Breeders’ Cup Countdown Presented By DRF Bets: A Million Reasons

By Scott Jagow

There’s betting on the Breeders’ Cup, and then there’s the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC).

In what already must be one of the most nerve-wracking gambling events horse racing has to offer, in the last couple years the BCBC and the tournament industry have ramped up the stakes to life-changing levels.

Nearly a dozen of this year’s BCBC competitors could walk away with not only the $300,000 first prize but another million dollar payday on top of that, thanks to bonuses established for winning qualifying tournaments and finishing first in the BCBC.

One of those horseplayers is Christian Hellmers, known to many racing fans for his turn on the reality TV show Horseplayers. For the second straight year, Hellmers has qualified for a $1 million bonus by winning a live-money tournament at Santa Anita and an entry into the BCBC. Should he win the Breeders’ Cup tourney, he’ll collect a $1 million annuity. Plus, he’ll be competing with lifelong friend Kevin McFarland for the seven-digit reward at their home track of Del Mar. The two grew up and bet together for years in Southern California, famously taking down a $45,000 Pick 6 in the late 90’s before agreeing to part ways and play on their own.

“Fast forward 20 years, here we are, 40-year-olds at the top of our game competing against each other,” said Hellmers. “He wants to beat me as bad as I want to beat him, and there are 400 other players but there’s more on the line between us because we want to know who’s better.

“We’re going to be at our home track, where we grew up and we’re going to be alive to one of the biggest days of our lives.”

The concept of the life-changing bonus is fairly recent, with the NTRA instigating an enormous bonus for winning both the BCBC and the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) in January. That windfall is now $3 million. But horseplayers entering tournaments, led by Hellmers and others, used their leverage to encourage several tracks to buy insurance that would allow bonuses for winning those tourneys and the BCBC. For example, Hellmers and dozens of other horseplayers put up $100 each in a Tilt campaign to incentivize Del Mar to buy insurance so that if anybody won both the Del Mar tourney and the BCBC, an additional $1 milliion would be added to the winner’s prize money.

Hellmers believes this proactivity has not only attracted new bettors to the game but also bigger ones.

“You’re seeing new people who are big gamblers come into the mix, so horse owners, other entrepreneuers come into the game,” he said. “I would imagine some horseplayers are shifting their dollars from regular betting into big cash tournaments. There’s effectively no takeout and because of the $1 million bonus.”

By effectively no takeout, he means players who win cash prizes in tournaments erase what would be the traditional takeout from pari-mutuel bets. But also, in live-money events, the bets are actually going through the par-mutuel system so there’s no loss in that way, as BCBC Director Tim Schram points out.

“That’s what so nice about these live money tournaments is that the players are ultimately putting money through the pari-mutuel pools,” said Schram. “That’s the difference from the mythical money tournaments ($2 win-place, for example).”

The emergence of live-money tournaments is undeniable. The BCBC alone has grown by double digits percentage-wise for nine straight years. At Del Mar, around 400 horseplayers will take an (educated) stab at winning the top prize. But it takes a special kind of player to win these tournaments. Hellmers, who has finished second twice in the BCBC, understands this. Usually, he said, it takes $50,000 to $100,000 to win, starting from a bankroll of $7,500 after the entry fee.

“You’re not trying to make 20 percent, 30 percent, which is amazing in a normal betting week,” he said. “ You’re looking to make 700 to 900 percent. I don’t think people really realize the gravity of what that means. But it’s crazy.

“I’m prepared to go to zero, as I have several times. One year I was up to $66,000, and I bet $66,000 and lost.”

The year after that, he was up to $35,000 and lost because, in his words, he didn’t choose wisely. Hellmers, like some of his challengers, seems to have a gene other horseplayers might not possess. By his own words, he’s comfortable with fear and he’s comfortable with loss. This came after years of plying the trade of betting horses.

“It comes from learning the hard way and knowing my boundaries,” said Hellmers. “You have to lose a lot to win a lot. Anything that’s ever good is always on the other side of fear. I was pretty careless and reckless when I first started betting, and I started to feel the pain enough times where I was willing to develop a stern discipline to walk away from temptations.”

Hellmers’ futuristic vision is akin to the World Series of Poker, a circuit that would celebrate the risk-taking virtues of people who bet on four-legged animals racing around an oval at 40 miles per hour.

“I’d like to see a circuit for horse racing that rivals poker, with celebrities and owners, Wall Street hedge fund traders and everyday horseplayers competing to show who’s got the most mojo and brain power,” Hellmers said. “Ideally, you do it over time so we can actually attract new people to the sport by watching the most calculated risk-takers on earth.”

The BCBC’s Schram agrees there’s a TV market for voyerism of horseplayers plunking down a ton of money on a make it-or-break-it wager.

“It takes a special kind of person, you’ve seen the aggressiveness it takes to win the BCBC in the last couple of years, people putting down $15,000 exactas. You’ve got to be able to go all in, just like poker.”

“What’s more exciting, watching a horseplayer drop 10 grand on a horse and lose or watching Lady Eli win by a length at 4-5,” said Hellmers. “I don’t think people realize there’s an appetite for watching people live in the bold, and that’s what reality television’s all about.”

Here are the players eligible for the $1 million bonus for winning the BCBC, noting that Faron McCubbins has two chances at the prize, while Ray Asenault has the possibility of winning $3 million after his victory at the 2017 NHC:

Vic Stauffer
Eric Moomey
Ray Asenault
Kevin McFarland
Florin Sima
Faron McCubbins
Stephen Thompson
David Lanzman
Ali Aksoy
Christian Hellmers
Robert Talstra

Breeders’ Cup Connections Revisited: Roping ‘White-Tails’ In Montana On Bolt d’Oro
One of the stories floating around this fall’s Thoroughbred sales was about the guy who took a green-broke, $630,000 yearling colt out deer hunting in the Montana wilderness.

It’s not entirely true. But ask Ike Green about taking dual Grade 1-winner and likely Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite Bolt d’Oro on a hunting expedition, and he just might regale you with a tale about the time he and Bolt “roped a white-tail in the mountains.”

To those who know Green well, the scene is one they’ve seen any number of times. The 38-year-old Wyoming native will lean back in his chair, then cross one well-worn cowboy boot over the other. He’ll incline his head toward his audience with a hint of mischief lighting up his eyes, deciding just how much embellishment he can get away with.

“Well, I certainly knew he was fast enough to catch one of ‘em,” Green might begin.

While he admits that he never actually tried to chase down a deer riding the young Bolt d’Oro, it’s no exaggeration that Green has been working for Bolt d’Oro’s owner-trainer Mick Ruis at his ranch in Bigfork, Mont., for the past year and a half. His wife Aiden is Ruis’ racing and farm manager, while Ike is generally known as “Mr. Ruis’ Cowboy.”

Ike Green on the yearling Bolt d’Oro at Ruis’ Ranch in Bigfork, Mont.

While Green admits that he never actually tried to chase down a deer riding the young Bolt d’Oro, the colt certainly saw plenty of “white-tails” and other wildlife while being ridden up and down the trails in Montana’s mountains. The experience left Bolt with a steady demeanor rarely seen in a 2-year-old racehorse, and it has certainly served him well through the first three starts of his promising career.

Undefeated, Bolt d’Oro enters Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as the likely favorite with impressive wins in the G1 Del Mar Futurity and the G1 FrontRunner.

The success has left Green absolutely thrilled, though not necessarily surprised. After all, he was the one who picked Bolt d’Oro out of Denali Stud consignment at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling sale last summer.

“I looked at nearly every horse at the sale, and he was the one I kept coming back to,” said Green. “He had the best physical of any horse there, I thought, and I figured he wouldn’t bring as much money as some of the flashier pedigrees.”

When Bolt d’Oro stepped into the ring, the bidding was increasing steadily and Ruis’ $450,000 limit was quickly surpassed. Green was on the phone with the owner/trainer, who kept telling him to make “one more bid.” They lost their connection near the end, so Green tried a new tactic with the auctioneer, making a half-bid.

It worked, and Green walked away with the colt for $630,000.

“I used to get videos sent to me when Bolt was running around a 10-acre pasture full blast,” Ruis recalled. “I’m thinking ‘Man, I have a $630,000 yearling running full-blast across the field… All he’s gotta do is take one bad step.’ But Ike said, ‘You have to let him be a horse, because if he’s gonna get hurt here, he’s gonna get hurt when you’ve got him bubble-wrapped at the track.’”

These days, the Greens are enjoying watching the big dark bay colt streak across the television screen in California and looking forward to cheering him home in the Breeders’ Cup.

“Just ask any of the neighbors around here,” said Green, laughing. “They saw me riding Bolt last year, and I told ‘em they were looking at the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner!”

Behind the Scenes with a first-time Breeders’ Cup Stable

On Tuesday morning, trainer Tim Glyshaw’s pair of Breeders’ Cup contenders were both granted permission to gallop over Del Mar’s turf course. Under exercise rider Douglas Morely, Bullards Alley (Turf) and Bucchero (Turf Sprint) both completed a steady circuit around the turf course.

“I thought they really liked the turf at Del Mar,” said Morely, who also serves as a jockey’s valet at Indiana Grand. “They both seemed to handle it really well.”

Glyshaw’s horses don’t usually work on the turf, much less gallop over it, but since they are in a totally new environment the trainer felt it was important that they get a feel for it. However, since both horses had only ever raced on the grass, Morely had to be prepared for them to get a bit tough going around the course.

Trainer Tim Glyshaw, left, celebrates Halloween in style at Del Mar with owner Harlan Malter and his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint contender Bucchero.

“They both jumped in the bridle with me and were very eager,” the 33-year racetrack veteran said.

Indiana-bred Bucchero definitely enjoyed his exercise, striding down the stretch with his ears pricked happily. He pulled at the bit, but maintained his composure while staying to the far outside of the course.

Owner Harlan Malter noted that the colt “seemed to be very happy.”

Bullards Alley was also very forward in his stroll over the grass, and Glyshaw reported that he was pleased with what he saw from both horses.

“I’m very happy with the way they both trained on it today,” said Glyshaw. “Looking forward to the opportunity they will both have tomorrow.”

At the end of the morning, Malter had a surprise waiting for his trainer. A pair of costume horse heads, to celebrate Halloween!

“He’s a good sport,” laughed the California native.

Del Mar History: The Shoe
In 1949, a young Texan garnered fanfare at Del Mar when he notched his 52nd season victory and became the first apprentice to get the track’s riding title. At the time, 17-year-old Bill Shoemaker was a newcomer from Dallas, carving out his reputation in a competitive jockey colony. The Blood-Horse’s Robert Hebert was less than impressed with Shoemaker’s season, writing, “Shoemaker is hardly going to be a brilliant rider, or a spectacular one, but he looks fairly steady, and improved as the season wore on.”

Did he ever.

Bill Shoemaker, with trainer Frank Whiteley, rode Forego in his final 11 career starts

The same year, Shoemaker won his first stakes race in the George Marshall claiming handicap at Bay Meadows. It was an early signal of brilliant success. The following year, he was top jockey in the country by wins, a title he’d claim five times in total, tying Johnny Longden for the jockey title with 60 wins. Shoemaker went on to set a record in 1953 for most wins in a year (485) and was the top jockey by money earned from 1958-64. On six different days, he rode six winners on the card.

It was all unlikely success for the diminutive athlete, 4’11 and 95 pounds, who legend has it wasn’t supposed to live through his first night on the planet. Shoemaker hailed from a tiny town in West Texas, where he was born in a two-room house in 1931 weighing less than two pounds. The attending physician could not illicit a cry from him and declared the boy wouldn’t live through the night. In 1993, Sports Illustrated recounted the tale of his grandmother wrapping him in a doll’s blanket and tucking him in a shoebox near the wood stove, surprised when they heard him begin to cry two hours later.

He would go on to win four Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and five Belmonts aboard the likes of Swaps, Sword Dancer, Gallant Man, Tomy Lee, Jaipur, and others within 20 years of that first Del Mar record.

“If Bill Shoemaker were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport,” famed turf writer Red Smith would later write about the jockey. “Pound for pound, he’s got to be the greatest living athlete.”

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