The race result charts created and produced by The Jockey Club, the source of all information regarding Thoroughbred races in North America, are filled with detail, awash in minutiae. Forests of data – Chicago’s chart-caller, Nicolle Neulist, feels right at home in such an environment.
Neullist was offered a job by Equibase, the data-collecting arm of The Jockey Club, to work the Arlington race meet in 2017. She jumped at the chance. And considering where Neullist’s working life had taken her before that offer came, it was a great leap of faith.
Neullist, 38, graduated from University of Chicago’s law school and went straight to work for a high-powered firm. That lasted about a year.
“My last year of law school I realized that’s not where I belonged, but I had the job lined up and I had to see if actually working in it was any better,” Neullist said. “It was a very bad fit for me. Everyone makes stupid decisions when they’re 22. Going to law school was my stupid decision.”
Neullist’s second career: working as a computer-security consultant. That fit better for Neulist than the law, but also failed to fulfill. In fact, by the time the Equibase offer came around, Neulist said the computer work had come to seem oppressive.
Horses and racing? Those already had lodged fully into Neulist’s spacious brain space. The summer before the law job started, recruits were taken on an Arlington outing. Neulist loved it but didn’t return to the track for three years. A solo trip to the 2013 Arlington Million made such an impression that Neulist took up racing as a hobby.
Understand: Neulist’s brain has an unusually powerful processing system. Neulist gained early admission to two universities, Chicago and MIT, among America’s most prestigious. Neulist is both a deep diver and a scavenger of surfaces, intrigued by detail, a hoarder of information. Racing, with its endless reams of statistics, the interlocking loops of pedigrees going back generation after generation, provided a perfect landing spot.
“It was a very scary move when I took the job with Equibase,” Neulist said. “The only guarantee was I’d be working through the Arlington meet. But I thought it was a really neat opportunity.”
Neulist supplements the chart-calling income with freelance writing work while continuing to engage with a lifetime passion – trivia. Neulist has feasted on all manners of trivia games since childhood. When old enough to frequent bars, pub quiz became a fixture. And the famous quiz show, Jeapoard! – Neulist has been a fan for decades. More than a fan, actually, having taken the online test to qualify for participation more times than Neulist can recall. Fives times the show reached out for an in-person audition and 20 months after the last of those, in 2019, Neulist got a call with an invitation to appear on the show.
As it happens, Neulist’s Jeopardy! episode aired Aug. 13, the evening before the biggest day of the summer for an Arlington chart-caller, the card that used to include the Arlington Million, now the Mister D. stakes. Neulist said Jeopardy! tapes a week’s worth of shows in an afternoon, and Neulist only got into the last game of the session. By then, it had become apparent that the opponent would be Matt Amodio, who had emerged as one of Jeopardy’s great champions, a winner of 13 straight when Neulist came to take him on. Chart calling requires quick thinking, rapid-fire reactions to the unfolding of a race, and so does Jeopardy! Half the battle is buzzing quickly in order to get a chance to answer questions, and Amodio had been crushing his opponents in that area. Not Neulist, who was playing for the first time against someone having their 14th go.
“I was buzzing right in with him. That was fun,” Neulist said. “Once we actually started playing the game, I didn’t think about the fact I was playing Matt. I was focused on the game, focused on the gameplay because that’s what you’ve got to do. I was in the lead at the end of single Jeopardy – the only player in 18 games that had the lead against him – and that was exciting.” In Jeopardy! play, the Daily Double allows a player to plump their score totals, and early in the second round, Amodio got one and bumped his score. Neulist’s chance came later. In the Bible, what were Asher and Zebulon? Neulist attempted “Israelites,” which was close, the answer being “lost tribes of Israel.” Betting cannily, Neulist stayed within striking range through Final Jeopardy. Twice during Amodio’s run, he’d been stumped by Final Jeopardy questions that Neulist knew immediately. Amodio got this one right; Neulist missed.
Jeopardy! is to humans what the Kentucky Derby is to horses – you get one shot and one shot only at it. A dream fulfilled, the dream quickly ends, only to be relived in one’s head. But Neulist is living another dream, one born more recently when horseracing rose up and presented itself as a life option. Neulist identifies as gender-neutral (and prefers the pronoun they over she) and is far from a conventional met-them-at-the-mall sort of human being. Back from Jeopardy!, back at Arlington, Neulist was back doing a weird job that somehow suited her far better than two others most folks would have felt constituted life success.
“I wondered if there was going to be a place for me in horseracing, because I ran into that same thing being an attorney,” Neulist said. “I’m just glad I was able to carve out a niche.”
Hollands get two into Lassie
Steve and Diana Holland, longtime Chicago owners who breed and race as S D Brilie Limited Partnership, own four broodmares that produce foals they race in Illinois. That’s far from a broodmare band, yet the Hollands have managed to get two homebred 2-year-old fillies, Plus Chic and Purr Sea, into the $75,000 Arlington-Washington Lassie on Saturday at Arlington.
“It’s remarkable,” Steve Holland said. “I have no explanation, obviously. One of them is well bred, the other maybe not so much.”
The “other” horse is Purr Sea, the second foal produced by Kitty’s Castle, a two-time winner during her racing career and a daughter of the marginal sire, Cashel Castle. Kitty’s Castle’s first foal is Cat Attack, a very nice Illinois-bred filly in her own right, a three-time winner from seven starts. Purr Sea has raced once, drawing away to win an Illinois-bred maiden sprint by 13 ½ lengths.
Plus Chic, bred in Kentucky, also is one for one during her brief career, capturing a grass sprint Aug. 1. She’s by More Than Ready, an excellent stallion, and out of Chic Dancer, a graded-stakes winner during her racing career and the dam of Grade 1 winner, Her Emmynency.
The Hollands a few years ago sold their best broodmare, Deville, who was exported to Korea, but have a new mare in the herd, Puntsville, the wonderful Illinois-bred sprinter, currently carrying her first foal, by Will Take Charge. Continuing to breed horses in Illinois requires healthy dose of optimism given the state of the sport in the state. Holland said he still holds out hope Arlington won’t close after the 2021 season but is ready to race the S D Brilie homebreds on the Hawthorne – Fairmount circuit if it does. And as for Saturday’s race?
“I have no idea which one is better,” Holland said. “I never have any idea.”
Matthews hits the road
The 3-year-old colt Draft Capital made it into this space after rising from a $12,500 maiden-claiming win to solidly capture a first-level turf allowance race for trainer Doug Matthews. The horse’s summer improvement to that point had been stark and surprising – and it has only continued. Draft Capital came back Aug. 12 to sharply win again in a turf raced rained onto Polytrack, and Draft Capital has gotten so good for Matthews and his owner, Savesnine Corp., that the colt was to be shipped Sunday night from Arlington to Colonial Downs, where he runs Tuesday in the $250,000 Virginia Derby.
Draft Capital has raced five times during the Arlington meet, a busy schedule, especially considering the colt’s arc of improvement, but he’s giving his trainer no sign that he’s about to take a step back.
“He’s a big, strong horse. None of this has seemed to faze him. He’s come out of every race great, has yet to miss any oats. He seems to get stronger every time I run him,” said Matthews.
Matthews hasn’t won a stakes race since August 2018, but thanks mainly to Draft Capital, a four-time winner over the last three months, he’s having his best summer in years. A quarter-million-dollar purse might be too much to ask for – but it might not be.
***Runaway leading Arlington jockey Jareth Loveberry was hurt during a training mishap on Wednesday, Aug. 25 but escaped serious injury. Loveberry was off his mounts Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and was expected to miss Saturday’s card but hopes to resume riding races on Sept. 1.