Handicapping championship visits Las Vegas this weekend

The 15th annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship will be contested today through Sunday at TI.

The guaranteed purse is $1.5 million, with $750,000 to the winner. A field of 489 qualified, including defending champion Jim Benes.

There are dramatic rules changes to the NHC this year. The most obvious is becoming a three-day, instead of a two-day, event. The best bet option has been eliminated, which was something I really liked. That allowed a player the chance to double up on one race each day.

This year, the top 50 players from the first two days of the NHC will move on to a Sunday “Final 50 Contest.” The rest of the field will compete in a consolation tournament.

The Final 50 Contest will end at 1 p.m. Then the top 10 scorers will move on to a Final Table, a format change similar to the World Series of Poker.

At the Final Table, the 10 finalists will play the same five mandatory races to decide the eventual champion. There figures to be a lot of strategy involved as each of the five races is run. I would hope a running scoreboard is made public, which would only crank up the excitement level.

The rules changes should not be a stretch to understand, as the concept mirrors the WSOP. What it will do is heighten the drama as each level is attained by the surviving players.

There has never been a two-time winner of the NHC.

Brent Sumja, who won the 2013 NHC Tour, has a different kind of pressure. First, he won $92,000 for being the Tour champion. Now, he is the lone person eligible for a $2 million bonus should he win the NHC. The bonus, combined with a $750,000 first prize, could make for a $2.75 million payday for Sumja.

There is a strong local contingent in the NHC. The following players reside in Nevada: Stanley Bavlish, Frederick Cipriano, Edward De’Ath, Chris Goodall, Sally Goodall, Richard Goodall, Daniel Kaplan, Jim Meeks, Steve Turner and David Wang.

The NHC has called Las Vegas home since its inception. It’s been held in prior years at the MGM Grand, Bally’s and Red Rock before coming to TI.

It wasn’t until moving to TI that the NHC was held in a ballroom facility. That became a necessity as the number of players kept growing to this year’s record 489. Big-money handicapping tournaments remain one of the consistent growth areas of the sport.

The timing of the NHC this week and the first episode of “Horseplayers” on Tuesday night on the Esquire Network could not have been better.

Horse handicapping and betting is not a dart throw where the winners are the lucky ones. Luck does play a big part in winning, but the axiom the harder you work, the luckier you get, rings true on a daily basis.

On Sunday night, some “lucky” horseplayer is going to be $750,000 richer.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.