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All In for the Win: Getting to Know the BCBC Boys

Del Mar

By Ren Hakim Carothers

A field waits for the latch to spring. Gazing forward, eyes set on an unwritten future, some stiffen their stance, statuesque, willing their nerves to settle. Others shift weight from foot-to-foot in anticipation. Muscles tense. Breath catches. With a fortune on the line, pulses are sent racing long before the barriers open. Countless hours of preparation will be reduced to minutes and the moment of truth is nearly at hand.

Contrary to what the official schedule says, a Breeders’ Cup marathon is being contested, and it spans both days: the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. It’s a “real money” battle royal, where players buy-in for $10,000, $2,500 of which is placed into the prize pool, leaving a $7,500 bankroll. That estimated pot, based on 400 players entering, is $1,000,000, and prizes are paid out to the top 15 players, with first place worth $300,000.

However, there are 11 individuals who have won berth into this year’s tournament, one of them on two occasions, and they’re alive for bonuses ranging from $500,000 to $3,000,000! For the sake of fun alliteration, we’ll refer to them as the “BCBC Bonus Boys,” and it would not be hyperbolic to say their personalities and stories are just as compelling and worthy of being told as those of the connections of the equine athletes on which they’re wagering.

In fact, they may be even more relatable to mainstream viewers, who only watch racing on the big days. Playing sports like baseball or football is common place growing up. Their popularity makes sense, as people understand these games, their rules, and identify. How many people own horses in our modern society or can afford them? How many horse owners understand horse racing?

We’ve long marketed our sport as that of kings. While this packaging does reflect the money that goes into breeding, training, and running these majestic athletes, heightening the stakes and romanticizing the idea of triumph, it can also convey exclusivity. It’s no wonder why horses with blue collar backstories competing at elite levels have captured the imagination of those outside our industry on more than one occasion. David, meet Goliath.

It’s time that mainstream audiences realized you need not be an owner of a horse, a trainer, or jockey to delight in the spoils of victory. Racing is not merely a spectator sport. It’s interactive. You simply need a ticket -a bet slip- to go along for the ride, and the fact that it’s not just the horses competing for seven figures this weekend puts an exclamation mark on that point.

Again, the BCBC Bonus Boys are fascinating. Take Stephen Thompson, who is known as the “Undertaker” on the betting circuit, as an example. He is from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he’s the owner and licensed director of Thompson Funeral Home, Inc, which was started by his great-grandfather in 1890. He fell in love with racing at the tender age of ten, going to the races with his family, and has won entry into the BCBC seven of the last eight years. Stephen says you get so pumped up in these tournaments, but he has to stay “flatlined” to stay focused, and that, should he win, the first check he’s writing is for $100,000 to benefit retired racehorses. “Without them, we have nothing!”

There are two entrants looking to pull off a BC/BCBC double. David Lanzman was hooked on racing after he and a couple of friends snuck under the fence at Hollywood Park as teenagers, having a security guard place what would be winning bets for them. He realized you could make life-changing scores playing the ponies when, with his $400 rent due and only $80 in pocket, bold betting saved the day. Years later, he bred 2009 Wood Memorial winner, and morning-line favorite of the Kentucky Derby, I Want Revenge, and won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, as well as an Eclipse Award, with Squirtle Squirt.

Faron McCubbins, who works in the concrete construction industry, got into racing about twelve years ago thanks to friend Wayne Spalding. He didn’t do much betting in the beginning, other than on Wayne’s horses or a simple wager on the #7 in the 7th race. Fast forward to this year, and Faron has won TWO berths into the BCBC, each with an opportunity to score a $1,000,000 bonus, and he is also hoping to win as an owner. Bullards Alley, whom he co-owns with Wayne, upset the G1 Pattison Canadian International by 10-3/4 lengths at 42-1, and will now take on some of the world’s best grass horses in the BC Turf. “We decided to supplement him to the Breeders’ Cup Turf so that he could have a chance to prove to everyone that his last race wasn’t a fluke and, at the same time, take us on a once in a lifetime journey. Along the way, we have always kept the horse’s best interest first and foremost.”

Originally from Bucharest, Romania, Florin Sima has owned and operated an auto repair shop in Burbank, California, for over twenty years. A friend took Florin to Santa Anita back in the early 80’s. He placed an exacta bet which hit and he’s been playing ever since. He enters several tournaments year-round, trying to qualify for the BCBC and Vegas. The leaderboard is a huge factor as to how he wagers during these contests and he’s not afraid to go all in if he feels it in his gut and he’s in the top 10. He considers himself an “old man from the old country”, who made something out of nothing with his own two hands and says, “Living my life confident and consistent has made me who I am today. This holds true in playing the horses, as well.”

The 70-years-young Ali Aksoy is originally from Istanbul, Turkey, but now resides in Toronto, Canada, where he qualified for the BCBC. He got into racing back when he was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working toward his MBA, and a buddy had him hop in the car to go to The Meadows harness track. He knew he was “really OK” at this handicapping thing when, in 2011, he connected on five Pick Six tickets in just four or five weeks, picking up some serious cash. He looks for hidden class, true form, and trip prediction. This will be Ali’s first showing at the BCBC, and preparation started three months out. He thinks tournaments like this help erase the view that playing horses is not a serious endeavor, and that this event adds another human dimension to the Breeders’ Cup.

Rob Talstra, a surfer who hails from Huntington Beach, California, and is managing partner of a racing stable, agrees about the impact tournaments could have on mainstream audiences, bringing in younger players much like the poker boom. He got into horse racing at 12-years-old in 1977 when his sisters happened to flip the channel to a race which was being broadcast – the Flamingo Stakes. He went against the opinion of the announcers and his siblings, who were all adamant that a horse named Seattle Slew was going to win, and chose Coined Silver instead. Of course, Slew won by open lengths, and Rob, being very competitive, was mad that he was wrong. “I thought to myself, how did the announcers know? And I wanted to know how they knew. So, I followed Seattle Slew the next time he raced and I ended up seeing the first undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. I was hooked.” Hooked, indeed. Ten years ago, he missed a $2.4M P6 by a nose bob at Del Mar. He got a nice payout for five-of-six, and it was then he knew he could win money at this game.

For Eric Moomey, he knew he had the knack when, in 2013, he won three tournaments back-to-back, providing further evidence that handicapping is a matter of skill, not merely luck. He’s a numbers guy, boiling everything down to probabilities and numbers. He knows very little about the horses or their connections. He focuses on long-term probabilities and statistical trends, which are not obvious. He will spend long hours studying long-term trends, yet no more than 20-30 minutes to prepare for an individual contest. Eric is originally from Michigan, but is currently serving in New Mexico as part of the United States Air Force. Bravery is, undoubtedly, part of his everyday life, and a component to how he plays. He’s willing to go all in whenever it suits his style, adding, “Several players are willing to all in on the last race. Few are willing to risk it all in the first race of a multi-day contest.”

While Eric’s preparation doesn’t start until the day-of, it’s a year-round task for San Diego native Kevin McFarland, who owns the highest bankroll total in the history of the BCBC at $151k. He was introduced to racing by his grandparents, who were in the grocery store business with John and Betty Mabee. John was the president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club at the time, and Kevin would follow and bet on all of their Golden Eagle Farms horses, which he says could be considered his first betting angle. He realized he could survive the tournament gauntlet from his first attempt in 1998. He and childhood friends Nisan Gabbay and Christian Hellmers, that latter of whom he will be competing against, partnered to take on a field of 400 other players at Santa Anita and came out victorious after going all in with $1,400 left in the bankroll going into the second to last race.

Kevin took this year’s Kentucky Derby Betting Championship on his birthday, taking home a giant check (literally, one of those giant, billboard checks) for over $282k, and had what seemed liked half of the Derby’s red carpet show up to celebrate that night. He has played in the BCBC every year since its debut and has finished in the top 10 three times, with his best placing being runner-up in 2013. Should he win this year’s edition, besides the $1M bonus, is the satisfaction of winning on his “home turf” and a portion of his winnings will go to charities for retired horses and disabled jockeys. He thinks the evolution of these events has come a long way, but has a long way to go. Handicappers need to be marketed better, with the KDBC becoming part of the Derby telecast, and the bonus should be raised from $1M to $5M – or even $10M, which could be raised by sponsorships. He envisions winners of major tournaments throughout the year, played over events that support volume and prevent odds manipulation, such as the Derby, Belmont, Pegasus, and BCBC (with the Travers being the one missing), coming together at a final table at the BCBC, with coverage throughout the Breeders’ Cup broadcast.

Experience, Kevin says, is his greatest advantage, and that nobody, except for maybe Christian Hellmers, has played and been in position to win big cash tournaments more times over the past 20 years. Again, these two were childhood buds, with Christian also spending his youth in Del Mar. He finished second in the BCBC in 2011 and 2012, closing out with bankrolls of $120k and $150k, respectively. If he gets to be the bride this year, he, too, plans to donate a portion to horse aftercare. Additionally, he wants to treat his mom and dog, shoot some short films to raise awareness for “higher vibes”, travel the world, and create some “incredible” art to share at festival. The tournament experience is something he also thinks should be shared, illustrating the “badassery” and drama that comes from watching people win life-altering scores and suffer heartbreaking finishes, and says the industry will only survive long term if it addresses takeout issues to be competitive with other forms of gambling.

Some of you may recognize the enigmatic Hellmers from the Esquire show Horseplayers, and know that he has what could be described as a sagacious approach to all things in life, including handicapping. He calls himself “vegan-ish”, is into the holistic arts, and, as far as entertainment experiences go, loves Burning Man, an event which takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, attracting tens of thousands dedicated to “art, self-expression, and self-reliance”. Living much of his life in independence is what Christian feels has helped him master his strengths and weaknesses, to set healthy boundaries for his betting practices. “I ‘do me’ with love, others with empathy, and honor a higher power…I feel that this journey in betting is just a metaphor for every other part of my life. I must strive to be bold, choosey, decisive, expressed, disciplined, flexible, passionate, diligent, mindful, and grateful.”

Another contestant you may recognize, at least by voice, is track announcer Vic Stauffer, who has called races across the country, from Gulfstream Park to Hollywood Park, with Oaklawn Park the latest addition to his impressive résumé. Barbaro, California Chrome, Zenyatta…these are just some of the names that have crossed his lips and onto the mic over the years. Now, he’s the one in the race, and it’s a G1 competition. This is the second time Vic has entered the BCBC gate. Last year, he was sitting in second place with only the Classic to go. He bet his entire $50k bankroll on the race, the majority on California Chrome, but as we all know, it was Arrogate by a half-length in the end, with the rest of the field trailing double-digit lengths behind. Thankfully, Vic had a $500 “saver” trifecta which connected for $74, leaving him with $37k.

Vic says Thoro-Graph performance figures have made the literal difference between winning and losing. He started preparing for the tournament after the horses completed their preps, watching the last three starts from gate-to-wire, including head-ons, of each competitor. On game day, the leaderboard means very little to Vic, until there are three races left. For those final three, it means everything. He says letting people watch from behind the scenes as the tournament unfolds offers a “chance” to let them feel the rush, better understanding the transformative stakes. Winning would enable him to buy a dream condo in Solana Beach, overlooking the Pacific, to enjoy with his wife. Yet, even with a $1M bonus on the line in the BCBC, it’s the BC itself that Vic sees as a prize worth more than money can buy. “I’d sign away the opportunity to ever play one penny into the BCBC for the rest of my life to have the honor and privilege of live announcing JUST ONE BREEDERS’ CUP RACE.”

Rounding out the “Bonus Boys” field is Ray Arsenault, who took down an $800,000 prize, and is now eligible to score a $3M bonus in the BCBC, by winning the National Handicapping Championship. He’s from Toronto, Ontario, and has owned a transportation brokerage company since 1985. Like many racing fans, it was his father who first took him to the track, in this case, Greenwood in Toronto. In fact, he even got into the ownership side of things for a time, racing Standardbreds with friends. While he no longer owns, “The thrill to put big money into a race and see the wager come in is incredible.” A favorite betting angle? Something new: dirt to turf, first time Lasix, blinkers, gelding…

Ray always thought he was a decent handicapper, but found there was much to learn when he started playing contests in 2004. Winning the NHC this year was when he finally came to the realization he was good, but something he did not realize was that he was also alive for $3M in the BCBC. “Funny, I didn’t find out about it till Oct 11th, when I read a BCBC article on Twitter…With that entry, I will be playing to take some big shots. All I hope is for two great days of racing and for the horses and jockeys to come out safe.”

The horses and their connections are not the only ones who will be in a race for millions at the Breeders’ Cup. There is another field entering the gate, hoping stamina and strategy will keep them rolling along the course of two days. Some may break sharp, opening up on their adversaries early, targets falling on their backs as those stalking take aim. Others may be left at the start, all chance of triumph left in the shadow of the barriers. When the turn for home finally comes and the wire draws within sight, who will flatten? Who will go all out? Who will go all in for the win?

We will soon find out who will be draped in a garland of “green”, but how much better it would be to watch this great challenge be answered with our own eyes, to play the races with those racing, than to merely read the “chart” afterward? Hopefully, the curtain will be raised, so the drama may be put on display for all to see, a cast of colorful characters who don’t hang their hopes on a script, but on the back of a horse in flight – and we can all go along for the ride.

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