by Peter Thomas Fornatale
It's a handicapping tournament unlike any other.
This weekend, the 20th annual National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) is taking place at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, with more than 670 entries competing for $2.9 million in prizes, plus more than $10 million in potential bonuses. The tournament, held Friday to Sunday, will offer a first-place prize of $800,000. The overall winner will also receive an Eclipse Award and be named racing's "Horseplayer of the Year."
Defending NHC champion Chris Littlemore will seek to become the first-ever two-time NHC champ, competing against six other past winners including, Ray Arsenault (2017), Paul Matties, Jr. (2016), Jim Benes (2013), Michael Beychok (2012), Richard Goodall (2008), and Stanley Bavlish (2007).
Two other players to follow in the general field are NHC Tour winner, Dave Gutfreund, who has done very well in New York tournaments historically, and Chuck Grubbs. Gutfreund is playing for a record $6 million in bonuses tied to various tournament wins and his Tour championship, while Grubbs is eligible for a $3 million BCBC/NHC Bonus.
Another unique aspect of the NHC is that it's the only handicapping tournament where players can't simply buy their way in - the only pathway is through a qualifying tournament.
Not many entities are sending more players to the NHC than the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA), who qualified 25 players through eight tournaments throughout the year. In addition to the direct qualifiers, New York will be represented in Las Vegas by several loyal New York-based players.
Paul Shurman of Dix Hills, Long Island has played in NYRA tournaments for years and boasts one of the best resumes in the history of the tournament, with three top-10 finishes, a Tour championship and a spot in the NHC Hall of Fame. He nearly went one better in 2018, leading the tour for a long way in a bid to become the first two-time winner of that year-long interconnected series of contests.
"I did the best I could, but Dave was great, he had the run of a lifetime," said Shurman. "I'd rather be playing for the extra money and there's a lot less pressure on me, but if I win, Dave will have cost me five million dollars."
Paul's brother Bill lives in California now, but came back to his home state to qualify at Saratoga. The Shurmans have now qualified 17 and 16 times, respectively.
The Shurmans are not the only New York siblings headed to Vegas this weekend. Brothers Andrew and Bruce Berg qualified at NYRA events. Andrew, 57, won the Wood Memorial Challenge and Bruce, 61, advanced from the Belmont Stakes Challenge.
"Ever since we were kids, we've enjoyed riding and gambling on horses," Andrew Berg told me. "As we've gotten older, it is easier to gamble than it is to ride.
Karen Carey is relatively new on the tournament scene. She did well in several New York events this year including an overall win in the same Belmont Stakes Challenge, NYRA's biggest tournament that required players to put up $10,000. This will be her first NHC.
"That was quite the day," she said of her Belmont victory. "To go from just starting out to that was super exciting."
Carey, who divides time between Manhattan and Saratoga, began her contest career playing in the $40 low-roller events at Saratoga and parlayed that into a fourth-place finish on this year's NHC Tour.
"I love the competition and the camaraderie," she said of her new pastime. "People have been fabulous, both the players and the people at the NTRA who put the tournament together."
The Belmont Stakes Challenge attracts a strong field of players from all over the country, including a few who punched their tickets by finishing in behind Carey that day. For Memphis, Tennessee resident Marshall Gramm, it may have been his first Belmont contest, but it won't be his last.
"It's a great event," he said. "It's big money, the card is so good, and it's a great opportunity to qualify for the NHC. Plus, it's a good chance to meet up with friends from around the country. I plan on going back every year."
Dave Nichols, originally from Rensselaer, New York, qualified for two NHC seats from NYRA contests in 2018 out of four tries - a solid batting average. The first time came in Saratoga, where he also made his TV debut. He was interviewed by Gabby Gaudet as part of FOX Sports' coverage because he was leading at the time. He was eventually passed for the win but held on for the seat.
In the NTRA / Belmont Super Qualifier, which sent six players to the NHC, Nichols was also leading before Discreet Lover's win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 45-1 shook up the leaderboard. But again, he got an NHC seat for his trouble.
"I've been going to Saratoga forever and this is my home circuit, so I think I just feel comfortable," he said of his success in NYRA contests, "Someone pointed out that I've been going to the lead too early and maybe I have to learn how to rate."
As for the tournament itself, players attempt to earn the highest possible bankroll based on mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on assigned "mandatory" races; eight per day on Day 1 and Day 2 and seven races at the Final Table.
The remaining 10 races on Day 1 and Day 2 and all 10 plays in the Semifinal round will be optional wagers on races at one of eight designated NHC tournament tracks, including Aqueduct.
The NHC field will be reduced to the top 10 percent of players after the first two days. The highest 10 cumulative scores after the Semifinal round will fill out the Final Table. Bankrolls amassed during Day 1, Day 2 and the Semifinal round will roll over to the Final Table, with the 10 finalists settling the NHC score in seven mandatory assigned races.
Players who do not make the semifinal cut will still compete on Day 3, in a separate consolation tournament.
A full scoreboard will be updated regularly at https://www.ntra.com/nhc, where fans and players can also find each day's contest race menu and news updates. You can also listen to live coverage on At the Races with Steve Byk, which will be broadcast online at www.stevebyk.com through the Listen Live tab, with NHC coverage slated for 2-7:30p ET (11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. PT) Friday through Sunday.
Players looking to qualify for the 2020 NHC will once again have many opportunities to do so via NYRA, starting with two $500 live-bankroll events, the Gotham Challenge on Saturday, March 9 and the Wood Memorial Challenge, Saturday, April 6. Signups will be available soon at https://www.nyra.com/challenge.