- by Jay Jones
The 10th annual Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship will be held in January, 2009, in Las Vegas, and carries with it a $500,000 first prize, and an Eclipse Award as Handicapper of the Year to the winner.
Qualification tournaments are held throughout the year for this most prestigious of horseracing handicapping championships, but how difficult is it to qualify for the NHC? According to DRF, approximately 100,000 people attempt to qualify each year for one of 278 slots in the contest, so the odds are less than three in 1000.
Remarkably, Trey Stiles will be competing in his seventh consecutive NHC in January. Stiles (who qualified twice this year for good measure), is one of two people on the planet to have earned this distinction, Paul Shurman being the other. Steven Walker holds the record of eight total trips to the NHC, but not consecutively.
Stiles, who is an attorney in Houston in real life, got the racing bug at age 15 when he and a friend snuck into Delta Downs to watch the Quarter Horses. He played his first handicapping contest in 2001 and began his record-setting streak with a win at a contest at Retama Park in San Antonio in 2002. Quickly hooked by the camaraderie among the players and exhilaration of contest play, he’s never looked back. He travels to five or six contests per year, on average, depending upon his qualification status, and also plays as many online contests as possible.
His closest call to not qualifying during the streak was in 2006 when he qualified on his last attempt of the year at the Fair Grounds in December. “I was 100% convinced I would not make it that year”, he says.
A self-taught handicapper, Stiles say he is “an old fashioned Racing Form guy” which is the cornerstone of his handicapping. He watches a lot of race replays and pays special attention to sire statistics (mud, turf, first time starters, etc.) from various sources. “Lone speed” is one of his favorite angles and helped him land on Da’Tara in the 2008 Belmont (gr. I), for example.
His advice to a beginner contest player: “Don’t be afraid to come in last. If you are playing correctly, you will come in last more than first, but will finish first more than others. When you do finish poorly, don’t be frustrated and keep at it. This is normal.
“I also tell daily horseplayers just to try it. It is much more fun to win a $7,500 contest than to prevail on a regular wager of equal value. Contests are more fun and frequently more profitable than trying to beat the track’s regular percentage take.”
Stiles hasn’t yet had the breakthrough performance he’s looking for in the NHC—his highest final ranking was 33rd in his first trip. Another year he was in the top 10 after the first day of the two-day contest, but “tanked” on the second day. Rest assured, he won’t be playing to place or show in Las Vegas.
Says Stiles, “If I do not win a contest, I don’t care where I finish. You have to play with this mentality to succeed in contest play”.
Come late January, don’t be surprised if you see a picture of Trey Stiles wearing a big grin and holding a check the size of a surfboard.