May 31, 2020

NHC Profile: Robbie Courtney playing for late wife Molly

Robbie & Molly Courtney
Robbie & Molly Courtney (Robbie Courtney Photo)

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NHC Profile: Robbie Courtney playing for late wife Molly who urged, ‘Don’t stop this NHC hunt’

There are hundreds of stories at this year’s National Horseplayer’s Championship (NHC), which commences its 21st renewal this weekend at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino with nearly $3 million on the line. But in human interest terms, none of them can hold a candle to the one belonging to Robbie Courtney, a 53-year old horseplayer from Keller, Texas.

Courtney became familiar with horses in his teenage years, when he worked as a rodeo clown.

“I worked with horses a lot and I grew to love them,” Courtney said. “They’re like big dogs, very intelligent and also therapeutic to be around.”

His father, also a horseplayer, saw an opportunity in his son’s specialized knowledge — Robbie could be his secret weapon.

“We didn’t have any racetracks in Texas at that time so he’d drag me across the border to Louisiana Downs,” Courtney recalled.

“He was wanting me to tell him about the body language of the horses. On the first day, I remember telling him, ‘That horse has kidney sweat and is very nervous so I’d stay away. This other one has a gleaming coat and is doing well.’ He did pretty well that day.”

Horse racing tournaments came into the picture for Courtney a few decades later. As a Texas resident, he couldn’t play in the pari-mutuel markets on the internet from his home state, but he stumbled onto a website where you could participate in tournaments.

“I had no idea you could participate online,” he said, and doing so rekindled his interest in racing. “I had some success with it early on and thought, ‘Wow, this is kinda cool.’”

He dreamt of playing on the contest world’s biggest stage – the National Horseplayers Championship, an event he had heard other players describe as the pinnacle of tournament play.

But to tell Courtney’s story properly, we must first back up a bit. Before any of this, in December of 2014, Courtney learned that his wife Molly had stage 2 breast cancer. She underwent aggressive treatment and had apparently beaten the disease.

Fast forward to August of 2018 when Courtney and Molly discovered that the cancer was back with a vengeance at stage 4 – it had metastasized to her bones and organs.

“If anyone has ever been a caregiver, especially for your wife, your best friend, that’s the only thing you’re focused on and it was a real honor to me” he said, “but tournaments became a little distraction for me at night and I became set on the idea of qualifying for the NHC.”

In mid-2019, Molly had a major surgery and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. When she returned home, it was to hospice care.

“We knew then that we didn’t have a lot of time,” Courtney told me, his voice raw with emotion. “I hated watching what she going through. Probably a week before she went into a deep coma, she said to me, ‘Don’t give up. Please don’t stop doing this NHC hunt that you’re trying to get into because I know how good you are.’”

Courtney was astonished.

“Of all the things to say,” he continued. “I thought she was going to tell me something really profound.”

In her own way, perhaps Molly really was trying to relay something profound – that she loved him and wanted him to continue on his life’s journey, whatever that meant, even if it was something as silly and simple (in the grand scheme of things) as qualifying for the National Horseplayers Championship.

She later expanded on her message, telling him she wanted him to “live his life and not to curl up in a fetal position.”

On October 31, as Courtney put it, Molly “left the blue ball and went to heaven.” He spent those last few weeks of her time on earth at her side, and was there for her last breath. Understandably, the next few weeks were just as pain-filled and difficult as you might imagine.

On November 22, with Molly’s words ringing in his head, Courtney decided to enter an online qualifier. “I wasn’t into it,” he recalled.

“I was still trying to come out of this fog but I said, ‘OK, I told her I would try to do this so let’s do this.’”

He had a good day, picking seven winners before the last race, putting him in position to win if the #1 horse at Woodbine could get the job done in the contest’s anchor leg. With Robbie and his kids exhorting his pick on – there is video apparently – sure enough, the horse got to the wire first and Robbie had punched his ticket for Las Vegas.

“That wasn’t me,” he admitted. “Molly had to be in heaven whispering to those eight horses, ‘Get your tail across that line!’”

Courtney is a man of deep faith and that has helped him through this trying time. “There’s a scripture where Jesus says, ‘I’ll never leave you or forsake you,’ and I’m telling you I now know that to be true. He has sent so many new friends from this horseplayer community that I never would have met. As bad as this pain is, what some people see as pain, God will use it for something good. I’ve been surrounded by some incredible people who’ve held me up and kept me sane.”

And that’s the message that Courtney would like people to take from his story. As bad as things might get for any of us, there is always hope. As Molly said to him, “When you get down, do not get into that fetal position.”

Be sure to check the NHC leaderboard this weekend, and for karma’s sake, root for Robbie Courtney. But no matter what the technical results of the tournament might be, know this – the biggest winner at this year’s NHC is Robbie Courtney.