Game of passion: Del Mar man’s horse betting success dates back to teen years
By Claire Harlin
When Christian Hellmers grew out of baseball cards in his early teens, he found a new game of passion, one that meant sneaking into the Del Mar horse races in high school to place $2 bets and spending late nights at the track in college studying race playbacks. Since the moment he had money to gamble, he was ready to bet on horses.
“My dad took me once or twice when I was 14 and I loved it,” said Hellmers, a Del Mar area resident and Torrey Pines High School alumnus. “When I got a car, I would drive over there and I was underage, so I’d have to pretend people were my parents to get in … I used to take $20. I’ll never forget the first time I won $120 and it seemed like so much.”
It would be an understatement to say Hellmers, 34, has increased his wagers — and his winnings — since then. On Nov. 4, he brought home the silver medal at the Breeders’ Cup — “the Super Bowl of horse racing,” as he calls it — winning more than $120,000. He became the youngest person to ever finish in the top two of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge World Series of Horse Betting, which took place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The invite-only competition also happened to be a record-breaking one, with wagerers earning some of the highest payouts in Breeders’ Cup history.
The tournament lasted two long days and involved 115 of the country’s best horseplayers, who each bought in with $10,000 to compete for the gold.
According to figures released by the Breeders’ Cup, the betting pool totaled at least $183 million.
Hellmers finished in fifth place on the first day, after calling a perfect win on a long shot named Perfect Shirl. After betting on horses that had run against her in weeks prior, Hellmers ignored her projected 3 percent chance of winning and put his money on the patterns that told him Perfect Shirl was going to run a much-improved race. It was another soundly taken risk — betting $6,500 on a 7-1 shot — that won Hellmers the exacta and put him in a safe first place on the second day for the last four races. That was until the last race, when Patrick McGoey of New Orleans bet everything he had on a long shot, pulling him up dozens of spots to take the gold.
Hellmers said, “The only way you can ever be great is if you take huge, calculated risks,” and that’s a sentiment he lives by to the fullest.
Hellmers earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles and has job experience developing businesses, lobbying and working at internet startups, but he made some risky changes about 10 years into his career when he dropped everything and started his own health, wellness and relationship-coaching business (www.thefirsttenminutes.com). He also took the risk of leaving behind his obligations in San Diego to travel to Kentucky on a whim to compete in the recent betting challenge. Selling off stock and finding two silent investors made it possible for him to buy into the tournament, but things still didn’t come easy for Hellmers. His bank didn’t receive his stock purchase order in time, so his mom, Georgia, dipped into her savings to help him enter the tournament in time. Adding to that stress, Hellmers missed a flight between Dallas and Louisville, almost missing the tournament.
In the moments leading up to the challenge, it would seem luck wasn’t on his side. However, that means nothing to Hellmers, who doesn’t believe in luck but believes in divinity. The game is one of patterns, consistency and calculated decision-making, he said.
Horses racing at the level of the Breeders’ Cup are professionals, he said, meaning that they are consistent in their performance.
“There’s a lot more consistency than chance,” he said. “I analyze every horse’s history, I create probabilities and I check those probabilities based on what the market is offering.”
Hellmers has spent 20 years mastering the art of betting. He started reading books on horse racing in high school and he even took a class at the Del Mar racetrack when he was 17. Working as a waiter at the Turf Club and hot walker also allowed Hellmers to stick around the track after hours watching replays until they kicked him out.
“I was learning from the best at the time,” he said. “I even gave presentations in Calculus class on the ponies.”
At the age of 20, Hellmers won three tournaments and more than $30,000 with his good friends, Nisan Gabbay and Kevin McFarland. The three also garnered international attention when they turned $500 into $23,000 — winning a tournament against 270 of the best gamblers — and also when they hit a pick six for $45,000.
Not even old enough to drink alcohol at the track, the three became known as the “Pick6 Boys” and were featured on horse racing network TVG (Television Games Network) in a special about how to bet the pick six. On the show, the boys revealed their betting techniques and further validated their skills by bringing in $15,000 that day on live television.
Hellmers’ betting skills even landed him a position with Betfair, the British-based company that bought TVG for $50 million and developed it into one of largest online betting platforms in the world. As the company’s U.S. director of business development, Hellmers was a leader in the $50 million acquisition.
“I often reflect that I could be an amazing guitarist, snowboarder or surfer if I hadn’t gotten hooked on the intellectual challenge,” Hellmers said.
While he’ll tell you that luck has nothing to do with being a good horseplayer, Hellmers does believe karma has something to do with it.
Maybe that’s why he gave randomly gave away a $250 ticket to a young Canadian he met outside the track, or why he tipped the bathroom attendant $20 during one of the final races.
“In order to receive, you gotta give,” he said, adding that he was selective in choosing investors because he wanted every penny he wagered to carry good karma.
There may be a hint of superstition in his ways as well — he didn’t shower or change his clothes during the entire tournament, and he wore a headband that seldom leaves his forehead, a necklace that he said is a source of energy and a shirt that’s a winning shade of blue.
“When I used to watch football with my dad and the Chargers were doing well he’d say ‘Don’t move,’ like they’d keep doing well if we stayed still and didn’t change what we were doing,” he reminisced of his father, Don, who passed away five years ago after a six-year battle with cancer. “Maybe not changing my clothes has something to do with that.”
Hellmers said the spirit of his father, who first introduced him to racing, was with him throughout the tournament, as were a few other things that kept him grounded. A devout vegan, Hellmers brought raw snacks from the Rancho Santa Fe farmer’s market, like kale and organic almonds, to eat in the betting room. He also took B Vitamins and drank a lot of water, while other betters were drinking soda or booze. He said he inhaled essential oils like peppermint and thieves after each race to help him reset his thoughts.
“One of the reasons people lose is because they are trying to catch up. You can’t think about the previous race,” he said. “If I make a mistake on one race, I smell the oils and it’s healing. It makes me forget about the past.”
He said being in the betting arena is “almost as if you’re in war and you’re trying to do everything you can to survive.
“One mistake could be fatal and could cost you thousands in earnings and lost sleep,” he said.
Hellmers couldn’t sleep the night after his big winnings, perhaps because he had a new outlook on life. The experience inspired a new venture — to create a syndicate for big racing days in order to increase winnings with the help of other stakeholders. The syndicate would operate similarly to a hedge fund, he said. He also wants to advise amateur betters on who not to bet on, because he said so many bets are a waste of money.
“Hopefully this gives me the credibility to convince investors,” he said.
Hellmers is also researching and communicating with organizations to whom he will donate a percentage of winnings, and he particularly wants to help retired racehorses.
For more information, visit www.christianhellmers.com.
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