Ramblings of a weekend handicapper's bid to qualify annually for the $3 million National Horseplayer Championship in Las Vegas. Flamed out in 2015, 2016 and 2019 NHCs...and looking to qualify in Feb. 2020, still with an eye toward playable long-shots.
Amid the chaos that is Christmas season, let us not forget the "reason for the season," so a blessed Christmas to those who observe, and may the Light of the Lord fill everyone's house!
Now, for far more frivolous matters, I burned my final vacation day from work today for exciting endeavors, like sitting in the AAA service center (as we speak) to have my wife's car serviced after much procrastination and addressing other priorities.
Nothing says vacation day or "Merry Christmas" like a large bill for maintenance and new tires.
Every day since Thanksgiving Eve, really, has been a whirlwind of nonstop activity -- some good, some bad...mostly mundane compared to competing in handicapping contests.
In catching up on email, however, one message really caught my eye.
Those of us on the NHC Tour (remember to register soon for 2015) are accustomed to the entertaining and information weekly Tour newsletter, but the last correspondence I received had additional meaning.
I saw, but did not really read until this morning, a message sent by Michele Ravencraft, including several attachments pertaining to the actual 2015 National Handicapping Championship.
As I worked through each attachment, participating in the NHC at Treasure Island in Las Vegas (January 23-25) suddenly became far more a reality than it had even seemed back in September when I qualified via the Del Mar Online Handicapping Challenge.
In reality, there's only 1 month until the Championship, so now I'm even more anxious to get out there, compete, enjoy...and win.
I recognize that the odds are somewhat stacked against me, considering the depth and quality of the NHC field, including several dual-qualifiers (e.g. people playing 2 tickets), full-time and professional handicappers, past NHC champions, qualifiers who have competed on TV, and several others who have taken thoroughbred handicapping far more seriously than me for far longer.
Regardless, I anticipate going in guns ablaze and sticking to my long-shot focused strategy.
When my mind has not been cluttered with thoughts of family duties, work, coaching and, well, general clutter, I have contemplated how to prepare for the NHC.
I'm a first-time qualifier, after all.
Seeing in the recent Tour email the list of 7 potential tracks and NHC rules reiterating that I will have to play at least 40 races and upwards of nearly 50 over 3 days, I know that I must remain grounded.
The volume of true "handicapping" -- video analysis, poring over past performances -- could prove overwhelming in my busy daily schedule, but a month from the event, I will not get wrapped up in trying to be perfect in Vegas.
For the time being, I am simply using the time leading up to Christmas and the New Year to relish filling my phone's calendar with every little item on the NHC's recent email.
Flight from New York and NHC registration 31 nights from now.
Daily breakfast and lunch at the Caribbean Foyer of Treasure Island each day of the NHC.
The NHC Awards dinner on Sunday night.
If nothing else, I anticipate a wonderful experience and opportunity, and delving headlong into my preparation for the National Handicapping Championship at the start of 2015.
As his runner-up, I can attest that Steven's victory was no easy feat; and based upon our futility in Del Mar's November tournament (which Steven referenced above; the first 4 horses he picked to win all finished 2nd), it took mettle to beat out thousands of generally anonymous, but highly skilled players for one of two coveted prizes.
See, the two of us -- both New Jersey guys -- captured our first-ever berths to the National Handicapping Championship, the Holy Grail for contest horseplayers, and exchanged emails in the weeks after taking down a virtual tournament, ironically, hosted 3,000 miles away.
Steven was the first to make contact after finding my email, flatteringly, through this blog.
Our conversations thereafter were light and bordered on giddy, ranging from flight plans to handicapping to jokes about whether the travel stipends would leave room enough on Del Mar's dime for us to enjoy a fine steak dinner out in Las Vegas (home to the NHC), or merely a cup of coffee.
Either way, we'd finally get to hang out and revel in our success through Del Mar.
Conflicting work schedules, family matters and personal commitments and some 50-60 miles of distance got in the way of a face-to-face meal or beverage here in New Jersey.
At the least, however, we were excited that we'd be in Vegas from Jan. 22-26, each getting a 1-in-500 shot at winning $1 million in a thoroughbred handicapping championship against real professionals.
In a cruel twist, a message with the subject "please read" arrived in my inbox late Wednesday.
I received an email from Steven's wife, Lucy, that her husband passed away on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on Thanksgiving.
Steven Nico was 53.
The kinship I felt with this man, whom I had never met but shared a unique bond on account of something that may seem child's play to some but is serious business to others, helps to explain the heavy heart with which I share my short brushes with Steven.
Although I had my obvious suspicions about what "scottsdad" represented, from the obituary that Lucy shared it's abundantly clear that Steven's horseplayer pseudonym represented rich commitment as a husband and father to four children (Ilissa, Michael, Joseph and, yes, Scott).
I knew from our correspondence that Steven worked nights, but much as we do with many acquaintances in life sometimes we neglect the details.
According to a story on Long Valley Patch, Steven worked the night shift in order to care for his sons during daytime hours. Anyone who has worked nights (myself included) can attest that it's no easy task.
By this account, Steven's caring extended beyond his own kids and had to be part of the formula, I would suspect, for his job was as a Behavioral Supervisor at the Daytop of New Jersey in Mendham, a residential treatment center for teens in need of "comprehensive substance abuse treatment and education programs"
Seeing that kind of resume is a fresh reminder that I, along with others on the handicapping contest circuit, encountered a true gentleman who gave nothing but a first-place effort in life.