NHC Q&A: Joe Johnson

Name: Dr. Joseph “Joe” Johnson IV

Hometown: San Antonio, Texas 

With wins in major qualifiers each of the last two weekends, Dr. Johnson has ridden his most recent hot streak to second place on the NHC Tour. He’s earned points in four different contests and has already secured the maximum two berths to the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping contest – the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas, set for Jan. 27-29, 2017, at Treasure Island. 

The 58-year-old gastroenterologist graduated from Yale University, where he met his wife and, as he says, “became a Texan by marriage.” After medical school in Dallas he set up a private practice in San Antonio, where he’s been for more than 30 years. 

You were a dual-qualifier for NHC 17 earlier this year but had to withdraw before traveling to Las Vegas. What happened?

“I couldn’t go because I got sick. I’m a gastroenterologist and should be the last one to get colon cancer but that’s what happened. I got real sick just around Christmas and it’s going to work out but I had to go through some stuff. I had chemotherapy and radiation going on during the time the NHC was taking place so unfortunately I had to miss it. There was one upside, though, which was that it forced me to take some time off of work so I had more time to devote to horseracing! It’s actually a great distraction. I’m having surgery in about a week and a half and there’ll be more stuff but it’s all going to be over with by the time the NHC comes around again in January. I’m expected to be all good.”

How did you earn your recent NHC 18 berths?

“I’ve had a couple of successes lately. I won some money on HorseTourneys.com – $3,700 and $1,700 – and two weeks ago qualified for NHC and I was happy to do that. I hardly ever play during the week but I played in some of these feeder contests on HorseTourneys and won three out of three. Then I got an e-mail about the BetAmerica contests and really didn’t know much about them but I signed up for that and won on Sunday. So I had back to back qualifications and thought I was really hot but then my son, who is a horse racing fanatic, sent me a congratulatory text with a link to a quote from Latrell Sprewell: ‘Success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.’ So he was reminding me how quickly you can go cold.”

What do you attribute your run of success to?

“There’s a certain amount of gamesmanship and I’m amazed at how many people just don’t put themselves in a position to win at the end. It’s frustrating and disappointing if you’re ahead at the end and someone picks a capper to win it but you also have to do that and be willing to adjust. Sometimes you see people’s picks and you think, why did they do that and not even give themselves a chance?

“I’ve learned to tailor my picks and degree of risk based on the contest. If I’m in a feeder with 20 people I can be fairly conservative except for just a few races. If I’m in one of these free contests with 2,500 people then obviously I have to go out on a limb. The one I won two weeks ago was a 20-race, all-optional contest – pick 10 from 20 – and for that you figure you’re going to have to find reasons to try longer shots and lower your thresholds for picking horses like that.

“I believe the right way is a hybrid approach. You can’t go for all longshots. I don’t hesitate to pick a favorite if I don’t think there’s another horse. I won’t try to force something impossible. So I’ve learned to not go crazy either. I gauge how hard to push it based on the size of the tournament.”

Any particular horses or plays you remember that helped you to win?

“In the BetAmerica contest I had a capper in Race 6 at Santa Anita (Little Curlin at 47-1). That one was the key and put me way ahead.”

Now that you’re high on the NHC Tour leaderboard will you continue to compete even though you can’t earn any more NHC entries?

“Definitely. I enjoy competing and I’m going to keep playing and see if I can stay near the top of the Tour. When we get to Vegas you get to compete against the other top finishers and there’s a nice bonus to play for (a $25,000 prize for the highest finisher at NHC 18 from among the top 40 on the NHC Tour). And if you’re lucky enough to win the Tour there’s that other big bonus (a $1 million bonus if the NHC Tour winner also wins NHC 18), which is a longshot, obviously, but still something you think about. I’m right there and I’m in it so I’ll continue to play aggressively and try to get those points. If I want to be in position to win some of the halfway money ($10,000 bonuses to each of the top five on the NHC Tour leaderboard as of July 31) I’ll have to branch out and play in a few of the live on-site contests along the way.”

How were you first introduced to horseracing?

“I lived in Maryland as a kid and my father wasn’t a big racetracker but he enjoyed going to Bowie now and then. And my cousin was a priest who enjoyed horses tremendously and he affected me too.

“I moved to Texas about 25 years ago and started my practice. They brought racing to Texas and Bandera Downs [in 1990]. One time we took our whole office out to Bandera and had a big day out there. That was a great little venue and it’s a shame it’s gone. My son [Joe Johnson V] was six or seven at the time and picked eight winners in a row just based on names alone. We had a huge crowd gathering around us and that’s when we both became hooked. And then Retama Park opened eventually and we enjoyed going out to the track and that just led us to contests. We can’t bet online in Texas but we can play the contests.”