(Not) All The Right Moves (Yet), But He Is Determined To Be A Contender
As of April 7, 2016, Geoff Schutt is #6 on the NHC Tour overall leaderboard. For three weeks in March, he was #1. Last weekend, he had two entries finish in the money at the Horseplayers World Series in Las Vegas, at #7 and #29. He has already earned one seat to the 2017 NHC, and was a dual qualifier for the 2016 NHC. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Schutt, a writer, currently lives with his wife and their two cats in Salem, MA. You can follow him on Twitter
How did you get into horse racing?
Horse racing has been a passion since childhood. My parents would go to the Kentucky Derby, and though my brother and sister and I would remain at home, we’d watch it on TV. Into my teen years, I knew about the Triple Crown races, growing up in 1970s, which seemed to be a kind of Golden Age with three Triple Crown winners. We were spoiled then, I suppose. But it seemed that the media was really interested in horse racing, especially after Secretariat. I was 9 years old when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and I can still remember how important that seemed. I was also somehow aware that in the year I was born, 1964, there was a horse called Northern Dancer, from Canada, who managed to win the first two legs, only to miss in the Belmont. But Northern Dancer held the record for the fastest Derby until Secretariat beat it. My Mom was a big Bill Shoemaker fan, and Shoemaker opted off of Northern Dancer for the Derby that year, a mistake on his part. Years later, in 1988, I’d go to my first Derby with my parents. Shoemaker was still racing and had a mount. But that year, it was all about this filly called Winning Colors, and a young jockey named Gary Stevens. We had seats in the grandstand near the finish line. The first wagers I ever placed were in that Derby, and I had win bets on the top three finishers. No exacta or trifecta wagering then. I ended up with a $3 profit, because of Winning Colors. I was hooked. But it wasn’t the betting. It was the sublime beauty of the race – the symmetry of jockey and horse working in tandem, two athletes dependent on one another to create the magic, and in those seemingly slow motion strides as they hit the wire. I still see horses finish a race in a kind of slow motion. Time stops for that moment. The jockey and horse are one. There’s such poetry in that. And then, of course, everything speeds back up again, win or lose.
How Did Contest Play Become Part Of Your Life?
Around 2007, I discovered this wonderful free handicapping contest called Public Handicapper. I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but here was a place where I could handicap four races each week, every week of the year. I still play Public Handicapper, and I’m just so grateful to Scott Carson for creating the site. My wife plays too, and she’s a great handicapper. We have our own side contest during Public Handicapper’s big six-month marathon from Derby Weekend through the Breeders’ Cup. No money exchanges hands, but we have a small trophy my wife created. The best finish wins the trophy. I won it last year, but she won it the year before. We’re both fierce competitors!
I learned about the NHC from Public Handicapper, that there was this kind of Big Dance for horseplayers. For several years, I joined the tour, played in the free contests, but didn’t do much of anything. The NHC seemed like a mythical place, like Oz, and yet I couldn’t seem to find my way to the Yellow Brick Road. In 2014, I discovered other contest sites, and in particular, Horse Tourneys. And it was there that I began to change the way I handicapped, to look beyond the winner and take a more global approach to the races. Something clicked, and I won a $25K contest. Then I won a few more contests. And after years of trying, on July 11, 2015 – yes, I will always remember the date – I won an NHC qualifier on Horse Tourneys. I’d punched my ticket to the Big Dance. In September of last year, I won my second entry. And I was on the NHC Tour leaderboard as well. I finished 42nd in 2015, and vowed I could do better. The competitive spirit again. I wanted to be in the chase from the beginning this year.
So What Was It That Changed With Your Handicapping?
In Public Handicapper, you get points for wins. Second place gets you nothing. It’s great for focusing on both winners and also price horses that might help you in the standings. But with most other contest play, at least the online, mythical wager play, you get WP credit. And sometimes that place horse pays more than the WP money for the winner. So instead of being focused on one horse for an endgame, I learned, somewhat belatedly, that I really needed to refine the way I approached handicapping. We all love to pick winners, but with contests, it’s about strategy more than the number of winners. And then I discovered that I could handicap the other players as well, and how to look for contrarian picks that might give me an edge. I’m still a pen-and-paper guy – give me DRF and Brisnet PPs, and I’m a happy guy. I do start my handicapping on the computer, but it always ends up pen to paper. I can visualize the races that way. That old poetry of the races from childhood comes back. And perhaps because I am a writer and storyteller, I find a way to make sense of the races for my needs. I know other horseplayers swear by various proprietary handicapping tools, and all I can say is, if it works, it works. In my handicapping, I look at the horses, the jockeys, the trainers, and the players I’m competing against. Those four components. And I read everything I can about the races. I’m a student of the “story,” you could argue. Everything I read or research helps me to write my own endings. When the endings match up with the race finishes, I do well.
This Year Seems To Be Another Breakthrough For You. What’s Different?
I keep redefining what’s possible for me, and I’m realizing that “everything” is possible. I mean, a year ago, I was still dreaming about qualifying to the NHC. I had no experience with that at all, and it really did seem like just a dream. Now I’m trying to earn my second entry for 2017, and also, working on my strategy and continuing to work on honing my handicapping skills.
I have to say I was utterly frustrated with myself at this year’s NHC. I thought I’d prepared. I had the focus, the determination. Those elements were fine. I put in the work with my handicapping. And although I could “taste” the Top 10 Percent on Day Two, I fell short. And it was kind of devastating, because to me, I’d done everything that had been successful for me during the past year. So I obsessed over my results. For two solid weeks I just went over everything, again and again. And I then, I made my next leap forward. Two weeks after the 2016 NHC had ended, I earned my first seat to the 2017 NHC. In that two-week period, I didn’t sleep much. I kept going over my decisions. How I came to my decisions. What was just bad luck and what was within my grasp. And it hit me. I was thinking globally in terms of each race, but I really wasn’t thinking globally in terms of contest strategy.
So I developed a new strategy, and I’ve applied this to every contest I’ve entered so far this year, including the Horseplayers World Series last weekend. It’s what I call my “60-30-10 Equation.” In any race card, you might see one or two long shots come in, along with a collection of mid-price horses, and then, of course, the favorites are favorites for a reason – they do win a certain percentage of the time. We teach ourselves as horseplayers to try to beat the favorites, every time. We tell ourselves that an even-money horse isn’t worth a play because the dollar or point gain is too low. And yet, contests are often won by anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars. So my handicapping now accepts this and embraces it. I look at each contest as a full race card. I try to identify which favorites might win, and I define this as anything up to 4-1 off-odds. I put 10 percent of my contest play there. Then I put 30 percent of my contest play in horses that I anticipate will go off at 5-1 to 8-1 odds. The remaining 60 percent of my choices are 9-1 or greater odds. I’m finding that this is working for me in both mandatory and all-optional contest play, in both pick-and-pray and in live contests. I need to identify the potential cap horses, because if you don’t have that horse or those horses you’re sunk, but I also need to identify the horse that might pay $3-5 to win. If I don’t cover the complete range, I risk losing big or losing by a dollar. And a loss is a loss, plain as that.
At the Horseplayers World Series, which is all-optional, all you need to do is look at the final results and see the separation between players – there isn’t much. This year it was especially true with an especially chalky first day that seemed to catch everybody by surprise, a second day that seemed to make a little more sense, and a third day that began and ended with a lot of favorites. Wins were difficult to come by for most everybody. That said, most players seemed to stick to playing to prices, even when longer shots finished far back. And in recognizing this, my “60-30-10 Equation” helped me to improve my position each day. That I didn’t win means I have plenty of room for improvement, true. But that I had two entries in the Top 30 means my formula can work because it’s by nature adaptive.
Here’s something else about me. I don’t subscribe to the notion that you need to save a bullet for the last race if you don’t like the last race, for some bomb you wouldn’t normally play but you’re only playing because you hope the racing gods will look kindly and give you a break. No – the strategy should be, look at all of the races (the global view) and decide where you’ll make your moves. If successful, they’ll add up in that final score. If I like a 20-1 shot in one of the first few races, I need to play that. And that’s contrarian. If one of my 10 percent even-money plays is in that first race and I like the horse, I’ll play it. That’s contrarian, too, and some horseplayers might call it a waste of a play, even if I win and get the points. But my job as a handicapper and horseplayer trying to win a contest or tournament is to get points when and where I find them most likely. We know we need to play aggressively in order to win one of these events, or to be in the money. And we know we need to put ourselves in a position to win. For me, an aggressive play is one that is handicapped well before the first race. I can always cancel the play if the race dynamics change. But which is better – thinking in your time and space or thinking in a rushed, 2-minute space between races? (I suspect there needs to be some of each.)
At the HPWS, I was leveraging three entries I earned through qualifiers at Horse Tourneys. By the end of Day Two, two of my entries were in the Top 60, in the money. My top entry was #20. On Day Three, I made a decision to let go of my third entry because there was too much ground to make up. For that entry, I made an exception to my “60-30-10 Equation” and when all-in with long shots, or a “100-0-0 Equation.” But that entry ended up with a zero score for Day Three.
My other two entries were different. I know some horseplayers will shake their heads at this, but I loved a horse called Toledo Eddie in Aqueduct’s 7th race on Saturday. Toledo Eddie went off at 1-2 odds. My total WP grab for that race was $5.60, or 56 HPWS points. The very next race, Aqueduct 8, I absolutely loved the 2 horse, Shakesperian Dream. I had that one handicapped at 4 o’clock Saturday morning, and I have my time-stamped ticket for just past 8 a.m. – right after the doors opened. I was hoping to get the 20-1 morning line in a very small field. Shakesperian Dream went off at 45-1, and I had it on both of my top entries. Looking at the final scores, I needed both Toledo Eddie and Shakesperian Dream to push into the Top 10. Take one of the horses away, and I’m sitting in 11th spot. With both, I’m at #7, with a chance to win the whole thing.
My failure to win the HPWS fell to the 30 percent part of my equation. I just could not pull together the necessary 5-1 to 8-1 horses. Again, it was difficult for most everybody to find wins, and I was no exception. But just one more of each of those horses each day of the three-day tournament, and I might have finished on top. That’s the beauty of the “60-30-10 Equation” – for me, at least. The flexibility within the percentages. I need all three parts to win outright. If I’m not completely successful, though, and if I’ve still handicapped aggressively, I finish 7th and 29th. So I was pleased with my performance and it felt like some redemption for my NHC results.
I know I can build on this for future tournaments, and for the 2017 NHC. My percentages may even change a little. I have the year to tweak things. And in the meantime, I plan to continue to play the NHC Tour and be a contender. If I’m a contender, I have the chance to win. I need to keep myself in position. But I also know each year the tour gets more competitive. I have profound respect for the other horseplayers. As they get better, I hope that I can improve as well. So I’ll take my losses with humility but chart my choices each step of the way. We can each make our own luck – I truly believe this.
What Do You Think About Educational Sites Like TTE? Are These Valuable For Players?
Most definitely they are valuable. I love to read people’s stories, and also, what hints they give of their own handicapping styles. I think it’s also important to realize that there’s a giving community of horseplayers out there. We each want to win, of course. But with horse racing, where anything can happen and usually does, we need to celebrate success. I can learn as much from another player’s scores, and success, as I can from my own. I think we all can welcome competition, and the more players we can get interested in horse racing and into the contests, the more opportunities there are for all of us. Truth is – I want to be inspired. I look for inspiration. That inspiration drives me even harder in my own pursuits.