Final Thoughts from The BIG One at Laurel

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By now, many of you know the final, nitty-gritty results from The BIG One, held last Saturday and Sunday at Laurel Park.

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Dan Flanigan played a masterful tournament, preserving his bankroll until the race he had been waiting for all weekend, the 9th at Belmont on Sunday, came along.

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He bet $1,000 into the race, including $400 to win on the 3-1 winner and $100 on the winning exacta combination that paid $84 for a deuce. That put Dan over the top and gave him just enough to hold off what was a late surge from Larry Burns, who had led prior to Flanigan’s big hit.

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Dan’s win even got a write-up in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun, which was very cool.

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At the finish of the 51-person tournament (unfortunately one player couldn’t attend due to a personal issue), the top eight finishers won both NHC and Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seats. Two additional players won NHC seats, and 10 others won their choice of Horse Player World Series entries or $1,500. Not bad for a 51-player field. Total value of the live bankrolls, prize pool, tournament seats and player benefits exceeded $375,600.

In fact, NHC seats ultimately went to the 11th, 12th and 13th-place finishers since three people in the top 10 — Tony Zhou, Eric Moomey and Brett Wiener — were already double qualified for the NHC. Thanks to a special provision in The BIG One’s rules, Zhou, Moomey and Wiener each received $5,000 cash in lieu of an NHC seat.

Long after I forget the details of the competition, though, I’ll remember the fun experience of being a small part of this event.

It was my first time attending The BIG One and the vibe was unique. All players stayed at the nearby Aloft Hotel in Hanover with many bringing friends and family. By the time of the Friday night welcome dinner at Dave and Buster’s (in the same complex as the Maryland Live! Casino), it seemed to me that everyone was in an extraordinarily good mood — excited but not tense.

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That proved to be the case all weekend long. There were no drama kings or queens…players treated each other and the Laurel staff collegially and respectfully…it was just a nice group to be around from player 1 through player 51. Over the two days we received exactly one complaint about a player who had apparently gotten audibly angry after a tough beat. It was not something we had noticed prior to receiving the complaint.

I suppose it helps when players are on a “free roll” — which was essentially the case since all 51 had previously qualified either through HorseTourneys (49 such qualifiers) or Laurel Park (2). But I’ve attended every single NHC and the mood there, even at the beginning, is filled with much more tension and nervousness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s part of what makes the NHC so electric and intense. The BIG One, though, was much more intimate. Players were there to fire away, but they weren’t too obsessed to enjoy each other’s company — at Laurel, at Dave & Buster’s, at the Aloft Hotel bar — while they were at it.

A lot of the credit for the great setting belongs to the staff at Laurel Park. So many improvements were being worked on while we were there. It was truly exciting to see a track inventing such resources in its facility. Laurel will definitely be worth a visit if you haven’t been there recently.

The BIG One was held in a beautiful new section of the second floor clubhouse and everyone from Stronach Group Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo on down was constantly checking in with us to make sure that conditions were perfect and that players had everything they needed — from food and drink to power and light…and even when it came to switching overhead TVs to particular racetrack signals or baseball/football games they wanted to keep an eye on. Here’s Tim on the left with The BIG One contestant John Scheinman in the tournament area:

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“There will never be a better tournament venue than this,” said Gene Cahalan at the conclusion of the competition. “Everything was roomy, beautiful and great.” (Perhaps it should be noted that Gene was not handing out bouquets simply because he had enjoyed a successful tournament. He didn’t. His live bankroll was tapped out at the end.)

And at the risk of sounding too much like a company man, I also have to give credit to HorseTourneys president McKay Smith for all the personal touches he provides (straight out of his pocket) at The BIG One.

Prior to the start of The BIG One, McKay offered to provide (free of charge) the drink of choice (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) to any player if he or she thought the Laurel open bar might not stock it. Three players took him up on it. So making their BIG One debuts in 2016 were bottles of Blanton’s bourbon, Tito’s vodka and Campari liqueur.

We also had a little trouble early on Saturday morning when the shuttle bus we hired to bring people from the hotel to Laurel showed up at the wrong Aloft hotel. Remarkably, very few were negatively affected. However, one player, Steve Arrison wound up having to take a taxi to Laurel. When McKay learned of this, he reached into his wallet and refunded Steve’s $40 cab fare before Steve had even taken his seat for the day.

A half-hour or so later, Steve insisted that McKay accept $20 tickets on two of Steve’s favorite plays that day. That was sort of a microcosm of the whole weekend to me.

It’s little stuff like that that I am going to remember most about my first trip to The BIG One. And why I will be looking very much forward to returning.

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