Find this story in the NHC BRISnet Betting Guide special issue.
By Jim Mulvihill
Steven Shaffer will be among the youngest NHC competitors at Treasure Island Las Vegas this year, but his handicapping style is strictly old school. While other top players of his generation are developing sophisticated computer models to sift through endless data – sometimes without a glance at the actual horses they are betting on – Shaffer likes to be at the track. His notes on pedigrees and trainer tendencies are based more on observation than statistics, and he watches post parades and warm ups with a keen eye developed while working on the backside. He trades impressions with trainers and clockers and follows the horses of people he knows and respects.
The 29-year-old Shaffer is a graduate of the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program. After time working on both sides of the racetrack he has settled into a career as a successful commercial real estate broker and developer. Shaffer lives in Prospect, Kentucky, outside of Louisville, with his wife, Kiana, and 2-year-old daughter, Ezra, with a second child due, fittingly, on the first Saturday in May.
How were you initially introduced Thoroughbred racing?
“I got into racing early on. One of my uncles owned horses. So, from the time I could pretty much walk, he was taking me to racetracks, the backside. He had mares out at Hermitage Farm when Carl Pollard was still doing a lot of breeding out there. I really fell in love with it.”
How long have you been playing handicapping contests?
“I haven’t really played in a ton. I prefer the live money tournaments. I try to attend the spring and fall contests at Keeneland and then the one Churchill has in the summer. I did play in the BCBC for a couple of years, starting in 2011, and did well and cashed. When it came back to Churchill, I played in the BCBC again this year and came in 16th.”
How many times have you been to the NHC?
“This is my second time qualifying for the NHC. I qualified a couple of years ago. This will be the first time I’ve double-qualified. So I’ve actually got two entries this year, one from the BCBC and one from the Fall Meet Challenge at Keeneland.”
What would you do with an extra $800,000 if you won the NHC?
“Day one, there would be a couple of college funds set up. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about how we’ll pay for that in 20 years.
“Next, I’d invest in one of my best friends, [trainer] Jason Barkley. We went to the University of Louisville together, lived together for a couple of years. I worked at Churchill under [Sr. Director of Communications] Darren Rogers and [legendary Vice President of Racing Communications] John Asher, and then worked on the backside for three years for Ian Wilkes. At the same time Jason was working at Paul McGee’s barn and then Wayne Catalano’s barn, so everywhere we went, we were pretty much together. I think he’s really going to do great things.”
What are your favorite handicapping angles to look for?
“I really try to focus in on maidens. I feel like maiden races are the one type of race where there’s more dead money, or takeout money, in the pool on horses that have no chance to win, so I’ve essentially eliminated takeout. It’s really where I try to focus. My wife knows that there are a couple of days a year – Derby Day and the Stars of Tomorrow card – that I call Christmas, and she knows I’ll be at the track all day.”
What’s been your biggest day at the races?
“I had a really good score on Animal Kingdom in the 2011 Derby. I was only 22 and it was a six-figure score. No 22-year-old needs that kind of money. Trust me.
“I was working on the backside and I saw this horse work. I was close with [head clocker] John Nichols at the time so I called him, and I said, ‘Who was that who just breezed?’ It was Animal Kingdom, and I remember Jon said, ‘That horse is going to win the Derby.’
“So I had a pretty good day Oaks Day and every time I cashed a ticket Oaks Day, I would parlay at least half of that ticket to win on Animal Kingdom. I ended up with a large win bet on Animal Kingdom before we even walked into Derby.
“But you know how you remember the bad beats worse than you do the wins? I played a $400 Oaks-Derby Double with St. John’s River to Animal Kingdom, and St. John’s River finished a neck short of Plum Pretty at 16-1. That would have been about a half-million dollar score.”