race as fast as Arrogate did in the Travers. So I thought if Arrogate could reproduce that he should win. And I thought California Chrome would be a much bigger favorite and there would be considerable value with Arrogate. The public backed Arrogate more than I was expecting so I was only looking to get into the top five, which is where the prize structure really ramps up. Just trying to figure out how to get there, the best idea I could come up with was Arrogate over California Chrome. It was hard to imagine anyone else beating them, except maybe Frosted on his best effort.”

What was your bankroll when you placed the $13,000 exacta?

“I think about $14,700. I also played a $1,000 exacta with Effinex and I did monkey around with a few triples to try to enhance the payout. But I left Keen Ice off the third spot in those. You never get everything right.”

When you play in a contest like the BCBC do you think about protecting your bankroll to take something home with you or do you just play to win and not worry about it?

“It all depends on the situation. I had already qualified for the NHC so that wasn’t a concern (the top 15 finishers received NHC berths). There are times when I’m happy to go home with some of my bankroll but in this case there was still an opportunity there. I got 4-1 for my money and with the prize structure it ended up being like 25-1 for my money so I wanted to take a shot.”

Now you get to play for a $3 million bonus at the NHC. Will that change your mindset at all?

“I’m clear-headed enough to know the NHC is incredibly difficult to win. That’s a great, shiny prize but I just want to focus on putting myself in a position to do well and then I’ll worry about the bonus if I’m in it on Sunday. The $3 million obviously makes it that much more exciting but it would be premature to even think about that.”

How did you find the handicapping contest world?

“Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had a group of friends that all went to the track together, since the mid-1980s. We’ve been gambling together at Saratoga, Belmont, Santa Anita, Hollywood, Gulfstream. These are some of my closest friends in life. Over the years I saw some friends do well in the contests – Paul Matties, Dave Gutfreund – and I started playing more and more. I play a little bit online but I really prefer to be live at the venue.”

What have been your biggest thrills in racing?

“As a handicapper, that group of friends hit a Pick Six at Saratoga on Travers Day 2001, when Dr. Kashnikow split horses in the Fourstardave to get up. That paid $109,000 between five guys and by the end of the day we had about 50 people cheering for us in the backyard by the Big Red Spring.

“As an owner, it was when Turbo Compressor won the Grade 1 United Nations. That was a horse we bought as a two-year-old and campaigned him.”

How did you transition from football coach to being in the racing world?

“It occurred more by happenstance than by plan. After we won that Pick Six we claimed a horse, then claimed another one. Then we went to Keeneland and bought a filly there and pinhooked her for a nice profit. After that I started doing a little bit more on the side, then a little bit more, and then it grew to where it needed my full-time attention. About 2006 we founded Off the Hook, which has bred, raced and pinhooked. I would have been happy coaching forever but sometimes life leads you on a winding road.”

There is no way building a full-fledged racing and breeding operation from nothing could have been as easy as you just described it.

“No, it wasn’t. I’ve been really fortunate. We all know how difficult this game can be, whether you’re an owner, a bettor, a trainer. It’s a hard game. We had a lot of beginners’ luck and were fortunate with some early pinhooking success that I was able to stake a company with. But around 2008, 2009, 2010, we had a lot of difficulties. Of course, that was throughout the industry and some areas still haven’t fully recovered. I’m just trying to stick with it, work a little harder, work a little smarter, and try to find some solutions. I’ve had some success but it’s been work every day to get there.

“I’m also lucky to have an incredibly supportive wife and supportive children. Horse racing often takes me away from them because, well, there aren’t too many farms or tracks here in Manhattan. Without their support and the structure they give me at home I wouldn’t have anything.”

What’s a better feeling – winning a BCBC or winning a Grade 1?

“That’s like comparing your children! They’re both great. They’re both extremely competitive and you have to make good decisions but you also have to be extremely fortunate.”