LAS VEGAS – Jim Benes never imagined he would win $750,000 on a $3.60 place horse, but that’s exactly what put him into the winner’s circle with the $750,000 first-place prize at theDaily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Saturday afternoon.
Benes, a 50-year-old professional horseplayer from Countryside, Ill., topped a field of 455 horseplayers vying for the top prize and title of Handicapper of the Year at the 14th annual horse handicapping tournament in the ballrooms at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino.
Benes trailed the leader, Roger Cettina of Rumson, N.J., by $2.40 after the final posted scoring update of the two-day tournament. In the final race of the contest, the 10th at Santa Anita, Benes used the 8-5 favorite, Hidethegoodstuff.
“I didn’t want to lose by $2.40, but I don’t like maiden races and didn’t like anything else,” Benes said. “The 5 [Hidethegoodstuff] looked good and had proved herself [finishing second in her debut]. I just hoped he [Cettina] wouldn’t have a bullet left or would use another horse since he also had to worry about the other people that could have caught him with a longshot.”
NHC finalists make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers (with one being a $4 win-and-place best bet) each day with eight mandatory races each day and seven being player’s choice, so players have no way of knowing if their competition has any plays remaining. As it turned out, Cettina did use 25-1 long shot Bikini Bottom.
“I didn’t like any of the other horses in the race, so I don’t regret making the play,” Cettina said before the results became official.
Turning for home, Hail Mary opened the lead at 10-1 to put a scare into the leaders as there were a handful of other contestants that could have passed them, especially combined with the other late race, the 12th at Fair Grounds, but Benes’s mind went elsewhere.
“When I heard Hail Mary coming down the stretch,” Benes said while choking up, “I thought of my mother Mary, who passed away a few years ago. I wasn’t sure if she was telling me ‘I’m here for you’ or ‘You should have bet on me!’ ”
Hail Mary won the race, but none of those within striking distance used her. The $3.60 place price put Benes’s two-day total at $268.40 to top Cettina’s $267.20. The $1.20 margin of victory is the second closest in NHC history after last year’s $1 win by Michael Beychok over David Flanzbaum, who is a friend of Benes from the Chicago circuit. Benes qualified for the NHC finals at Hawthorne Race Course.
Cettina won the second prize of $200,000. He had qualified by finishing 50th on the NHC Tour (anyone in the top 100 who hasn’t already qualified receives a berth plus
airfare and hotel accommodations just like regular qualifiers throughout the year). Jeff Hartz of Rummells, Iowa, (who qualified online at NHCqualify,com) finished third with a score of $244 to earn $100,000; Richard Grose of Wentzville, Mo, (qualified at horsetourneys.com) held on for fourth at $242.60 to earn $75,000, plus another $5,000 for Friday’s top Day 1 score; and Don Camoro of Tigard, Ore.,(qualified at Emerald Downs) was fifth at $240.80 to take home $50,000. The top 40 received cash prizes at the awards banquet Saturday night.
Benes, who prefers live-money tournaments because they are more like his everyday betting on the races (and he won $29,000 with a top 20 finish in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge back in November), said he approached the tournament just like he would any other day, looking for value.
“I guess I don’t feel the ramifications of it yet,” he said when asked how he felt after his win became official. “I feel like I’m the same person I was yesterday so nothing’s really different. All I can really think about is that my daughter will be set.”
Benes was second after the first day of play (earning an additional $4,000) and moved into the lead midway through Saturday when he had 25-1 longshot Offlee Fast in Gulfstream’s ninth race, the third mandatory race Saturday. Offlee Fast, whose sire Offlee Wild won the 2003 Holy Bull Stakes and helped Steve Wolfson Jr. to the NHC 4 title, paid $59.60 to win, but contest rules cap prices at $42 to win and $22 to place, so he did get full credit for the $21.20 place price. The $63.20 total was his biggest score of the tournament as he had a total of six winners and five second-place finishes.
All the prices were higher than Hidethegoodstuff, but none was bigger or will be remembered as long as the $3.60 place horse.