Horseplayers takes center stage

Horseplayers seldom burst into the spotlight of the racing world. Owners do -- almost as often as trainers, jockeys, and equine athletes -- but the guy in the grandstand goes mostly unnoticed and therefore unreported. You don't read in-depth articles about the winner of the pick six. You don't find many features on those who make a living "playing the ponies."

That doesn't mean the stories don't exist.

This weekend at the 13th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, lives converge in pursuit of a cool $1.5 million and horse racing's official title of "Handicapper of the Year." The tournament has grown rapidly both in price and participation, from an inaugural winner's purse of $100,000 to the present day winner's prize of $1 million -- and in an industry that has seen flat and declining trends overall, NHC tournament play maintains a steady rise.

There are no "buy-in" entries at the NHC. It's the culmination of a year-long series of NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments conducted by racetracks, casino racebooks, OTBs, and horse racing and handicapping websites, each of which sends top qualifiers to the national finals. More than 4,500 people signed up for the 2011 NHC Tour and participated in these local tournaments, hoping to win a coveted spot at the big event. For those who did not succeed, a "last chance" tournament will be held at Treasure Island on January 25 in order to fill five remaining starting berths in the current field of 482.

"The NHC is the most anticipated tournament in the world among horseplayers, and not only do we have a record purse, this year's field of 482 is by far our biggest ever," said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of the NTRA. "We thank all of the horseplayers who competed in NHC-sanctioned tournaments throughout 2011. Thanks to their support, all the ingredients are in place for the most exciting NHC in the event's history."

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People have preconceived notions about the horseplayer. To some, he's a Runyonesque character whose wagering system follows Fugue for Tinhorns logic ("I know it's Valentine, the morning work looks fine, besides the jockey's brother's a friend of mine …") To others he may be old, fat, balding, cigar-smoking, loud-mouthed, generally unpleasant, just plain shady, or various combinations of the above -- the quintessential racetrack degenerate. Rolled-up copy of the Form in hand (useful for smacking the rail while hollering a longshot home), "all horseplayers die broke," as Damon Runyon once penned. Notice no reference to females in the preceding sentences. A lady play the ponies? Scandalous!

Athletes turned Handicappers

A competitive nature spurs horseplayers with an athletic history to participate in the NHC.

Dick Harris

A top defensive back for the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s during the heyday of the American Football League

Bill Holmes

Played for the Pittsburgh Pirates

John Fasola

Drafted by the Pirates in 1982; his son was drafted by the Dodgers in 2010

Nolan White

Played football at Texas Tech

Kevin Geraghty

Played basketball at both Marist and St. John's

Keith Swagerty

coached basketball at Seattle Pacific Univ. for 10 years after playing hoops at University of the Pacific against the likes of Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes

Frank Mustari

Drafted by the L.A. Dodgers in 1987

Well, Judy Wagner won the NHC in 2001. A feisty 60-something southern belle, the New Orleans resident is the only victress in tournament history and has qualified for the national event a remarkable nine times since then.

"All of us horse players are a little bit biased, but we don't feel we get attention we should, and we feel we're the lifeblood of the industry," she said. "I think that sometimes if the people who have won this competition were to be profiled, readers would have a completely different view of the modern horseplayer as opposed to the stereotypical degenerate."

Even going into this year's NHC, contestants defy central casting. Here you'll find Timothy Herboth, a retired nuclear power plant designer, Cara Yarusso, a chemical engineer for General Mills, and Jim Covello, a Wall Street analyst who specializes in the semiconductor industry. Other occupations are as varied as participants' ages (22-84) -- an eye surgeon, a logger, the owner of a beef jerky company, a pilot, a dentist, the co-founder of an online dating company. That 84-year-old participant? He's retired Air Force pilot Gordon Larson, who spent six years as a prisoner of war while serving our country in Vietnam.

There are people like Eric Roth, who won an Oscar in 1994 for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Forrest Gump" and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his adapted screenplay of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (he'll receive a lifetime achievement Award from the Writer's Guild of America next month). Others like Ed Knolle have interesting hobbies -- he's an avid beekeeper, Nicholas Alpino has visited more than 100 foreign countries, Albert Wong is a nationally-ranked chess player, Roger Schumaker frequently mines for gold in Colorado, and Mary Frances Kappel is a soprano in the Archdiocesan Choir of St. Louis.

"Well-educated, high-achieving, high IQ-types are the average," said NTRA Senior Director of Media Relations Wing. "Especially the 13 that have won this thing -- these are impressive people."

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Take defending champ John Doyle for instance. Suave and well-spoken, the 50-year-old native New Yorker impressed a star-studded audience at the Jan. 16 Eclipse Awards in Beverly Hills while accepting his trophy as horseplayer of the year. Why did Doyle resign from his job as an account executive with IBM, where he closed large, multi-year service contracts -- including one 10-year deal with Target which kept the bulk of the company's work in the United States -- to bet on horse races fulltime?

"It's the complexity," he said. "It's a puzzle that's difficult to solve and you never really completely solve it, but there's always a challenge."

Doyle was bitten by the racing bug long before going pro in early 2010. In fact, his father took him to Belmont Park in the early '70s, and thanks to runners like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid, he was hooked.

"I was a fan first, before I ever put my first wager down," he said. "I was introduced by my father and spent summers at Saratoga every year before I even realized there was an intellectual side to the handicapping side of it. There is a negative stigma attached, my wife hates the word 'degenerate,' but I've met a lot of smart people around the world because of my previous career, and some of the top handicappers rank right up there with the smartest people I know. We get a 'bum rap,' so to speak, but why the horseplayer is important, I think, is obvious. Without the pari-mutuel game, there'd be no racing -- or at least it wouldn't be what we have today."

Looking to become the first ever two-time winner of the NHC, Doyle is not the only former champion returning this year. There are six others: Brian Troop (2010 victor), Richard Goodall (2008), Stanley Bavlish (2007), Ron Rippey (2006), Steve Wolfson Jr. (2003) and Wagner. The best performance in the NHC by a former champion thus far is the 11th-place effort in 2005 turned in by 2004 winner Kent Meyer.

The NHC is meant to be the best possible test of overall handicapping ability. Players attempt to earn the highest possible bankroll based on 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on each day of the two-day tournament. Eight of those wagers will be on mandatory races selected by a panel. The remaining seven races each day are optional plays on races at one of seven designated NHC tournament tracks: Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Park, and Tampa Bay Downs.

One man who recently proved his mettle is New York attorney Paul Shurman. He didn't just take home $75,000 for his top scores in the year's NHC qualifying events when taking the fourth annual Daily Racing Form NHC Tour. As that Tour winner, finishing first, second or third in an incredible 10 different qualifying tournaments during 2011, he is also eligible to receive a $2 million bonus should he emerge victorious in this weekend's competition. He came close to winning once before, finishing third in 2009.

"He's got the most on the line," Wing said. "It's his 10th NHC appearance and he's like death and taxes -- he always seems to qualify. He's got it down cold."

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And then there's Sheldon Finkelstein, whose story has already been told by Andrew Beyer and by Bill Finley. Diagnosed with severe pancreatic cancer in March, 62-year-old Finkelstein's biggest goal was to live long enough to play in this year's NHC. Winning $1 million is the chance of a lifetime for some, but for Finkelstein, just making it to the Jan. 27-28 competition was an incredible accomplishment.

Tuesday afternoon, the horseplayer and his good friend Howard Dennis, 64, were driving on their way to Vegas. About three weeks ago, the last round of tests came back and doctors recommended that Finkelstein make final arrangements -- the cancer is back with a vengeance, and it's everywhere -- but the tournament was so close he could almost taste it.

"I'm already a winner, just to have made it here," he said. "I've had some bad days, but you can't just take your pills and be ill and feel sorry for yourself, you have to have something to look forward to."

Finkelstein grew up going to Aqueduct, Saratoga, even taking in the trotters at Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways in New York. For Chicago native Dennis, who has qualified for the NHC eight years in a row and also served on the NTRA players' committee, it was Arlington Park that formed the springboard for a lifetime of involvement in the thoroughbred industry. They've been friends for more than "10 laughing, fun-filled years," said Dennis.

"More than anything I love the idea, the challenge, and the game of picking out these horses," he remarked. "It's one of the greatest games of all. Sheldon and I play a lot together, we share our ideas and we're trying to achieve what everybody's trying to achieve and win this thing. We have more emphasis and reason than ever to send Sheldon out with his wish-list complete, and we're going to put our heads together and work day and night and continue right on down to the very end."

Initially drawn to handicapping by the excitement, in horse racing Finkelstein now finds a final reprieve from the disease that is bringing his life to an end.

"It's just the excitement," he said. "The moments before the race is ready and then they're off and the two minutes or less of the race, it's the most exciting time -- the challenge of the game. Right now, two minutes of racing takes all my pain away; I forget about my pain, I forget about everything."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.