The action kicking off the 15th edition of the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, NV could be described as ho hum with the cancellation of racing from Aqueduct due to frigid conditions and a parade of short prices, but as the day grew longer, so did mutual payoffs and excitement.
Through the first part of Friday, Russell Priola from South Wales, NY had a small advantage, but relinquished it to Jim Sims of Grand Prairie, TX around noon. Up to that point the largest mutual payoff from 4 mandatory races was $8.20 from Lil Escape Artist in the 8th race at Tampa Bay Downs.
Halfway through Friday short prices turned into a procession of mid-priced horses paying between $10 and $20 to win at tracks such as Oaklawn Park, Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park. During that time Sims grabbed command, but had a slew of sharp handicappers chasing him, the most prominent being Christian Hellmers. Twice runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge and one of the handicappers chronicled in the Esquire Network’s newest reality show, Horseplayers, Hellmers got as high as 4th place at one point.
Towards the end of Friday’s action a slew of longshots shook things up on the leaderboard. Oaklawn Park’s 6th race was the 5th of 7 mandatory plays entrants had to make, and those who selected #10 Rattlesnake Hollar were rewarded with a $42.00/$20.40 win/place payoff. This “cap” horse vaulted Francis Boustany of Lafayette, LA into the top spot, as Sims slipped to into a tie for 7th. Should Boustany come out on top he will join Judy Wagner (2001) and Michael Beychok (2012) as champions from the Pelican State.
Later in the day, Legacy captured the 3rd race at Santa Anita. Those able to come up with the 22-1 longshot added another $59.40 to their bankroll, and the action did not stop. Jerry N Duke ($23.40/$8.60) winning the 7th at Oaklawn Park, Shadow Rock ($32.60/$12.60) splitting horses late to take the 8th at the Fair Grounds and Simple Sharp ($27.40/$13.40), hanging on by a nose to score in the 4th race at Golden Gate, created some chaos in standings behind Boustany.
As day 1 came to a close, the fast paced action did not wane. Sizzlin’ Joe in the 6th at Santa Anita returned $33.00/8.60 to his backers. In addition, racing concluded at Oaklawn Park with 34-1 cap horse, Midnight Eclipse, paying $42.00/$22.00 in the 8th and Lila Grace ($28.60/$11.60) in the nightcap. Finally, in the last mandatory race another big price came storming home as Macaabra ($42.00/$12.80) captured the featured 7th race at Santa Anita.
Once the dust settled, it was Jose Arias of Bell Gardens, CA coming from out of the clouds to seize the lead with the selection of Macaabra. Rich Pawlowski of Cranberry Township, PA moved to second with a bankroll of $172.20. Rounding out the top 5 were Tony Brice ($169.00) of Coffeeville, TX, Mike McIntyre ($168.00) of Massillon, OH and Christopher Skotz ($161.00) of Campbell, CA. Arias won a $6,000 bonus as the Day 1 leader.
One thing is certain: No lead is safe with the leader wearing a constant bulls’ eye on their back. With this many great handicappers, when longshots score handfuls of contestants will have them, making for a volatile and exciting weekend. Good night & happy handicapping!