This weekend in Las Vegas, Scott Coles became the youngest National Horseplayers’ Champion in the 20 year history of the event. The 34-year old walked away from the three-day marathon with a check for $800,000 plus a little extra scratch he won by betting on himself to win the tournament in the Treasure Island sportsbook. He will also represent all horseplayers at next year’s Eclipse Awards when he receives a statue for Horseplayer of the Year.
Coles, a futures trader from Illinois, constructed a contrarian game plan for his first NHC.
“There are so many amazing handicappers here and I feel like I had a good strategy, because I knew I wasn’t going to be the best handicapper here,” he said. “There are legends here, people who have been doing it forever. I had to come up with a different game plan.”
That plan involved targeting races he knew others wouldn’t play, picking winners he liked regardless of odds, and staying focused and organized amidst all the distractions.
Coles’ plan worked to perfection. He went runner-runner in the last two races at the Final Table to propel himself to the top of the leaderboard with a final mythical bankroll of $367. Coles beat a field that included 688 entries, second largest in NHC history, and 522 individual players.
Runner-up Jim Meeks was bidding for history of his own, trying to become the first player to ever win the Horse Player World Series and the NHC. He finished $10.40 back of Coles in a Final Table showdown that featured an amazing four lead changes in seven races. This was a remarkable result, exactly the type of action the Final Table was meant to deliver when it was conceived several years ago.
Heading into the eighth race at Golden Gate Fields, the penultimate mandatory race, the top eight were separated by just over $41 with veteran J. Randy Gallo holding a $10.20 lead over Steven Simonovic. Coles, who was sitting fourth at the time $15.80 behind the leader, took an educated swing and placed his wager on 12-1 shot I Love Romance – and then watched as the dark bay filly prevailed by a neck to vault him into first place with one race to go.
“I was pretty confident at that point that the leader was going to keep playing the favorite,” Coles said. “I knew that if you were going to win the tournament, you had to win it the race before [because the last was a short-field off-the-turf race at Santa Anita]. I knew I had to win it right there or else I risked being blocked by the two horses I liked [in the last]. My plan worked out. I needed the 11 to run a big race and she did.”
With a $5.80 advantage heading into that last race, Coles took second-choice Fiery Lady and got to start his celebration early when the mare won by two lengths. It’s possible he’d have won even with a second-place finish because of the place points he’d have received, and that’s what he was rooting for during the race, but he ended up taking the tournament down in style.
Coles only began playing the races about seven years ago and really got serious during American Pharoah’s Triple Crown year in 2015. He began focusing on tournaments the last two and a half years and got dual qualified this summer on back-to-back weekends in online tournaments.
“Navigating through (the NHC) was interesting — there were a lot of nerve-wracking moments,” he admitted. “I was trying not to watch the odds as much and just pick winners and just keep moving up knowing that if you get to the Final Table with how close the pack was, anybody had a chance. All in all, I was just trying to grind out winners rather than worrying about finding 20-1 shots.”
Meeks finished second with a bankroll of $356.60 to take the $250,000 runner-up prize. Matthew Vagvolgyi, a 37-year-old who like Coles was playing in the NHC for the first time, ended up third with a total of $354 to earn $125,000.
“My number one goal is to get back here,” Vagvolgyi said. “No doubt about it. NHC should stand for National Horseplayers Convention because I met so many good people here, really good people. I was rooting on people at my table, they were rooting for me. It’s just a great environment. It’s just a great tournament and a very difficult challenge to get through multiple days to do it.”
Gallo, who made a massive charge on Saturday to sit second heading into Sunday’s semifinals, earned his highest NHC placing ever when he finished fourth ($337.40). Simonovic ($327.20) was fifth followed by Joe Perry ($324.40), 2018 NHC champion Chris Littlemore ($298.40), Robert Gilbert ($297.40), Marshall Gramm ($276.90), and Frank Drew ($268.80).
The 2019 NHC finals awarded cash to the top 67 finishers (the top 10 percent overall) from a total purse of $2,863,000. An additional $50,000 went to the top 20 in today’s Consolation Tournament, which was won by TVG racing analyst Dave Weaver.