Great gambling stories that net $642,000 are supposed to be sexy. But professional horseplayers and gamblers know that the keystones of preparation and disciplined execution don’t grab headlines or clicks.
This is not an astounding story of how four favorites put Xpressbet contest player Sean Boarman atop the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge on November 3-4. Rather, it’s a testament to a lifetime’s professional process that came together on the heels of horses seemingly everyone else had – Inspiral, Goodnight Olive, White Abarrio and Elite Power.
Boarman, age 43 and born/raised in Lexington, Ky., essentially took home $642,000 in bankroll and prize money behind a daily double of 5-2 and 6-5 shots, a win bet at 5-2 and an exacta with an 8-5 chalk over a 3-1 co-second wagering choice. Each victory on its own may elicit a “So what?” or “Meh” reaction, but together they provided a rousing endorsement of a professional player’s mantra to be focused and bet focused.
How He Got Here
Betting the horses is the only career Boarman has known since dropping out of the University of Kentucky. “I didn’t go to Keeneland until I was in high school with some buddies and fell in love with handicapping,” he said in an interview this week. “My dad started coming with me after I was exposed, and my mom sometimes as well. I just loved the handicapping puzzle, still do. I loved gambling at a young age … and horse racing was legal at 18, not 21 like other forms of gambling. It was a very easy access point at my age while other games like poker were hard to play legally.
“In hindsight, it was stupidity that brought me to playing professionally. I went to the University of Kentucky briefly, but didn’t like it. All I wanted to do was read The Racing Form and handicap. When it came time to declare a major, I dropped out. I got to meet (professional horseplayer and author) Mike Maloney at Keeneland and he became a mentor and eventually a partner. We sat together in Mike’s office for 10 years. Over time, it clicked.”
Now two decades into his professional horseplaying career, Boarman has a signature public victory in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, an annual $10,000 buy-in contest and Who’s Who of renowned players. He’s a rare contestant on the tournament scene, having played the BCBC each of the past three years with only a fleeting appearance prior. His initial contest forays didn’t provide the results he had hoped, but were important learning experiences.
“I always thought the live-money tournaments gave me a little advantage as a professional player,” he said. “But the first couple of times I played, I was unwilling to risk what you need to risk – because I was coming back the very next day playing and didn’t want to empty my bankroll. At some point, though, you have to be willing to risk it to win it all in these contests. That was a lesson learned.”
How He Won It
Boarman came into the 2023 Breeders’ Cup with an impenetrable opinion in support of White Abarrio in the Classic, formulating that almost immediately after the colt’s Whitney win at Saratoga. He took that centerpiece confidence and worked backwards on strategy, looking to maximize his financial prospects … a trait that professional horseplayers weave on a daily basis.
“In general, the Breeders’ Cup is pretty formful,” Boarman reasoned. “Sure, you have your Order of Australias (73-1 Mile winner in 2020) every once in a while, but these are the best horses and everyone has a good line on them. I wanted to take advantage of the opinions I had, like you always do. When I was done handicapping, I realized my strongest opinions weren’t out of the norm. I had to arrange my strategy for non-chaos.
“My biggest opinion centered on White Abarrio. The goal was to get the bankroll to the point where I could bet $30,000-$35,000 on him to win. That would get me to around $150,000 – a number that most years gives you a real chance to win the BCBC. How can I get to $150,000?”
His heavy daily double bet between Filly & Mare Turf favorite Inspiral and Filly & Mare Sprint favorite Goodnight Olive put Boarman in position to attack White Abarrio with a $39,000 bankroll after cashing on another favorite, Distaff winner Idiomatic (albeit with a smaller bet). His big Classic dive on White Abarrio came up aces for more than $126,000 and catapulted him to third on the BCBC leaderboard with two races remaining.
“After the Classic, Mike (Mulvihill) had put up $180,000 and that shifted things a bit. After White Abarrio, I was telling myself ‘You’re already locked into the best weekend you’ve ever had no matter what. You could leave here with $100,000 plus prize money even if you’re aggressive in the Sprint.’ I knew I wanted that exacta, Elite Power and Gunite, from a pure pace standpoint as the two best finishers.
“You knew the players behind me were going to go all-in on prices; they had to. The two players in front of me both had two entries, one with big money and the others with $20,000-$30,000. They were locked into unbelievably good weekends. In general, when people are in that situation, they’re risk-averse. It made total sense for me to crush that exacta if I was going to play to win the contest.”
And win he did, as his $16,000 exacta bet Elite Power over Gunite, which returned $16 for $2, added another $128,000-plus to his bankroll and vaulted him to the top at $231,238. Kevin Strom wound up second at $215,452 in bankroll, while Mulvihill was third at $173,160. Fellow Xpressbet player Christy Moore finished fourth at $93,990. The top-20 all earned cash prizes with Xpressbet players boasting 11 of those spots.
Boarman credits his wife, Keeana, for much of his success and his ability to deal with the ups and downs of the profession. “She’s incredible and always supportive,” he said. “She didn’t run away from me when we first met and I was already doing this. She’s my rock. She’s heard every bad-beat story there is to tell.”
The at-home bettor juggles family life with his work. The Boarmans have two daughters, ages 4 and 10.
“Speed figures are my key,” he said when it comes to handicapping. “I have made my own speed figures for years and almost solely rely on them along with pace analysis. I used to be big on biases, trip handicapping, but over time, I just continued to see the speed figures trump them while taking less time to work on. I’m, first and foremost, a husband and a father, so that time is important to me.”
Sharing His Wisdom
Boarman’s keys to sound horseplaying aren’t different from what you’ll hear from most professionals.
“If you want to take this seriously, very strong money management strategy and knowing yourself emotionally are the most important skills,” he said. “You have to know how to deal with bad streaks and tough losses. Most importantly, you have to stick to sound strategies that you put in place even when you’re not getting the immediate results.”
Identifying sound strategies is key, and can evolve over time as the wagering environment changes.
“I used to be much more of a trifecta and superfecta player, playing more combos – probably 75 percent of my bets, but now they’re lucky if they are 25 percent of my bets,” Boarman said, identifying the change in bet minimums’ impact on payoffs as one of the reasons for change. “Now I’m very much more centralized with few backups – like the exacta I played in the Sprint. If I miss, I miss; but when I hit, I hit strong.”
His evolution as a handicapper and horseplayer also has moved much of his attention toward racing in Hong Kong. He still follows the national racing scene and major meets in the United States, but said that domestic races account for about 10 percent of his annual handle.
“There’s so much liquidity in the Hong Kong pools,” he explained. “They’re so big that you don’t have to get cute. You don’t have to go fishing for big exotics. You can bet as much as you want and you’re not going to see big odds drops. And while Hong Kong is said to be the original home of the computer teams, their share of the overall pool there is much smaller than here. There’s more dumb money in the pools over there than here. You can still find prices. I hit best-figure winners at Happy Valley the morning of the Breeders’ Cup that paid $28 and $35.
“The market is so efficient in the US right now. You have to pick your spots. On single bets, you can still beat those computer guys. But over a thousand bets, they’ll kill you.”
Boarman hired a computer programmer years ago to build personalized past performances. He purchases data and they “spin it into how I want my past performances to look.” That’s particularly important when he handicaps Hong Kong. “There’s no great PPs option for Hong Kong. It’s rudimentary what’s out there.”
Boarman’s speed figures are more of a traditional speed figure incorporating time and his calculation of the track variant. He also weaves an early and late pace figure into his numbers. His speed figures for Hong Kong are a bit more in the performance figure genre as he’ll include tweaks to the final figure based on trip and track bias, calling those ‘subjective’ parts of the number what evolves into an ‘ability figure,’ a phrase his mentor Maloney coined and taught him.
“I am still primarily a horseplayer, old school,” he said while looking to the future. “I still like to pick horses. I am exploring ways to increase my churn and take advantage of rebates. A hybrid of those qualities – to churn money and overlap with really good opinions for big scores – would be my best of both worlds. I don’t have any automated betting tools at the moment, but I’m trying to get there as part of my future business. I’m also exploring other markets like Australia and Japan.”
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