HENDERSON, Ky. (Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018) — Timothy “Marc” Stateler returned to his roots to earn his first trip to the racing’s most lucrative and prestigious event for handicapping, the National Horseplayers Championship Friday through Sunday in Las Vegas, thanks to Ellis Park’s Bluegrass Tournament presented by AmWager.
The NHC, in its 19th edition, is expected to have about 700 entries and will offer record prize money projected to top $2.96 million, with $800,000 to the winner.
Stateler, a retired Air Force master sergeant who now works as a civilian training manager at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill., grew up in Owensboro and started going to Ellis Park when he was “17 or 18.” So, now living only 2 1/2 hours away from the racetrack, he jumped at the opportunity to play in Ellis’ first handicapping contest in several years. The Aug. 20 Bluegrass Tournament was a live-money event with a $500 buy-in: $300 as the player’s bankroll and $200 going to prize money. The top four finishers earned berths in the NHC, along with hotel and airfare.
“Gosh, I feel like such a little fish in the pond,” Stateler, a 1973 graduate of Daviess County High School, said of the NHC, which is staged at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino. “A lot of these people are so much horse-smarter than me. I hope I just get a little lucky and get hot at the right time. I’m kind of streaky.”
Stateler entered the last race of the tournament toward the back of the pack with $191.50 in his bankroll. But his decision to go “all-in” with more than $150 to win on 11-1 Pitch Count in Ellis’ finale catapulted him to the top of the leaderboard with a final bankroll of $1,857.80, with players keeping what they earned. Stateler also earned $6,400 in prize money.
He has some mojo going for him, having earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge thanks to a $75 winner in the very last online qualifying tournament the night before the championship races.
“Maybe I’ve paid my dues enough that I’m getting a little luck on my side,” Stateler said. “It’s been quite a year. But I have no grand illusions going out to Vegas. You not only have to be good, you have to be lucky. I was playing an online tournament today and had five second-place horses out of seven races. We all know how that goes when you keep picking the runner-up. But I’m so looking forward to it, so grateful to AmWager and Ellis Park. (Wife) Gina and I are just going to go out and have fun, going to try to soak it all up.”
Stateler considers himself an old-school handicapper, needing only a pen and Daily Racing Form, in contrast to some of today’s high-tech players.
“I cut my teeth at Ellis Park back in the 70s,” he said. “I had an old friend, a groom around the horses all the time. He’d get together with me and showed me some of his angles, then over the years picking up stuff. I feel like I’m one of the old dinosaurs. I’ve kind of wondered if I should get into this whole software thing. I see a lot of guys at tournaments using the modern stuff out there these days. But gosh, I’m just one of these old grinders. Give me a (Daily Racing) Form is enough.”
Jim Goodman, Keeneland’s director of mutuels, simulcasting and tournament administrator, finished second with a final bankroll of $1,411.50. Goodman led the field going into the final leg of the contest by nearly $200 and bet conservatively in the last race despite also placing a solid win bet on Pitch Count.
Also on Ellis Park’s team of NHC qualifiers are Clay Sanders (third with a $1,053.80 bankroll) of Memphis, Tenn., and Richard Grose of Wentzville, Mo., ($977). Grose qualified for the 11th year, including finishing fourth in 2013.
This is the fifth year that Goodman — who oversees Keeneland’s popular handicapping contests — has qualified for the NHC, but the first time he did so at a racetrack. Asked for his NHC bio his favorite handicapping-contest memory, Goodman said: “Probably my first time qualifying in a live-money bankroll contest at a track: this year at Ellis Park. Due to my job duties, and the fact that I can’t play in my own tournaments, most of my play is online.
“It was cool to actually qualify as a venue. I know, having managed tournaments at my track for 12 years, how much it means to the players to win at a track.”
The NHC is a different format than the Ellis tournament. Each player begins with a $144 mythical bankroll and must make a total of $2 win and $2 place bets on 72 races (both mandatory and optional) over the first two days. The top 10 percent advance to Sunday morning’s semifinal, from which the top 10 plus ties comprise the Final Table, with those qualifiers betting seven mandatory races.
Photos below: Ellis Park’s NHC qualifiers, from L-R: winner Marc Stateler, runner-up Jim Goodman, third-place Clay Sanders, fourth-place Richard Grose (Ellis Park photo). The ballroom at Treasure Island during the 2017 NHC (Horsephotos.com/NTRA