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Friday, January 29, 2010

Handicappers Take Center Stage

By ALEX WALDROP,

This is a big week for some of racing's most devoted followers. On Friday and Saturday, some 300 horse players will compete in the 11th Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Red Rock Resort, Casino and Spa in Las Vegas. The stakes are high and I am told the format grueling, with players required to place mythical win and place wagers on 30 races over the course of two days.

The winner will walk away with $500,000 and be honored at next year's Eclipse Awards as the National Handicapping Champion. Defending champ John Conte, the pride of Brooklyn who energized the audience with his hilarious acceptance speech at last week's Eclipse Awards, is among seven past champions who will be on hand to compete for nearly $1,000,000 in prize money.

I'll be attending the NHC and look forward to meeting many of the qualifiers. As the 100,000 or so tourney players who participated in 2009 know all too well, just getting into the NHC is quite a feat. You see, you can't buy a seat at the National Handicapping Championship, you have to earn one by qualifying in one of more than 100 on-site and online tournaments conducted by NTRA member organization's over the course of the year.

Today marks the beginning of sign-ups for the 2010 NHC Tour, with feedback from more than 3,000 customers and fans leading to several changes designed to broaden participation among horseplayers. In addition to competing for money and nearly 30 spots in next year's National Championship, Tour members get free entry into five online tourneys held over the course of the year. Tour members also qualify for industry discounts from NTRA Advantage partners, plus they receive membership in the Horseplayers' Coalition, a grass roots organization mobilized to support player-friendly federal legislative initiatives on Capitol Hill.

In reviewing the bios of some of this year's NHC qualifiers, I was taken by the diverse backgrounds of the individuals descending upon the Red Rock. In many ways, the NHC field is representative of the eclectic group of people that visit racetracks and off-track betting facilities from coast-to-coast every day of the year. Qualifiers consist of 27 females, including 2001 NHC winner Judy Wagner. The youngest player is 24-year-old college student Andy Pham. The oldest is 84-year-old Gerard Oberle, who was on hand to watch Seabiscuit win the 1942 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs.

The field includes Hollywood screenwriter Eric Roth, who in 1994 won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the movie Forrest Gump. In addition to the usual array of professionals, this year's qualifiers include a logger, a funeral home owner, a nuclear power plant employee (no, Homer Simpson didn't qualify), and a pilot. Rounding out the field will, of course, be a host of professional gamblers.

No one will have more at stake this week than New Orleans native Bryan Wagner, who collected $100,000 for winning the 2009 NHC Tour. Bryan will collect a $2 million bonus in addition to the $500,000 first prize if he can win the NHC. The aforementioned Judy Wagner is Bryan's wife, and she collected $37,500 for tying for second-place in the NHC Tour. That's an unprecedented feat, and a win by either this weekend would cement the Wagners as the first couple of the NHC. With New Orleans in the Super Bowl, perhaps this is the year that the Saints -- or in this case, Bryan or Judy -- come marching home in front of the NHC pack.

Horse players occasionally describe themselves as the neglected and long suffering participants in Thoroughbred racing. That experience is changing. Tracks, horsemen and even progressive state governments, wrestling with a tough economy and expanding competition, are starting to recognize horse players as the economic engine sustaining our business. The NHC is an outgrowth of that changing perspective, where players are not only rewarded for picking winners but also celebrated as champions.

Best of luck to all of the NHC qualifiers. And for those of you who have never experienced tourney play, check out the NHC Tour web pages on NTRA.com. As thousands of others can attest, you may find that tourney play is yet another appealing way to enjoy Thoroughbred racing.

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