So many horseplayers spend their lives chasing the six-figure score that will redeem all the bad beats and validate all the losing tickets. So few succeed, and it’s easy to go broke trying to get rich.
Then there’s Joe Appelbaum, who banked $364,000 Nov. 5 in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge at Santa Anita. Not only did he feel like king of the world, he also earned a shot at a $3 million bonus in the $2.5 million Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, aka the NHC, Jan. 27-29. All the 48-year-old Manhattan resident has to do is finish ahead of more than 500 other killer handicappers at Treasure Island Las Vegas.
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“The NHC is incredibly difficult to win,” said Appelbaum, a former athlete who was once an assistant football coach at Hofstra University. “That’s a great, shiny prize, but I just want to focus on putting myself in a position to do well, and then I’ll worry about the bonus if I’m [in contention] on Sunday.”
First place is worth $800,000, so Appelbaum will be chasing $3.8 million, the biggest payoff in the history of handicapping contests. At the mother of all golden opportunities, he couldn’t be playing with more house money.
He bet his own cash at the Breeders’ Cup in a live-money contest with a $10,000 buy-in. Entering the finale, the Classic, Appelbaum had “about $14,000 left,” and bet it all, putting $13,000 on a cold exacta with Arrogate on top of California Chrome. It paid $10 and returned $365,000.
“I was extremely concerned because California Chrome had had it all his own way on the lead,” he said. “I didn’t think Arrogate would win until the final 50 yards.
“The day before, I was lucky when Beholder beat Songbird by a nose, which really moved me up. You have to make good decisions but you have to be really fortunate, too.”
Appelbaum went from Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High, where he captained the football team, to Yale, where he majored in political science and economics and played backup tight end. After graduation he became “a vagabond young football coach,” spending seven years bouncing around as an assistant at Hamilton, Hofstra, Plymouth (N.H.) State, Northeastern and Massachusetts. He was future Jet Wayne Chrebet’s receivers coach for a season at Hofstra, and recruited future Giants wideout Victor Cruz to UMass.
“You never know what a player is going to become,’’ Appelbaum said. That’s true of horseplayers, too.
The racing bug bit him in his late teens at Belmont Park and Saratoga, and his Long Island connections go beyond Belmont. His wife, Lindsey Douglas, is from Lawrence. His late parents, Ben and Barbara Appelbaum, a Long Beach native, ran day camps on the Island for more than 25 years. Among them was the Ivy League School and Day Camp in Smithtown, which Joe ran after his father died in 1996. He sold it in 2002 to fellow handicapper Noah Cooper of Smithtown.
Before becoming a full-time “equine investor,” Appelbaum ran other businesses offering school, camp and after-school services to children. Since 2006 he has made his living from Off The Hook Stables, an Ocala, Florida-based racing and breeding operation he founded. Yet if not for a $109,000 Pick 6 score shared with four friends at Saratoga in 2001, Appelbaum probably would be doing something else. “I would have been happy coaching football forever,” he said, “but sometimes life leads you on a winding road.”
From that Pick 6 came the capital to “rather foolishly” claim a few horses, and Appelbaum had some beginner’s luck. He bought a filly at Keeneland, developed her in Ocala with trainer Carlos Morales and sold her for a profit, a business model known as pinhooking. Despite reverses after the 2008 recession, Off The Hook kept going. “For a small to midsize operation, we’ve done quite well,” he said.
Appelbaum’s biggest win came in 2012 with Turbo Compressor in the Grade I United Nations at Monmouth Park. Among more than 40 stakes winners he’s pinhooked or owned are Informed Decision (Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint); Zivo (Suburban Handicap) and Pasito The Che. He has “about 30 horses” in Ocala and a dozen broodmares in upstate New York.
Next weekend, Appelbaum will try to dethrone his friend Paul Matties, last year’s NHC champion. Another opponent is 2015 winner John O’Neil of Huntington. The format: Make a mythical $2 win, $2 place wager on one horse in 18 races — 10 mandatory (chosen by a committee) and eight optional — on Jan. 27-28 and 15 on Jan. 29. Searching the past performances for live long shots at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Turfway, Santa Anita, Oaklawn, Tampa Bay Downs and Golden Gate Fields will last deep into the night at the other city that never sleeps.
Appelbaum qualified for the NHC twice, so he’ll have two entries for each race, as will more than 100 rivals. He uses his knowledge of breeding to try to gain an edge. It didn’t help in his first two NHC trips, where he was “noncompetitive.”
“I do better in races with some sort of breeding angle,” he said. “Most of the players are speed-figure oriented, so I look for lightly raced horses with room to improve or a surface change. That gives me something I can hang my hat on.”
Pressure? Yes, but unique excitement, too.
“This is the right sort of stress, the kind you want,” Appelbaum said. “It’s not the stress of trying to put food on the table. It’s fun stress.”