Tough game can even chisel a champion

It's human nature to relish in another's sorrow. Feel rotten about yourself? Think of the once-happy couple next door going through a divorce, or that co-worker who sweats through his dress shirt daily while he drudges through a tax audit. Suddenly your human condition doesn't feel so bad, does it?

Horseplayers are no different. In fact, we might be the worst of the lot when it comes to the idea that, "If I can't be successful, I'll be darned if I want anyone else to." Sure, we enjoy seeing our friends cash a big-bomb trifecta ticket -- as long as we also were in the pay line after the race.

But more often that not, horseplayers look at those celebrating after a race is declared official and wonder to themselves (and sometimes aloud), "How did that dipstick come up with that -- his house number, her daughter's birthday?"

So after Day One of last week's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, I'd like to personally apologize to Stanley Bavlish for that grin I curled at his expense.

You see, Bavlish took home the $400,000 first prize in 2007 after successfully out-gunning 253 other qualified horseplayers in the NHC. But in his title defense, the racing gods rendered him mortal.

How mortal?

How about 0-for-15 mortal.

Bavlish did not cash a single ticket on Day One of the two-day NHC. In the span of exactly one racing day (with 364 days in-between, of course), he went from king of the hill to helplessly at the bottom of the player heap.

The point is not to bash Bavlish, who is a fantastic horseplayer that spent the past year in his title reign as "Handicapper of the Year" exemplifying class and speaking at industry functions on behalf of the consumer. When the NTRA commissioned a panel of experts to discuss the current and future state of competitive tournaments, Bavlish accepted the invite and, despite a very busy work and travel schedule, seemingly accommodated every request.

Prior to his meeting with the minds, Bavlish personally asked me for input and the input of the people I deal with on a regular basis through blog, Web site and magazine work. Here stands a guy whose ego could be 200 miles wide, but rather he showed his character to be equal parts inviting and intelligent.

Despite his Day One debacle, I would safely bet a healthy sum that a great handicapper and mind like Bavlish doesn't misfire at 0-for-15 too often. In fact, on Day Two of the NHC, he posted a strong total of $93.40 on his 15 wagers, one of the day's top performances. That catapulted him from last of 278 players to 119th-place overall for the tournament, finishing in the top half of the rugged, national field.

NHC IX also proved a tough go for another one-time tournament champion, NHC VIII winner Ron Rippey, who managed only a 272nd-place finish, besting a mere six competitors. Again, Rippey rates as one of the finest horseplayers in the land, and has been a proven success as a published handicapper in the New Jersey sports pages for more than three decades.

The real lesson in all this is that big-time slumps and lousy handicapping days happen to all of us. The next time you suffer through an Excedrin-necessitating day playing the ponies, remember that even Stan Bavlish has gone 0-for-15 with the bright lights shining.

Other NHC Tidbits
While speaking of past NHC champs who struggled, let's give props to Judy Wagner, winner of NHC II, who finished a very strong 15th last week at the Red Rock Resort ... Las Vegas resident Richard Goodall, a retired attorney, kept the cash home when taking the event-record first prize of $500,000. Goodall tallied the second-best point total on each of the tourney's two days, showing remarkable consistency, and he absolutely knocked the ball out of the park playing Fair Grounds ... How good was Goodall? His $78 victory margin was the largest in NHC history, but perhaps even more impressively, represented a total that 126 qualified players even failed to reach ... Former Penn State quarterback John Sacca finished a strong 25th overall and his $117.80 Day-Two total ranked third-best in the entire tourney field.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its website, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at plonk@horseplayerdaily.com.