Ed Lawless and and Kelly Smith-Lawless didn’t mince words when asked how special it was to return to the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas for another run at the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship.
They’re making a collective 10th run at the NHC title this weekend – the 19th annual NHC marks Ed’s seventh appearance and Kelly’s third – and it’s more than an understanding of how difficult it is to qualify that gives the Saratoga Springs husband and wife tandem satisfaction beyond those words.
“We’re damn glad to be here,” Kelly said Wednesday, not long after checking into their suite at Treasure Island following a flight from Fort Lauderdale.
The reason for the satisfaction and enthusiasm comes in qualifying together and in the midst of Ed’s now 23-month battle with lung cancer. A semi-retired project manager and estimator for a local roofing company, Ed has undergone chemotherapy and radiation during his fight with adenocarcinoma. He’s 72 and Stage 4, not expecting any sympathy and is relishing the opportunity to handicap the contest’s mandatory races and hopefully uncover a few longshots.
“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” Ed said. “They would have to put me in the ground to keep me from coming here.”
Not much has stopped Ed Lawless from qualifying for the NHC. He made his first appearance in 2007 and finished 65th. He missed the next four contests but has been back to every year except 2015 heading into Friday’s opening day. Ed is a double-qualifier for this year’s NHC, earning two entries after qualifying through contests at Horsetourneys.com and Gulfstream Park.
The couple live in Saratoga Springs but spend as much time as possible in Florida, so much that Kelly joked her husband earned “A-list” frequent flier status from going back and forth for treatment the last two years. They’ll return to upstate New York shortly after the tournament for another round of treatment.
“This one seems kind of special because I may not have many more to be honest with you,” Ed said. “And it’s nice with the two of us. I’m dual qualified and Kelly has one. It’s exciting; the tournament has changed a lot over the years but we love to come back.
“You get the fever and the bug. There’s a real camaraderie with the people that you meet. It’s exciting, you hope to do the best you can and go from there.”
Kelly, 56, managed a large project management office for the New York State Office of Information Technology Services before she retired. She is a self-confessed “data pig,” who relies on a database she developed with her brother for much of her handicapping. She qualified for her first NHC in 2011 after finishing second in a contest at Saratoga.
“Once you’ve qualified and played in the contests, the first thing you want to do is come back,” Kelly said.
Like many active tournament players, the Lawless’ travel around the country to participate in qualifiers. Kelly qualified last August at Indiana Grand, where she finished second and just 40 cents behind the winner.
Not surprisingly the foundation for their handicapping was built at Saratoga Race Course. A native of Schenectady, Ed was introduced to the track in the 1960s by his former brother-in-law. Kelly grew up in Saratoga and not far from the track. They started dating in the early 1980s, around the time Ed was involved with the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce while working for the roofing company WeatherGuard that later became Tecta America WeatherGuard.
“When Kelly and I met in the early ‘80s, one of the things we always used to do, Kelly would love to go to the track so I’d bring her for her birthday,” Ed said. “Joe Dalton (the former longtime president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce) would get me the Chamber table and I would wine and dine Kelly. We’d have a nice seat and we would have a nice time.
“Our interest in racing sort of evolved from there. Kelly knew how to read the Daily Racing Form and the program long before I ever did. We used to do a lot of sailing, too, but we gave it up toward the late 1990s and that’s when we evolved into horse racing.”
The couple’s interest in contests started online, on now defunct websites like publichandicapper.com and Letitride.com. They later gravitated to contests at racetracks and off-track betting outlets.
“Our first official contest was at Capital OTB,” Kelly said. “I was the brave one that signed up. Eddie came along with another friend, who qualified for the first time this year, Dwight (Peterson). They were watching me and kicking themselves after. They were like ‘oh man, I should have played.’
“From that one contest, I think it was for a spot in the national handicapping challenge, oh my god, we had a blast. We were hooked from there on. We went to the NYRA contest, Monmouth contest, then the Saratoga contest, more online contests, Gulfstream and so on.”
The NHC is divided into two parts – the first two days featuring 18 races each day and the final day which includes a semifinal and final round. Players make mythical $2 win-place wagers on the 18 races – eight mandatory and 10 optional – to accumulate points.
The top 10 percent of the entries from Day 1 and 2 advance to the semifinal round, which includes the same $2 win-place bets on 10 races selected by the players. The highest 10 mythical bankrolls from the semifinal round advance to the “Final Table” of the NHC, which consists of seven mandatory races selected by the tournament organizers.
Ed and Kelly didn’t waste time digging into their past performances for Friday’s races – he prefers Brisnet PPs and she goes with DRF PPs. They brought a laptop, small printer and reams of paper so they’d have more ready once entries were drawn for Saturday’s and Sunday’s cards around the country.
“Kelly even just went out and bought a coffee pot for the room,” Ed said. “We ended up with a mini suite so we’re just going to hunker down in here and handicap.”
While they planned to discuss the races and their selections once the handicapping was complete, they definitely do their own thing once the contest begins.
“Like she says, Kelly is a data pig. She and her brother developed a software program that they call Kelly Picks and it works for her,” Ed said. “I’m sort of old school in my handicapping. Lately one of the things I’ve been looking for is a change in jockey, a substantial change. Like a change to Joel Rosario or Javier Castellano. They tend to drive the prices down but in trying to do any good in these contests you have to look for an overlay, sometimes a 3-1 or a 4-1 in a mandatory race may be OK. You’re trying to find something that is going to pay off.
“The other thing you have to do in the contest is know your strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a big Golden Gate person, yet that is a track that very much comes into play at the end. It’s one of the tracks still going late in the afternoon, on the West coast. We tend to follow the NYRA circuit naturally, the more East coast tracks, which are susceptible to the weather this time of year.”
The old saying about “what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas” certainly doesn’t apply to Ed and Kelly and nearly all the other participants in this year’s NHC, which offers nearly $3 million in prizes and $800,000 and the Eclipse Award as “Horseplayer of the Year” to the winner.
There’s simply too much work between when they arrived and the start of the tournament. All the distractions are put to the side, even cancer.
“We can just focus on what we’re here for, finding winners and having fun,” Kelly said. “We rode the plane over with Ray Arsenault, who was last year’s winner. His point of view is ‘we’re all good handicappers, it’s who is the luckiest for the day.’ That’s really what it boils down to. Who’s hot and who’s not.”
Read more on the 19th annual NTRA NHC.