Tournament Strategy: Interview with Mike VanRyckeghem, winner of Twinspires $2,500 NHC Qualifier Feeder #5

November 25th, 2023

After seven feeder tournaments offering $2,500 each this past fall, the day has finally come for NHC seats to be on the line in the TwinSpires $5,000 NHC Qualifier. On Saturday, Nov. 25, everyone who finished in the top 10% of the seven feeders will battle for one of two seats in the 2024 National Horseplayers Championship. 

Wondering who the top handicappers are who were able to win a feeder and will be playing for a seat? I’d like to introduce you to one of them, Louisiana’s own Mike VanRyckeghem. In Feeder #5, VanRyckeghem took top honors. Taking on the Oct. 21 Keeneland card, VanRyckeghem won on a day when overbet favorites were falling flat and handicappers needed a handful of strong opinions along with sound strategy to find a way through the card unscathed. 

A horseplayer since his teens, VanRyckeghem is now a horse owner, having bought into four of the Brilliant Racing partnerships. A winner of multiple TwinSpires tournaments, including The Colonial Downs Challenge and the Delta Downs Challenge, I spoke with Mike VanRyckeghem to find out about his successful approach. 

Kevin Kilroy: Congratulations on the win in the NHC feeder. Seems you’ve had a big past few months, winning a couple of the TwinSpires Challenge tournaments as well.

Mike VanRyckeghem: I love the tournaments—they’re great. Challenging. It’s exciting to have the leaderboard, seeing your name on the board. They're always fun. I think they’re good for getting people involved, and it's a cheaper option than a lot of other tournaments.

How’d you get into handicapping?

MV: I started at Fair Grounds when I was 16. The good old days. I went to UNO (University of New Orleans), which is right down the street from the track. I’d cut my afternoon classes, and I’d go to the races instead.

KK: Winning tournaments, in horse ownership—from my seat, you chose wisely skipping those classes.

MV: Being in Brilliant has been fantastic. I’ve met a lot of people in horse racing and been able to go to the backstretch, which is something I'd never been able to do before that. 

What’s your best handicapping angle?

MV: I’m a pace guy. First thing I look at is who is going to take the lead. I was brought up watching Louisiana Downs, which had an unbelievable speed bias. Evangeline Downs, speed bias. And Jefferson Downs, which was a bull ring, was a speed-biased track. I like speed horses, but I look for how the race is going to set up, and figure it out from there.

Give us a rundown of your winning opinions at Keeneland on Oct. 21.

MV: I had three horses that I really liked. One of them was the favorite, another was a lukewarm favorite in a wide open race, and that seemed like it was the separator. Single Dot Yacht was my best bet of the day (3.57-1). Sinfiltre as well (2.21-1). Neither was an obvious favorite that everybody had, and that was key. There were other horses people were keying in on in those races. 

I had another one, that Bourbon Fever horse, he was 8-5 but that win got me up into contention early on. A big race was Vahva versus Brinkman’s horse (Alva Starr), and I took Brinkman’s. She got second. So I got 50 points there. I had the 5 in the last race (Axthelm) who ran third which put me on top. I think I had three or four wins and the rest just hit the board.

You won the cash prize, finishing in first, but did you have a good day at the windows, too?

MV: I had singled Single Dot Yaht in the Pick 5. I was alive and had five of them coming back in the last but I missed it when that 44-1 won the last race. I won but I lost. 

Besides your handicapping opinions, do you pay attention to the board, public handicappers, or other signals?

MV: Well, I did also use Denim and Pearls, that Cox horse who won. When Joe Kristufek leans into Cox horses they are usually pretty live. Joe had picked him on top and when he was live on the board, that became an automatic use. In general, I think Kristufek and (Scott) Shapiro are sharp handicappers and I always look at who they are on.

What advice do you have for handicappers diving into these TwinSpires tournaments?

MV: You want to nail down the horses you need to win. The other races you pick your spots and be more strategic. Try to pick a horse you think will hit the board as opposed to reaching for a horse that may not run at all. Sometimes you gotta say maybe the horse doesn’t like to win, but if he doesn't win, can he run second or third? Keep the points going is a key.

I recommend taking someone from off the pace as opposed to a speed horse who might get cooked. A lot of speed horses, when you look at their history, they have a lot of wins but not many places or shows. They’re going to fall out as opposed to a closer who could have a better chance to get in the money.

Sometimes you’re not always betting the horse you think will win, but one you know can hit the board, and maybe get lucky. Sometimes you need to play a favorite just to trump somebody else who is close to you. Unless you are really against the favorite. But if you go for a price and your pick runs off the board and the favorite wins, you’re behind the 8-ball because so many others will have the favorite. That puts you at a huge disadvantage right off the bat. Sometimes I’ll go for a favorite even if I don’t love him just to keep up with everybody. But if I have a horse I like, I’m definitely going to use them no matter the price.

If you win a seat to Vegas on Saturday, will you go by yourself and spend your time trip handicapping into the late hours?

MV: No—I’d bring my wife with me to Vegas. We’ve never been. With the cash, I’d pay off the bookie.