Sarah Crouse might not call herself a handicapper, but a prize pot of more than $10,000, won earlier this month at a contest at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York says otherwise, and says it loud and clear.
The 25-year-old Crouse took home first prize in the New York Racing Association’s live-money tournament on the day of the Wood Memorial, turning her $200 bankroll into more than $1,700 with her last play of the day. Added to that was $8,600 in prize money.
“I was screaming at the top of my lungs watching the race,” she said. “So were my family and my friends.”
Crouse spent the day camped out in Longshots, Aqueduct’s simulcast facility; she, her horseplayer fiancé, and her family are track regulars, and she decided to play the contest as a matter of convenience, having already planned to be at Aqueduct for the biggest day of its spring meet.
NYRA has long hosted handicapping tournaments, the winners of which earn both prize money and a seat at the National Handicapping Championship held annually in Las Vegas. Last year, NYRA was given permission by the New York State Gaming Commission to hold live bankroll contests, which require players to wager a set minimum of their own real money, as opposed to the mythical money contests that NYRA had previously hosted.
A resident of Floral Park, New York, which sits practically on the backstretch of Belmont Park, Crouse moved east from California because, she said, “I accidentally fell in love with a New Yorker.”
Now engaged to that New Yorker, Brian Hoffacker, Crouse switched her home track from Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, the tracks she’d grown up going to with her father and uncle, to the New York circuit of Belmont, Saratoga, and Aqueduct.
“When Brian and I started dating, I saw that racing was really his lifestyle, his passion, and I wanted to know more about it,” she said. “He taught me to read the Daily Racing Form. At first, I was stressed out just putting $5 across the board on a horse.”
The $200 bankroll was about what she budgets for a day at the races; competing against 85 other handicappers, including some of the cast members of the reality show Horseplayers, she was down to $52 when a bet on Princess Violet at Keeneland brought her back up to about $300.
“That kept me alive,” she said.
She worked herself up to fifth place and a $500 bankroll, at which point she thought, “OK, I’m in the money, and I can just stop now—I can walk away and hold on to this.”
But Crouse didn’t, chipping away at that $500 until it was down to less than $300, more than $1,000 behind the leader, when she got to the last race of the day.
“I remember watching replays of Hop Skip and Away and looking at his Beyers,” she said. “I checked out [NYRA race analysts] Mike Beer’s and Andy Serling’s picks, and they had the horse in there but nowhere near the top.”
Nonetheless, she bet $100 to win on Hop Skip and Away at almost 9-1, then used him top and bottom in exactas in a last-ditch effort to finish respectably.
“I honestly still cannot believe he came through,” she said. “When I was watching the race, I didn’t even know that it would put me in first place. I was just freaking out because I had so much money on the horse.”
The format of the NYRA contest meant that no matter where Crouse finished in the standings, she’d go home with $1,752.80, a healthy profit from where she started with the required $200 bankroll, even adding on the $200 entry fee.
The contest was the third in this format held at Aqueduct this year. The others, held in November on the day of the Cigar Mile and in March on the day of the Gotham, had a $100 entry fee.
“The live-money format has a lot of benefits” over the mythical money contests, said Donny Nelson, NYRA’s advertising manager. “The money goes through our pools, the contests are cheaper to run, and we still give 100% of the prize pool back to players.”
The format requires more of a financial investment on the part of players, but they can also keep what they win. The track and horsemen also benefit because money that goes into the pools is subject to the track’s takeout, increasing revenue and providing purse money.
The live-money format also reduces NYRA’s costs: players can bet from anywhere at the track, obviating the need for a dedicated space with tellers and pari-mutuel machines. Because players aren’t concentrated in one room for the length of the tournament, hospitality costs are also reduced.
While Crouse gambled in Longshots, her fiancé Hoffacker was upstairs in the Manhattan Terrace, headquarters HQ, working with NYRA to register contestants. Ineligible to play for that reason, he joined Crouse late in the day, cashing his own tickets on multi-race exotics at Aqueduct and Keeneland.
Together, Crouse and Hoffacker publish Trip Handicapping, devoted to race analysis and trip notes. Dormant since last fall, the site will recharge later this month, said Hoffacker.
Crouse’s age and her sex put her outside the typical contest player demographic, and women contest players are not uncommonly suspected of relying on male acumen in their handicapping. Crouse has not, she said, had to field any such accusations, but she’s ready if they come her way.
“It comes with the territory,” she said. “A very, very small number of people playing are women in their 20s. Hopefully, my winning this contest will show other young women, or women of any age, that they would have a chance to win if they entered. You can’t win if you don’t play, and you can’t learn if you don’t try.”
Because she’s not a member of the National Handicapping Championship Tour, Crouse was ineligible to win the seat at the NHC next year. She’s not planning to become a member anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that her contest career is over.
“After winning one, I’ve got the bug to try again,” she admitted.
Then she added, sounding like a trainer in the winner’s circle after a stakes race, that she’s not thinking too far ahead at this point.
“This was exciting,” she said. “Instead of going right back into another one, I just want to relish this one a little bit.”