Wife's advice crowns a champ
Ron Rippey gives two thumbs up to his winner's purse of $250,000. Mark Lowe took home second-place money of $100,000. Both had the 17-1 winner in the contest's final race.
LAS VEGAS - Ron Rippey had just won the $250,000 first prize at the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship on Saturday night and earned Handicapper of the Year honors.
But he didn't want to go to Disney World or brag about it to the ESPN2 cameras. Rippey, 65, of Wayne, N.J., a public handicapper for the past 43 years and the last 28 at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, wanted to celebrate with his wife of 39 years, Arlene. In what is sure to be the signature moment when ESPN2 airs a one-hour special on Feb. 19, Rippey cut short his interview and walked through the cheering throng in the Bally's race book to the area overlooking the book, and gave Arlene a hug and a kiss.
In the background, Santa Anita was showing a replay of race No. 10, the final race of the contest and a mandatory race for all 225 contestants who made 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets each day of the two-day event. Rippey had Alluring Bel, a first-time starter who went off at 17-1 and ran down front-running 8-5 favorite Julep Cup. The $21,820 maiden claiming race had a bigger financial impact for the top handicapping championship contenders than it did for the owners, trainers, and jockeys at Santa Anita. Cheryl Britt, 48, of Madison, Ala., was leading going into the final race and just needed one of the favorites to win to hold off her competitors. Instead, the top four finishers all had Alluring Bel. The $36 win price and $12.60 to place pushed Rippey's score to 237.20 (scores are based on parimutuel payoffs, but capped at $42 to win and $22 to place). Mark Lowe, 58, of Bayonet Point, Fla., finished second with 228.60 points and won $100,000. Mel Moser, 55, of Lexington Ky., was third with 227.60 and won $50,000. Louis Licata, 47, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, was fourth with 219.70 and collected $25,000. Britt had to settle for fifth place at 219.30 and $10,000.
In addition to the top 20 finishers cashing, contestants were also playing as part of three-member teams based on where they qualified. Team Sam Houston Park had the highest cumulative score of $543.60. All three members - Steve Wolfson Sr., 64, of Ormond Beach, Fla,; Matthew Martin, 53, of Katy, Texas; and Robert Chandler, 65, of Texas City, Texas - finished in the top 28.
But Rippey didn't want to settle for any lesser prize.
"I wasn't playing for second place," Rippey said. "It was all or nothing. I would have played her at 99-1, but not 6-1 or 7-1."
Rippey said a mistake on Friday, a horse he passed who won at 18-1, was really the key to the victory - along with the ensuing advice from his wife.
"I was afraid to waste a bullet and missed that 18-1 at Oaklawn," Rippey said. "She told me to put everything behind me and be more aggressive. After that, I wasn't afraid to take chances. When I saw a horse I like, I attacked."
Even after missing that opportunity, Rippey was 28th after the first day with 85.40 points. He kept playing aggressively, and his first eight plays Saturday ran out of the money, but then he caught fire. He nailed Total Command ($42 to win, $19.40 to place) in Oaklawn's eighth race, Roman Murphy ($15.60 to win, $8 to place) in Gulfstream's 10th, and Gold Ruckus ($6.40 to win, $3.80 to place) in Bay Meadows' fifth, a mandatory race.
But this wasn't the first time following his wife's advice paid off for Rippey. On their honeymoon in 1967, they were in England and bought a Jaguar for $7,000 and had it shipped back to the States. Upon returning home, they learned they could only get approval for a $3,000 loan instead of the full amount, and they only had $500 in the bank.
"I got a tip on a horse named Bolinasclip and wanted to bet $100 on it," Rippey said. "I asked my wife and she said to bet the whole $500. Bolinasclip won at $28.80 and paid for the Jaguar almost to the penny."
Rippey said this much bigger windfall will go toward allowing him to retire earlier than he was planning, as well as establishing college funds for their five grandchildren.
The Rippeys own four Rainbow Montessori schools in New Jersey and will continue with that as well as supporting the charity Healing the Children, which aids children with serious medical problems.
The Rippeys have taken seven such children into their home over the years, but it was Ron Rippey's health problems that had an unlikely benefit to his handicapping in recent years, as he was diagnosed with diabetes and other ailments in 2000.
"Arlene told me to stop coming to the school and to take care of myself," he said. "I can do a lot of my work at home, and I have TVG and HRTV on all day long. My medical problems helped me with my handicapping because it made me sit still."
The lessons he has learned have served him well, as did the previous experience of having played in the National Handicapping Championship two years ago, when he finished 47th.
"I made a lot of mistakes the last time," Rippey said. "I worked the previous day and arrived the night before. With the long flight and the time change, I vowed not to do that again, so we arrived Monday, and I was fresher.
"There is no substitute for experience, and no substitute for having guts when you need it."
And, for Rippey, no substitute for a supportive wife.
Top 20 Players
The final results of the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship at Las Vegas.
|Finish||Name, Age||Hometown||Score ||Prize Money|
|1 ||Ron Rippey, 61 ||Wayne, N.J. ||237.20|| $250,000|
|2 ||Mark Lowe, 58|| Bayonet Point, Fla.|| 228.60 ||100,000|
|3 ||Mel Moser, 55 ||Lexington, Ky.||227.60|| 50,000|
|4 ||Louis Licata, 47|| Chagrin Falls, Ohio|| 219.70 ||25,000|
|5 ||Cheryl Britt, 48|| Madison, Ala.|| 219.30 ||15,000|
|6|| Tom Zipp, 48 ||Park Ridge, Ill. ||213.30 ||6,000|
|7 ||Paul Yavorski, 41 ||Whippany, N.J. ||213.00 ||6,000|
|8 ||Bob Bandzwolek, 56|| Baltimore, Md. ||209.90|| 6,000|
|9 ||Richard Murray, 63 ||North Hills, Calif. ||204.00|| 6,000|
|10||Steve Valiant, 43 ||Brooklyn, N.Y. ||203.70 ||6,000|
|11 ||Steve Wolfson Sr., 64 ||Ormond Beach, Fla. ||203.00 ||2,500|
|12 ||William Gonsoulin Jr., 68|| Harahan, La.|| 200.00 ||2,500|
|13|| William Haliziw, 61|| Chicago, Ill. ||199.40 ||2,500|
|14||John Wilhelm, 43 ||Clarendon Hills, Ill.|| 197.80 ||2,500|
|15 ||William Downes, 34|| Columbus, Ohio ||197.40 ||2,500|
|16 ||Kevin Matties, 33 ||Las Vegas, Nev. ||190.90 ||2,500|
|17 ||John Pappalardo, 54 ||Staten Island, N.Y.|| 190.60 ||2,500|
|18|| Kenneth Paszkiewicz, 43 ||Milwaukee, Wis. ||189.80 ||2,500|
|19 ||Paul Arnold, 34 ||Farmington Hills, Mich. ||189.20||2,500|
|20 ||John Livesay, 66 ||Louisville, Ky. ||187.50 ||2,500|
Top 3 Teams
|1|| Sam Houston Race Park (Robert Chandler, Matthew Martin, Steve Wolfson Sr.), 543.60, $15,000|
|2 ||Thistledown (Paul Arnold, Dick Advent, Louis Licata), 524.50|
|3 ||Meadowlands (Bob Bandzwolek, Paul Yavorski, Stacey McQueen), 490.70|
Euphoria ultimately erases nausea
Mark Lowe took home second-place money of $100,000.
LAS VEGAS - After the last race of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, Mark Lowe was leaving the Bally's race and sports book, just hoping he had finished in the top 20.
Lowe, the day one co-leader, selected 17-1 winner Alluring Bel in the 10th race at Santa Anita, but didn't think his total would be enough to qualify for a sizable prize. He had struggled most of the day and had dropped to 10th place after the most-recently posted scoring update two hours earlier. But, as he was leaving the tournament area, an NTRA official ran to find him.
"She said 'Please don't go, you came in second,' " Lowe said. "I was stunned."
Lowe's final total of 228.60 was indeed good for the runner-up spot and a $100,000 prize check. Lowe also earned $4,000 for finishing in a tie atop the leader board of 225 handicappers on Friday.
Lowe's finish was even more impressive considering he missed a mandatory race on Saturday, in part because he lost track of the timing while eating a tuna salad sandwich for lunch. It was one minute to post when he realized he needed to wager, and he didn't have enough time to fill out the bet slip and submit the bet. As it turned out, the horse he would have bet in the ninth race at Aqueduct finished a distant second, and the $5.70 place price wouldn't have affected his overall position. He ended up finishing 8.60 points short of the winner, Ron Rippey.
"Three of my horses got scratched in the optional races, and there was indecision on my part with the built-up emotions and nerves," Lowe said. "Getting lunch compounded the problem. I was sick to my stomach."
Lowe, 58, from Bayonet Point, Fla., is a former air traffic controller and now works in manufacturing quality control. He qualified for his first NHC last April at Tampa Bay Downs. He said all of his longshot hits in the NHC - including 45-1 first-time-turf winner Add Heat on Friday and first-time starter Alluring Bel - were picked on the basis of breeding information.
Lowe appeared cool at the end of day one when he found out he was leading the $540,000 tournament. But, with many of the sharpest tournament players in close pursuit, the pressure made it a rough night.
"I went back to the room to study and my nerves were shattered," Lowe said. "I handicapped for three hours until my eyes were stinging. They hurt like hell."
The $100,000, he says, will go a long way in helping with the care of his 79-year-old mother, Jean. As of Sunday morning, Lowe hadn't even told Jean - or anyone in his family - about his performance in the tournament. He didn't want to excite his mother, with her fragile health. He said he will tell his family only about the day one prize, and they will figure out the rest when they watch the ESPN2 special on Feb. 19. Lowe said he plans to put the rest of the money in an IRA and possibly buy a car.
Alluring Bel's win in the $19,000 maiden claimer at Santa Anita had greater monetary implications than the connections of the filly could have ever imagined. Her win scrambled a leader board that remained relatively unchanged during most of the afternoon on Saturday. The filly's win was particularly painful for Cheryl Britt. Playing alongside her fiancŽ, John Fischer, she led most of the day until the last race of the tournament, before sinking to fifth.
Four players - Rippey, Lowe, Mel Moser, and Louis Licata - leaped over her by selecting the Jeff Mullins-trained winner. Had 8-5 favorite Julep Cup not blown the lead in deep stretch, Britt would have won the NHC. The difference in prize money was $235,000, but Britt tried to be positive shortly after the race.
"I never thought it was going to be a longshot like that," she said. "We're going to be all right."
N.J. public handicapper wins NHC VII
Ron Rippey, handicapper for the Newark Star-Ledger, defeated 224 others to win the first prize of $250,000 at the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship VII at Bally's Las Vegas on Saturday.
LAS VEGAS - Ron Rippey, the handicapper for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger newspaper, nailed a 17-1 shot in the last race of the tournament and dramatically defeated a field of 224 horseplayers in the $500,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas on Saturday.
Rippey, from Wayne, N.J., receives the record NHC grand prize of $250,000 and the title Handicapper of the Year.
"This is a lesson for people to never give up. I made a lot of mistakes yesterday and today, but I was able to survive," Rippey said. "I'm a strong finisher. I don't like to be out on the lead. The hardest thing in the world is to be in front."
Rippey, 61, who qualified for the NHC at Connecticut OTB's Sports Haven, lost with his first eight selections on Saturday. He surged to victory by hitting four longshots late in the tournament. It was Alluring Bel's ($36, $12.60) come-from-behind victory in the 10 th race at Santa Anita that vaulted him to the lead. He finished with a bankroll of $237.20, based on mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on 15 races each day of the two-day Championship.
Mark Lowe, the co-leader after Day One, had to settle for second, finishing with a bankroll of $228.60. Lowe, from Bayonet Point, Fla, earns $100,000 in addition to the $4,000 he received for Friday's performance. Mel Moser, from Lexington, Ky., finished a close third with $227.60 and earned $50,000. Cheryl Britt, of Madison, Ala, who led most of Day Two until the last race, finished fifth with $219.30 and earned $15,000. William Gonsoulin Jr., the highest finisher of 8 players in the field eligible in for a $1 million bonus, checked in 12 th after being in contention for most of the tournament.
First-time starter Alluring Bel was Rippey's top selection after handicapping the 10th at Santa Anita, a mandatory race for all contestants, the night before. The filly, trained by Jeff Mullins, closed strongly under Michael Baze and just got up to win by a length over 8-5 favorite Julep Cup.
After Alluring Bel crossed the wire, Rippey immediately left the race and sports book to embrace his wife Arlene, who he credited for keeping him calm during the tournament when his chances looked bleak.
"She's my inspiration and she's my tranquilizer," he said. "I told her to come with me to Las Vegas and help me bring home the check."
Rippey briefly shared the lead early on Friday, but later passed on a key 18-1 winner he liked and finished the day in 28th place with $85.40. On Saturday, he tacked on $151.80. His other winners were: Total Command ($42, $19.40) in Oaklawn's eighth, Gold Ruckus ($6.40, $3.80) in Bay Meadows' fifth and Roman Murphy ($15.60, $8) in Gulfstream's 10th.
Rippey has been a public racing handicapper for the past 43 years, the last 27 as the public handicapper for the Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey. He has been playing in tournaments since 1999 and won the prestigious Aqueduct Handicapping Challenge in 2003 in similar come-from behind fashion. That win qualified him for the 2004 NHC, where he finished 47th.
Paul Yavorski, from Whippany, N.J, earns $10,000 for having the top score on Day Two of $201.50. Louis Licata, from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, gets $6,000 for having the second-highest Saturday score of $177.10. William Haliziw, from Chicago, got $4,000 for having the third-highest score of $168.20.
Sam Houston Race Park won the team competition with a combined bankroll of $543.60 andThe members of the team (Robert Chandler, Matthew Martin and Steve Wolfson Sr.) get to split the $15,000 prize. Team Thistledown was second with $524.50. The Meadowlands Racetrack team finished third with $490.70.
New leader emerges in day two
Cheryl Britt, an aerospace engineering executive from Madison, Alabama, leads NHC VII with a bankroll of $209.10 after six mandatory races on day two.
LAS VEGAS – After six mandatory races, Cheryl Britt, of Madison, Ala., had seized the lead in the $540,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas.
Britt, representing Team Turf Paradise #2, had a bankroll of $209.10. Britt began day two in eight place and added $82 to her total to put her on top as of 3:00 p.m. Pacific Time.
William Haliziw (Arlington) was second with $199.40. Steve Valiant (Bally's Team #2) was third with $197.90.
Britt, an aerospace engineer executive, is playing in her first NHC.
Two mandatory races remained in NHC VII. The winner receives a record $250,000 prize and the title Handicapper of the Year.
Two players in dead heat after NHC day one
Mark Lowe (left) and Leonard Wells finished in a dead-heat at the end of day one at the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas on Friday.
LAS VEGAS – Mark Lowe of Bayonet Point, Fla., and Leonard Wells of Ontario, Calf., were tied atop a bunched leaderboard of 225 players at the end day one of the $540,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally’s Las Vegas on Friday.
Lowe, who qualified at Tampa Bay Downs, and Wells, representing the Golden State Rewards Network, both finished with $141.40. Each player earned $4,000 for having the top Friday score. Richard Murray, of North Hills, Calf., (Del Mar #2) ended day one in third with $137.40 and earned $2,000.
The overall winner of NHC VII will receive a record $250,000 grand prize and the title Handicapper of the Year when the competition concludes on Saturday.
All of the top three players are competing in their first NHC. Many of the nation’s prominent tournament players in the field were conspicuously absent from the very top of the leader board, but some, like Tim Downs (17th place, $94.40) and Ross Gallo (26th, $87.60), lurk in contention. Defending champion Jamie Michelson Jr. finished day one in 33rd place with $80.40.
Scoring was based on mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on fifteen different races.
Players had to wager on eight mandatory races and picked seven additional races of their choosing from the eligible tracks: Aqueduct, Bay Meadows, Gulfstream Park, Laurel, Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita.
No horse paid more than 4-1 in the first five of eight seemingly wide-open mandatory races, but the leader board changed dramatically after the third at Santa Anita. Lowe, who works in manufacturing quality control, vaulted to the top of the pack when he nailed Add Heat ($92.20, $16). The colt was making his turf debut in the maiden event at 6 1/2 furlongs. The win price was capped at $42 per contest rules.
“I mulled over the race for 40 minutes,” said Lowe, who noted that Add Heat’s sire, Unusual Heat, had gotten an “A plus” rating as a turf sire in a handicapping newsletter he reads. “I picked it on breeding only.”
Lowe, 58, also hit Patriot Game ($29.60, $10) in Gulfstream’s sixth, Shakespearesister ($3.40, $2.80) in Gulfstream’s eighth and Slew of Harmony ($8.40, $4.40) in the seventh at Bay Meadows, the last mandatory race on day one.
Wells, a 56-year-old retiree, struck on three longshots and climbed the standings through the day. His winners included: Patriot Game, Tioga Junction ($38.60, $9.80) in Santa Anita’s fourth and Footie Two ($13.40, $6.80) in Oaklawn Park’s ninth.
Seventeen players in the field are eligible for bonus money ranging from $250,000 to $1 million if they win the NHC. William Gonsoulin Jr. (Fair Grounds) from St. Bernard Parish, La., is the highest ranking bonus-eligible player, finishing Friday in ninth place with $116.20. He will receive $1 million from Churchill Downs Inc. if he can win the Championship.
The Golden State Rewards Network has a commanding lead in the team competition with $361.40. Team Tampa Bay Downs is a distant second with $258. Team Suffolk Downs finished day one in third with $254.90.
The competition resumes Sunday morning with Aqueduct’s first race. The first mandatory race is the third at Gulfstream Park. The tournament ends with the 10th race at Santa Anita.
Updates will be posted all day Saturday at DRF.com. The entire NHC is being taped for a one-hour special to air on ESPN2 on Feb. 19.
NHC purses get a late boost
LAS VEGAS - First prize in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship, being held this Friday and Saturday at the Bally's race book, has been increased from $225,000 to $250,000.
The overall NHC purse has also been increased to $540,000, up from the previously announced figure of $500,000. The added money comes from the two last-chance qualifying tournaments held Sunday and Wednesday in which participants paid a $250 entry fee, with $50 going to the prize pools for those events and $200 going to the NHC purse. Seventy-eight handicappers played in the Sunday contest and 124 played Wednesday.
In addition to the $25,000 from those contests that went to the NHC's first-place prize, the NTRA decided to double Saturday's daily prizes in order to give those who were out of the running after the first day a shot at more money. The prize for the top Saturday score increased from $5,000 to $10,000, second place went from $3,000 to $6,000, and third place from $2,000 to $4,000.
Three make most of last chance
Things didn't go as smoothly as planned Wednesday morning at the Win a Place at the Big Show contest, which in addition to the $250 entry fee called for contestants to make 15 live $50 parimutuel wagers on the racing cards at Aqueduct and Santa Anita.
Problems with the tote system during the start of the Aqueduct card caused a delay in the start of the contest. After trying to figure out if they could hand-book the tournament, officials decided to change the contest to Santa Anita and Bay Meadows and scrap the live bankroll stipulation. The 90-plus contestants who had signed up were refunded their $750 bankroll and given the chance to withdraw if they chose. The format was changed to a flat $250 entry fee with a mythical $2 win-and-place bet on 15 races at the California tracks.
That was welcome news to Jon Kenas, a 63-year-old retiree from Clearwater, Fla. He was in town for last week's Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and was sticking around this week to cheer on some friends in the NHC. He was upstairs at Bally's playing poker when he got the call from friends who encouraged him to take a shot.
Considering the small fields and the lack of longshots coming in, Kenas posted an impressive score of 150.40 to blow away the rest of the field.
"I wasn't just playing favorites," Kenas said. "I had the maiden winners in the first two races at Santa Anita" - Really Indian at 9-1 and Halo Ms. Lion at 5-1 - "and a lot of my biggest points came from second-place finishers that paid more than the winners."
Kenas, a former horse owner, said he has played in many tournaments, with his previous best finish being 10th in a contest at the Orleans. For Wednesday's victory at Bally's, he received $3,050 in prize money, but more importantly he earned the shot at big money this weekend.
Damian Roncevich, 36, of Honolulu, and Steve Valiant, 43, of Brooklyn finished second and third, scoring 101.20 and 101.10 and earning $1,830 and $1,220. They filled the final two spots in the NHC.
Roncevich finished fifth in last year's NHC, earning $10,000, after being in second place after the first day. He also won $40,500 in the spring 2003 Pick the Ponies at the Las Vegas Hilton and has had top 10 finishes at the MGM Grand, Bally's, Reno Hilton, and Turf Paradise.
He doesn't go all around the country to qualify for the NHC, but usually plays in the bigger tournaments. So, after failing to get into the field for the NHC at qualifying tournaments at Del Mar, Bally's, and Turf Paradise, Roncevich bought a one-way ticket from Hawaii to Las Vegas because he knew he would stick around for the last-chance qualifiers after playing in the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and didn't know when he would return.
After not faring well at the Orleans, he finished fifth in Sunday's Smart Money tourney at Bally's, which awarded two NHC spots, and admitted to being burned out from looking at so many past performances.
"I spent the past few days at a friend's house, relaxing by the pool and not looking at any races," Roncevich said. "I think that helped clear my head."
A construction contractor, Roncevich said that the tote problems earlier in the day didn't disrupt his mind-set.
"None of that bothered me," he said. "Playing in all these tournaments, you're used to the turmoil. There's always something happening, and you have to just concentrate on your handicapping."
Valiant, like Kenas, was in town to cheer on some friends in the NHC and decided to try to make the field, too. Late in Wednesday's contest, his friends told him he might need a longshot to win the contest. Instead, he played the favorite in the final race at Santa Anita, which won and paid $3.80 to win and $2.20 to place. He finished 6 points ahead of the fourth-place finisher.
"I played conservatively because this contest wasn't about the money, it was just about getting in the field," Valiant said. "This weekend will be about the money."
Meyer a horse for the course?
The 2003 NHC champ, Kent Meyer of Sioux City, Iowa, seems to save his best for Bally's and might be said to have a home-track advantage.
Meyer finished 32nd in the 2003 finals, the first year it was held at Bally's, and followed that up with his championship in January 2004, earning the top prize of $100,000. As defending champ, he received an automatic entry and returned in 2005 to finish 11th, the best finish for a defending champ, earning another $2,000.
This past year, with his reign over, he had to requalify and won the $40,000 first-place prize in the Bally's Moolah $5,000 buy-in contest in April.
Gutfreund to help ESPN team
His streak of qualifying for NHC's has been snapped at four, but Dave Gutfreund will still be busy in the Bally's race and sports book this weekend.
Gutfreund, known as "The Maven" to many horseplayers, will be part of ESPN's on-air team along with Randy Moss and Dick Jerardi when the championship is taped and later edited into a one-hour show to air Feb. 19. Gutfreund will be roving the floor, interviewing players as the events unfold.
"It's a great opportunity, but one that would never have presented itself had I done what I should have, which is qualify again," said Gutfreund, who finished 20th last year. "I should be able to get good things from the players because I'm one of them, and I know what they're going through. I know the right questions to ask, and they should feel comfortable talking to me."
With brothers J. Randy Gallo and Ross Gallo both playing as part of Calder Team No. 1, at least one member of the family has competed in each of the first seven NHC's. In all, five Gallos have played. Ross has the family's best finish, 17th in 2004.
Pick-six guru Randy is playing in his third NHC, Ross in his fourth.
There are plenty of other family connections in the tournament. Brothers Bill Shurman (Youbet.com No. 2) and Paul Shurman (Autotote-Bradley) are playing together for the third straight year. Kevin "Duke" Matties (Fairplex No. 1) and Paul Matties Jr. (Delaware No. 2) are also in the contest.
Joe Hinson (Turf Paradise No. 1), often considered the king of the contest circuit, is joined by his daughter Kelly Phillips, who qualified in a last-ditch attempt last Sunday at Bally's.
There are two husband-and-wife teams: Ruby and Tommy Castillo, who both qualified at Valley Race Park, and Sally Wang (Fairplex No. 2) and Richard Goodall (River Downs), who are back for their third and fourth NHC's, respectively.
In addition, Stephanie Davis (Aqueduct) and two-time qualifier Joe Scanio (Arlington Trackside) are cousins.
* The number of NHC participants was cut from 226 to 225 Wednesday after NTRA officials received news that William Coleman, 85, of Tamarac, Fla., suffered a heart attack and was unable to make the trip.
- additional reporting by Dan Shapiro
Seventeen eligible for bonus, if they win
LAS VEGAS - A year ago, at the awards ceremony for the sixth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, Emerald Downs announced it was offering a bonus program that would increase the next year's winner's prize to $500,000 for anyone qualifying at its one-day Ultimate Qualifying Tournament in July.
Shortly thereafter, Churchill Downs Inc. announced that it was going to award a $1 million bonus above and beyond the grand prize to anyone who won one of its qualifying tournaments and then went on to win the NHC. Sam Houston became the third company to offer a bonus - $1 million to the winner of its qualifier if he completes the double at the NHC.
So, with the seventh annual NHC being held this Friday and Saturday in the Bally's Las Vegas race book, 17 of the 226 players are going for far more money than the announced first prize of $225,000 from a total purse of more than $500,000. The winner also is recognized as the Handicapper of the Year and gets a trip to next January's Eclipse Awards as well as an automatic berth into next year's NHC, including airfare and hotel accommodations in Las Vegas.
Seven winners of the Churchill Downs Incorporated's Million Dollar Tour of contests and one from Sam Houston Race Park will be shooting for a payout of at least $1,225,000, with a $1 million bonus on top of the first prize. The Emerald Downs bonus guarantees $500,000 to any of the top nine finishers from its Ultimate Qualifying Tournament on July 31 who go on to win the NHC. Churchill actually hosted eight of its qualifying tournaments throughout the country, but the winner of one of them didn't meet the requirement of being a member of the Twin Spires Club or Golden State Rewards Network and is ineligible for the bonus.
If the winner is one of the Churchill contest winners, he will also receive a 26-inch by 14-inch glass sculpture built by artists Ken vonRoenn Jr. and Mark Payton.
A share of the entry fees from the last-chance tournaments held last Sunday and Wednesday at Bally's are kicked in to the total purse for NHC VII. So the total prize money will be more than $500,000 and first prize is likely to be more than $225,000.
That's enough to give the rest of the players plenty of incentive.
The champion will join past winners Steven Walker (2000), Judy Wagner (2001), Herman Miller (2002), Kent Meyer (2003), Steve Wolfson Jr. (2004), and Jamie Michelson Jr. (2005). Michelson and Meyer are in this year's field trying to become the first two-time champions.
But there's also plenty of prize money for the runners-up, with the top 20 finishers all cashing. Second prize will be at least $100,000, with $50,000 for second, $25,000 for third, $15,000 for fourth, $6,000 for sixth through 10th, and $2,500 for 11th through 20th.
There are also prizes of $5,000 for the top score each day, and $3,000 for the second-highest and $2,000 for third-highest.
In addition to striving for individual glory, each contestant (except for Michelson) will be part of a three-player team based on where they qualified, with the team that compiles the highest cumulative score earning $15,000, or $5,000 per player.
Each contestant makes 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day. Eight of the races each day are mandatory for every contestant, the other seven are the choice of the players, who can choose from six contest tracks: Aqueduct, Laurel, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Bay Meadows, and Santa Anita. (Tampa Bay could be used as an alternate track).
For complete information and bios of all the contestants, see the pullout section in Friday's print editions of Daily Racing Form or go to drf.com/nhc.
The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is offering a minimum $225,000 first-place prize. The following players, however, are eligible for track-sponsored bonuses that would pay them much more in the event of a victory.
|Jim Dennis||56||Mundelein, Ill.||Churchill||$1.225 million|
|Ross Gallo||46||Jupiter, Fla.||Churchill||1.225|
|Dominick Coppla||87||Tamarac, Fla. ||Churchill||1.225|
|Richard Grose||48||St. Charles, Mo.|| Churchill||1.225|
|Steve Duncan ||50||Evansville, Ind. ||Churchill||1.225|
|William Gonsoulin|| 68||Harahan, La.||Churchill||1.225|
|Eric Isaacson ||32||Indianapolis, Ind.|| Churchill||1.225|
|Robert Chandler|| 65||Texas City, Texas ||Houston ||1.225|
|Al Martineau||67||Maple Valley, Wash.||Emerald||500,000|
|Eric Schweiger|| 55||Kent, Wash.||Emerald|| 500,000|
|Marty Smith||40||Auburn, Wash.||Emerald||500,000|
|Robin Blair||40||Sedro Woolley, Wash.||Emerald||500,000|
|Peter Defotis||80||Tacoma, Wash.||Emerald ||500,000|
|Don Sullivan||58||Houston, Texas||Emerald||500,000|
|Don Cook||48||Seattle, Wash.||Emerald ||500,000|
|Donald Fischer||43|| Bloomfield, N.J.||Emerald||500,000|
|Scott Sinclair||27||Coquitlam, B.C.||Emerald||500,000|
Contestants to begin checking in
LAS VEGAS - The seventh annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship takes place Friday and Saturday in the Bally's race book here, but most of the participants will be nearly as busy on Thursday.
You can call it Taking Care of Business Day, as the majority of contestants arrive in Las Vegas from all over the country and get registered for the $500,000-added finals.
The 226-player field includes Jamie Michelson Jr. of West Bloomfield, Mich., who is given an automatic entry as defending champion. There are also 220 handicappers who qualified during 2005, two qualifiers from this past Sunday's Smart Money tournament at Bally's, and the final three who earned berths in Wednesday's Win a Place to the Big Show contest at Bally's.
In addition to any money they won in the tournaments that qualified them for the NHC, all participants also receive round-trip airfare from the major airport nearest their home and three nights' accommodations at Bally's starting on Thursday night.
"We've been in contact with all of the contestants and stressed that seating will be on a first-come, first-serve basis, and most are planning to arrive early Thursday," said Ken Kirchner, senior vice president of product development for the NTRA.
When players register, they will get to choose if they want to sit close to the contest windows or farther away from the hubbub. Those who sit in the 18 seats closest to the front will be subject to being relocated Saturday, as that area will be reserved so that ESPN crews can focus on the top contenders for the taping of the one-hour special that will air Feb. 19.
In addition to picking their seats, contestants will also receive their rule packets, player numbers, contest cards, lunch vouchers for the two days, tickets to the Saturday night awards banquet, and complimentary Daily Racing Forms for Friday's races.
For repeat qualifiers - and a minimum of 63 players (not including those from Wednesday's last-chance tournament) have been to the NHC before - none of this is new, especially since this is the fourth straight year that the finals have been held at Bally's. The first three editions were held at the MGM Grand.
One change is that John Avello, the man who brought the NHC to Bally's, is no longer the race and sports book director, as he moved up the Strip to run the book at Wynn Las Vegas. Chris Eggers is now running the Bally's book, but she and the rest of her staff have been there through the first three runnings of the tournament, along with NTRA tournament director Jeff Sotman, so the show should be on autopilot and continue in the manner it's been run in previous years.
"This is our fourth year at Bally's, and it's run more smoothly each year," Sotman said. "The rest of the Bally's staff is in place, so I expect a completely smooth transition."
In the format of the tournament, in addition to eight selections per day that each player makes at the track of his or her choosing, seven mandatory races must be played by all contestants. In the past, Avello was heavily involved in the selection of the mandatory races, but Kirchner said that Sotman and a representative of Daily Racing Form - likely national handicapper Mike Watchmaker - will choose the races, which will be a challenging mix of different distances, surfaces, and class levels.
Those who arrive later on Thursday must wait until the contest headquarters opens at 9 a.m. Friday to get seat assignments and all other pre-tournament business taken care of, including finding out which races will be mandatory.
For the early arrivals, there is also a free cocktail reception at 7 p.m., though it's typical that most contestants make a short appearance and then leave early to get back to the business of handicapping.
Katrina survivor's respite from reality
When 226 horseplayers shoot for the $500,000 purse in this weekend's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, some might dream of using the prize money to pay off credit cards, finance their child's education, or plan an extravagant vacation.
But no player in the NHC field needs the $225,000 first prize more than 68-year-old retired New Orleans fireman William Gonsoulin Jr. He is trying to rebuild his life.
Gonsoulin is from St. Bernard Parish, La., an area that was socked by Hurricane Katrina last August. It was one of the hardest-hit regions of metro New Orleans. Six feet of flood waters ravaged Gonsoulin's home and claimed almost all his possessions. Flood waters also destroyed the homes of Gonsoulin's five children and two grandchildren, all of who lived within two blocks of him. None of them had insurance.
Now Gonsoulin, along with his wife, Judith, and his daughter and granddaughter live in a trailer parked in the driveway of his wreckage-strewn property. His house is 60 percent destroyed and there's a sticker on the front indicating that the structure has been condemned. It's just a matter of time, he says, until it is bulldozed away.
"It's like living on a landfill now," Gonsoulin says. "It's total devastation. You can't get the scope of how big it is from watching TV."
Gonsoulin was lucky to even survive Katrina after choosing not to evacuate as the hurricane approached. As the flood waters rose, he broke into a neighbor's two-story home and climbed upstairs to stay dry. After being stranded for several days, he got on a barge that traveled about 50 miles up the Mississippi River. He got off and rented a place in Harahan, La. Other neighbors weren't so fortunate, including a close friend who drowned in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Afterward, it was by pure chance that Gonsoulin ended up entering - and winning - the Fair Grounds NHC qualifying tournament on Dec. 10, which punched his ticket to Vegas.
Gonsoulin needed to pick up the trailer he now calls home, which was for sale in Arkansas, about 30 miles from Hot Springs. Gonsoulin, an avid horseplayer who travels around the country to play in contests with his wife, heard that the Fair Grounds contest, like the shortened racing meet, had been moved to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.
Said Gonsoulin: "I had heard about the tournament, but obviously I was pretty busy. When a friend told me about the camper in Arkansas, I told my wife 'Let's do the contest.' I told her we'd leave a few days ahead of time and play in the contest before getting the camper. It was only a few hundred miles away. I had a lot of things on my mind, but I said to myself 'I can do it.' "
Gonsoulin earned $14,000 for winning at Louisiana Downs. The prize money covered the $6,500 he needed for the trailer.
Every day continues to be a struggle for Gonsoulin and his family, he says. There are no stores to buy food and other necessities in New Orleans. He just recently got electricity. There are no signs that St. Bernard Parish will be rebuilt in the near future.
"I'm starting again with nothing," Gonsoulin says. "It places a tremendous amount of stress on you."
Gonsoulin will get a much-needed break from the nightmare back home at the NHC. He's not new to the event. He finished 162nd in 2004 after qualifying at Fair Grounds. Judith Gonsoulin qualified each of the last two years.
Gonsoulin is aware of the media attention he will get while in Vegas, especially with ESPN television cameras taping the event for a special one-hour show to air on Feb. 19. But he doesn't seem to mind.
"I want people to know that I'm not the only person who's gone through this," Gonsoulin says. "I'm just one of thousands. I'm getting the publicity because I'm the one in the contest."
If he wins the contest, Gonsoulin says he will use the money to continue piecing back together his life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. In fact, he will be shooting for an unprecedented handicapping tournament payday - $1.25 million - including a $1 million bonus kicked in by Churchill Downs Inc. should he win the NHC at Bally's on Friday and Saturday.
Gonsoulin, who has been playing the races for more than 50 years, says he will choose to bet the cheaper claiming races when possible during the tournament because he feels the payoffs are usually higher. He also knows how difficult the mandatory races in the NHC can be.
"They really pick the toughest ones," he said.
They may look tough to most handicappers, but compared to some of the hardships Gonsoulin has has overcome in the past five months, they probably appear easy to him.
Prestige and riches in equal measure
A field of 226 finalists will compete for the most prestigious prize in all of Thoroughbred racing handicapping when the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship returns for its seventh year on Jan. 27-28 at Bally's Las Vegas in the heart of the Strip.
The 2006 National Handicapping Championship will feature a record purse of more than $500,000,up $100,000 from last year. The winner gets $225,000 and the official title Handicapper of the Year.
For the second time, the Bally's race and sports book will be buzzing with ESPN television cameras.The Championship will be taped and condensed into a one-hour special to air on Feb.19 from 6-7 p.m. Eastern. Regular NHC scoring updates will be posted throughout the two-day tournament at DRF.com.
Jamie Michelson Jr., of West Bloomfield, Mich., will be back to defend his title against arguably the toughest field of horseplayers from across North America ever assembled. Michelson, a 40-year-old advertising account director, receives an exemption into the tournament after his win last year over 213 other handicappers. Also in the field is 2004 champion Kent Meyer, a landlord from Sioux City, Iowa, who be playing in his fourth NHC, this time representing team Bally's Team #1. Meyer backed up his 2004 win with an impressive 11th-place finish last year, the best performance by a returning champion.
In addition to the record grand prize, the stakes are even higher for 17 contestants who are eligible for bonus money should they win the Championship. For the first time, to lure the top players in the country to their qualifying tournaments, several racetracks in 2005 offered bonus awards to their players if they go on to win the NHC.
Churchill Downs Inc.is sending seven players who are out for a $1 million bonus after having won satellite tournaments that were part of the Million Dollar Tour at its properties. These players (Dominick Coppla, James Dennis, Steve Duncan, Ross Gallo, William Gonsoulin Jr., Richard Grose, and Eric Isaacson) will be shooting for a $1.25 million prize the highest in handicapping tournament history. Gallo and Isaacson, both playing in their fourth DRF/NTRA Championship, have perhaps the best chance of snagging the bonus.
"It definitely creates more excitement," Isaacson said. "If I am in the hunt late into the second day I will definitely be thinking about it."
"Sam Houston Race Park is also offering a $1 million bonus if the winner of its qualifying tournament - Robert Chandler - can win the NHC.
All nine representatives of Emerald Downs from its Ultimate Qualifying Tournament (Robin Carlson, Don Cook, Peter DeFotis, Donald Fischer, Al Martineau, Eric Schweiger, Scott Sinclair, Marty Smith, and Don Sullivan) are also eligible for bonus money. The track is kicking in an estimated $300,000 to any member of its contingent that can win the NHC,boosting the total first prize money $500,000 for any of these players.
Judging by the number of repeat qualifiers, the competition in this year's National Handicapping Championship will be the best in its seven-year history. Sixty-three of the 226 players (28 percent) have NHC experience, up from 23 percent last year.Of the finalists, 39 have qualified for their second trip to the national finals. (The final three slots were to be determined at the "last-chance" Win a Place to the Big Show tournament held at Bally's on Wednesday.)
The field includes two of the three five-time NHC qualifiers: Louis Constan (Youbet.com) and William Jackson (Belmont Park). A resident of Glendale, Calif., Constan's best NHC finish came in 2004 when he finished 21st in NHC V. Jackson,from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., finished was 29th in the 2004 Championship playing when for Team Aqueduct. The only other five-time qualifier is Steven Walker, of Lincoln, Neb., winner of the inaugural DRF/NTRA Championship in 2000.
The field also includes a select group 10 four-time NHC qualifiers: Robert Bertolucci (Bally's Team #1), Ross Gallo (Calder #1), Steve Hendricks (Turf Paradise #2), Eric Isaacson (Hoosier Park) Michael Mayo (Lone Star Park #1), Kent Meyer (Bally's #1), Paul Shurman (Autotote-Bradley Teletheater), Trey Stiles (Zia Park), T.J.Taylor (Hoosier Park), and Sally Wang (Fairplex Park #2).
In addition, the 2006 field comprises 12 three-time qualifiers, including Joe Hinson, of Germantown, Tenn., (Turf Paradise #1), widely considered the king of the tournament circuit based on his nine major titles alone or in partnership over the past 23 years. Hinson will be joined by his daughter, Kelly Phillips, who earned a last-minute spot at the Bally's Smart Money tournament on Jan.22. Another three-time qualifier is Steve Wolfson Sr., father of 2003 national handicapping champion Steve Wolfson Jr.
The NHC is the culmination of a year-long series of 92 NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments held at 57 different racetracks, OTBs, casinos and websites and organizations across North America in 2005. More than 100,000 horseplayers participated in these qualifying tournaments, meaning just 0.2 percent of them earned berths into the finals. Once players have qualified, their trip to Las Vegas is paid for by the qualifying site.
The finalists represent 34 states and three Canadian provinces. California has the most finalists (36), followed by Texas (18), New York (16), Kentucky (15), Florida (14), Illinois (13) and New Jersey (13). Nine players are from Canada.
The NHC finalists are predominantly male, but there are 23 women in the field, making up 10 percent of the qualifiers. Contestants range in age from 22-year-olds Lisa Kaufman of Hacienda Heights, Calif.,(Gulfstream Park) and David Crone of New Albany, Ind. (Churchill Downs #1) to 87-year-old Dominick Coppla from Hallandale,Fla., (Calder #2), who has been playing the races for more than 60 years and still goes to the track four or five days a week.
The qualifiers come from every walk of life, from an elementary school principal to an aerospace engineer to a horse dentist to many professional gamblers. For retired New Orleans firefighter William Gonsoulin Jr., who lost his home and the homes of his five children and two grandchildren in Hurricane Katrina, a win in the NHC would be a blessing. Gonsoulin Jr., 68, is among those eligible for the $1 million bonus after winning the Fair Grounds National Handicapping Championship qualifying tournament, which was moved to Louisiana Downs in the aftermath of the hurricane. The money would go a long way to rebuilding the lives of his family.
"Every day is a project," said Gonsoulin, who debated on whether to travel to Bossier City to play in the displaced Fair Grounds tournament. "I don't know how to explain it. It's complete devastation. It's been a four-month nightmare.
"The format for the NHC, designed to be the best test of overall handicapping ability, will remain the same. Players attempt to earn the highest bankroll based on 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on each day of the tournament. Eight of those wagers will be on mandatory races as selected by a panel that includes the NTRA tournament director, Jeff Sotman. The mandatory races will include a diverse lineup of contest at various tracks,surfaces, distances,and class levels.
The seven remaining bets will be the choice of the player,from races at the six designated NHC tournament tracks: Aqueduct, Bay Meadows, Gulfstream, Laurel, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita. Tampa Bay Downs will be used as the alternate track should inclement weather force a track cancellation.
A significant change in this year's NHC will in the display of scoring updates. There will be more frequent updates of the leader board, enabling players to adjust their strategy, especially late in the tournament. The updates, which in past years had stopped after the third-to-last mandatory race, will continue until just before the final race of the tournament, the 10th at Santa Anita, which will be a mandatory race. NTRA officials are hoping the updates will add to the drama and make for more compelling television.
Prize money will be paid down to 20th place in the Championship. In addition, all NHC finalists except defending champ Michelson Jr., will be playing in a separate team competition, with the top threesome splitting $15,000. Team Twin Spires Club, representing Churchill Downs' player-reward program, won the top team prize in NHC VI. There is also $20,000 in prize money to be awarded to the three best scorers on each day.
With $500,000 in prize money up for grabs, big-money bonuses on the line, and ESPN TV cameras blanketing the race and sports book, the atmosphere will certainly be electric at Bally's during the 2006 Championship.
"I can't wait to play," aid veteran contest player Ross Gallo. "It's the most anticipated tournament of the year, and when you don't qualify it's a bad ‘left out' feeling."
At a glance: 2006 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship
WHAT: The finals of the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.
WHERE: Bally’s-Las Vegas will host for the fourth time
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28.
WHO: 226 qualifying players from 57 racetracks, OTBs, casinos,websites, and organizations throughout North America.
FORMAT: Players make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on each of the two days.
Grand Prize $225,000
2nd Place $100,000
3rd Place $50,000
4th Place $25,000
5th Place $15,000
6th-10th Places $6,000 each
11th-20th Places $2,500 each
Grand Prize $15,000
Day 1 and 2
1st Place $5,000
2nd Place $3,000
3rd Place $2,000
* Subject to change/additions from last chance qualifiers.