A remarkable twelve players are boldly going where no person has gone before in the $1 Million Road to the Kentucky Derby contest on TwinSpires.com. All that stands between them and a share of the $1 Million prize is a $20 Show bet on a horse that finishes no worse than third in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
While they come from different walks of life, they have all blazed interesting trails to get to this point. These are their stories.
MATTHEW BALL (North Hollywood, California)
Matthew Ball’s most anxious moments to date during the TwinSpires.com SHOWdown came not from cheering one of his 19 winning selections home, but repairing his Internet connection in the closing stages of the Louisiana Derby.
“My Internet connection went out during the Louisiana Derby stretch, and the last thing I saw was War Story’s shadow was running faster than he was,” Ball said. “Thankfully Joe got him to finish.”
Ball grew up in Louisville and now works as a writer in Southern California. His father started Horse Star Cards, which Ball happily points out are still available in limited quantities on eBay.
Ball’s conventional wisdom with each showdown races is to pick the horse he would feel most comfortable losing on; “buy the ticket, take the ride,” he said. A strategy that helped propel him to the top of the leaderboard and Kentucky Oaks and Derby tickets for next year.
As for his Kentucky Derby SHOWdown pick, he has it narrowed down to “American Dortdiem,” but don’t be surprised if he bets another horse to win.
“Financially, yes, this would be my biggest score, but meeting Gary Stevens before the 1995 Derby and telling him he was going to win is my finest achievement,” Ball said. “It started a love affair with long shots that disgusts my brother to this day. Mine That Bird, anyone.”
When it comes to SHOWdown, however, Ball knows it’s not a game for longshots.
CHARLES CORNISH (Louisville, KY)
To Charles Cornish, a retired electrician and a long time handicapper and horseplayer from Louisville, this year’s sequence of Showdown races didn’t prove as challenging as he would have expected.
“To me, there were only four or five races where you really had something to think about,“ Cornish said. “Most of those races were just cut and dry with 1-to-2 or 3-to-5 favorites.”
He said the Spiral Stakes at Turfway proved to be the most difficult challenge. “You had three or four horses that were even in the betting,” Cornish said.” I had bet (Conquest Typhoon) in the race earlier in the contest (the El Camino Real Derby) and I liked the way he ran. He just came up short and needed the race, but it was kind of an agonizing decision.”
Like all of the Showdown finalists, his decision to go with the third place finisher in the El Camino Real Derby, instead of Metaboss, the horse that won it, proved crucial to making it to the Kentucky Derby for a chance at a $1 Million prize.
As for making the most important $20 Show bet in life this Saturday, he is leaning toward one of the top three choices.
“I think everybody in the world has got it down to three horses: American Pharoah, Dortmund and Carpe Diem,” Cornish said. “Right now, I think I would go with one of those three, but I have to wait to see the draw and how the race will shape up.”
JEREMY ENKE (Foothill Ranch, CA)
A casual horseplayer who mainly bets the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup every year, Jeremy Enke attributes his good fortune in Showdown to a longtime friend, John Bauer, who passed away in February of 2014 after a two year bout with ALS.
“We would bet the big races together every year,” Enke explained. “One of his favorite Derby horses was Big Brown, so this year when I saw Dortmund was his son, I kind of latched on to him. But I didn’t really think I had any chance to get this far until I made it through the Spiral Stakes.”
In addition to betting horses, other shared interest between the longtime friends was chess. Since the Spiral Stakes, Enke has kept one of the king pieces from the chessboard he and Bauer used to play on in his pocket during the Showdown races for good luck.
That tradition won’t change when Enke makes the trip to Louisville for the Derby this year. “I know it sounds corny, but I feel like (John) is looking out for me,” Enke said. “And there’s no way I can’t bring the king piece with me now.”
As for his final $20 Show bet in Showdown, Enke said he is likely sticking with the son of Big Brown. “I’d be hard pressed not to go with Dortmund, but I will have to wait and see what post position he gets.”
JUSTIN JOHNSON (Dublin, California)
Justin Johnson got into racing because he enjoyed the competitive aspect of it, and now it’s him versus 11 other TwinSpires.com players in the final race of $1-million SHOWdown.
Unlike most of the other players, however, Johnson’s strategy has changed as the game progressed.
“I started the contest picking horses that I thought would win, but eventually I made picks based on who would have the best chance of hitting the board,” Johnson said. “For example, in the Wood Memorial, I thought Frosted and Daredevil were either going to win the race or finish off the board while El Kabeir may not have the best shot to win, but he is consistent and sound enough to be in the top three.”
Johnson got bit by the racing bug at Canterbury Park in his native Minnesota, and he now is a weekend warrior at Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco.
“I have always enjoyed competition and the idea of profiting off any skip/opinion I may have,” Johnson said. “I started playing pool and foosball in my parent’s basement, which led to some great competitions and friendly bets; this progressed into card playing and shortly thereafter I decided to go to my local track [Canterbury at the time] and fell in love with the sport. It met my need for competition with the excitement of live entertainment.”
As for the Derby itself, Johnson is one of the few remaining players who did not list either American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, or Dortmund as a top horse to show. If he zags when others zig, could he scoop the $1-million pool?
“I use my strong analytical skills to help forecast how the race is going to be run and figure out my picks from there,” Johnson said. “The more information I have, the better judgment calls I can make.”
DAVID JONES (Tamaqua, PA)
David Jones, an IT worker for a local school district, was attending his son’s birthday party and wasn’t able to watch the three Showdown races on the Saturday of the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. His wife, however, could not endure the suspense.
“She checked them, I just told her not to tell me what happened so I could watch them when we got home.”
Fortunately, the only real suspense was in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, in which Jones was one of just two Showdown contestants to choose the eventual winner Frosted.
“I picked him because they (owner Godolphin Racing) said they had made corrections,” Jones said, referring to the throat surgery that was performed on Frosted before the Wood. “That was the toughest pick of all the races to me. I didn’t trust Daredevil and thought El Kabeir might run out of the money.”
While it didn’t look good at the start – Frosted broke next to last – he made a sweeping four-wide move around the far turn and drew off to a comfortable two-length victory.
As for the Kentucky Derby, Jones is leaning toward expected favorite American Pharoah, but might consider backing Frosted again.
“American Pharoah and Frosted are on my list and, of course, Dortmund. It sort of depends on post positions. If American Pharoah gets post one, I might have to go with my second or third pick. “
JAMES LEVINE (Louisville, KY)
James Levine, a retired factory worker for Mesa Foods, has been friends with fellow contestant Charles Cornish since elementary school. He estimates they’ve both been going to the track since they were 12 or 13.
He credits his longtime friend for convincing him to join the Showdown contest on TwinSpires.
“Charles encouraged me to get into this contest and we handicapped it every week, running our picks by each other,” Levine said. “We really only disagreed on one race.”
That was the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. “He went with War Story and I chose International Star, and fortunately they both ran in the money.”
Levine agreed with his friend’s assessment of the 19-race puzzle being easier to solve than normal.
“It’s really been a year where everything fell into place,” Levine said. “The big favorites all split up went to different races.”
As far as his final pick goes, he’s leaning toward either American Pharaoh or Dortmund.
“I always consider Bob Baffert’s horses in the Derby,” Levine said. “The only other horse I can think of might be Carpe Diem, but Todd Pletcher, while he’s a good trainer, doesn’t have the best record in the Derby.”
BURNETT POLK (Lexington, Kentucky)
For many remaining SHOWdown players, hitting their show bet on this year’s Kentucky Derby would result in the biggest score of their lives, but that’s not the case for Burnett Polk of Lexington, who had a big year in 2011 when he won a handicapping contest at Keeneland and picked Animal Kingdom to win that year’s Kentucky Derby.
So whether a successful $20 show bet on this year’s Derby ends up being his biggest score will depend on how many others “survive” was well.
Polk has been playing the races for 30 years, and from what he’s learned in that time know three-year-olds are still developing and feels fortunate to have made it past the first 19 races.”
“My strategy has been to pick the best three-year-old in each race,” Polk said. However, he will add another element to his handicapping for his Kentucky Derby pick.
“I haven’t decided who I’m going to pick yet, but I’m going to consider the jockey,” said Polk. “El Kabeir [third in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes] is the closest I came to being knocked out, and I didn’t like the jockey in that race.”
KRISTIN STUEDLE (Louisville, KY)
Normally making a $20 show bet for $1-million would be a stressful endeavor, but for an accountant during tax season, it provided a diversion and much-needed relief.
“Watching a few races each week has been a nice break from preparing taxes,” said Kristin Stuedle, a Certified Public Accountant who lives in Louisville.
With tax season and 19 races behind her, Stuedle is focused on the Kentucky Derby, and she is leaning toward Dortmund.
“Not overthinking it has been the strategy so far,” Stuedle said. “Go with the fast horses but be sure to account for bad trips when necessary. Winning the showdown would by far be my biggest score to date.”
BILL WEBER (Atoka, Oklahoma)
With only one race remaining in TwinSpires.com’s $1-million SHOWdown game, Bill Weber has allowed himself to think about transforming a $20 show bet into the biggest win of his horseplaying life, and he was happy to hear that fantasy can include a cash option.
“I’ve been into racing for 40-plus years, but I don’t plan on being around for the next 40 years, so the cash option is great,” Weber said. “A SHOWdown win would be bigger than I’d ever hoped to win, but no matter what happens it’s been a blast every weekend and studying the races and handicapping them has made it a week-long thrill every week.”
Like many of the other 12 still alive to the grand prize, Weber said the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland was one of the toughest selections on the 19-race path to the Derby, but he made it through “with the help of Brisnet PPs,” he said.
“My strategy so far is to narrow it down to who can possibly win, but sometimes that leaves you with 4-5 horses, so you have to keep narrowing, “Weber said. “Ultimately, I want the horse who’s most likely going to be there no matter how the race develops.”
ROBERT WEIR (Alexandria, Virginia)
Value and contrarian are two words often associated with successful handicapping, but they have no place in Robert Weir’s SHOWdown strategy.
“I’m picking strictly my top selection in each race,” said Weir, a 30-year fan of the game that started with racetrack trips in college. “I have not tried to find value anywhere, and there’s been no real change in that approach throughout the contest. The final decision each week comes down to if I will be satisfied if I get knocked out on that horse.”
To that end, Dortmund is likely to be Weir’s selection on May 2 at Churchill Downs.
“He’s been my top pick all along, so I’ll likely stay with him,” he said.
Weir is no stranger to top scores. He won about $60,000 on a $2 Pick 6 at Del Mar, so SHOWdown may or may not be his biggest win to date depending on how many other people (including himself) hit their show bet.
KEVIN WEST (Clifton Park, New York)
With 17 races down and two to go before the Kentucky Derby, Kevin West spent his Lexington Stakes day in the hospital with his mother rather than handicapping the races.
Even with $1-million on the line, family comes first.
“My 85-year-old mother fell and broke her femur right near her artificial knee—what a mess,” West said. “She spent the day in surgery, so I spent the day at the hospital until shortly before post time [of the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland]. In the end I didn’t have a whole a lot of time to look at it pre-race—maybe 15 minutes—so I stuck with my strategy of class over speed and took Divining Rod.”
The strategy paid off, and West was able to get back to his mom after the Lexington since he viewed the Arkansas Derby as a free square, which it was with champion American Pharoah winning easily.
DAVID WIELGA (Adams, MA)
David Wielga joined TwinSpires at the behest of his nephew, the late Stanley Wielga. The two had been playing the horses together for many years and always talked about going to the Kentucky Derby together.
Now, with a chance to compete for a share (or all) of the $1 Million prize in Road to the Kentucky Derby Showdown, David is finally going to the Derby and is taking Stanley’s widow, Sha, with him to Louisville for this year’s run for the roses.
“Stan is the only reason I am in this contest,” Wielga said. “He convinced me to join TwinSpires a couple years ago and we had always talked about going to the Kentucky Derby together. The last bet he ever made was $200 to win on California Chrome in last year’s Kentucky Derby on TwinSpires.”
Stanley lost his battle with lung cancer just a week after California Chrome crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs.
As for the final round of Showdown, Wielga hinted that he might be considering horses other than the Baffert-trained favorites, American Pharoah and Dortmund. “Those horses have a lot of talent, but haven’t faced a field like they will see in the Kentucky Derby,” Wielga said. “In a race with 20 horses, a lot of it comes down to the draw, who can get the distance and the right trip.”
Even if he doesn’t hit his show bet in this year’s Derby, Wielga is already a winner. Having topped the Showdown Leaderboard this year (tied with Matthew Ball), he’ll be going to the Derby (and Oaks) next year as well.