By Noel Michaels
He was in 14th place when the final day started at the 23rd NTRA National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas. By the end of the day, David Harrison had soared into the lead and held on in the finals to claim the $725,000 winner’s purse and earn an Eclipse Award as outstanding handicapper.
“It’s an absolutely life-changing score,” the 63-year-old Harrison, a real estate appraiser from Webster, New York. “I’m a middle class, middle income, hard-working guy. I’m totally overwhelmed.”
Harrison defeated the field of 643 entries with an impressive handicapping display during the three-day event. His total winning score was $342 based on $2 win-and-place bets on 18 races a day on the first two days, and 17 more races on Sunday.
He was in contention on Friday and finished Saturday’s play in 14th as the field was narrowed to 64 players heading into Sunday’s semifinal round. He scored well enough in Sunday morning’s 10 races to advance to the 10-player Final Table, where he topped the competition.
Horseplayers from North America converged on Bally’s Las Vegas on Jan. 28-30 to decide the champion. The handicapping tournament featured qualifiers from the NHC Tour, who had earned their entries based on wins or high finishes in NTRA-sanctioned on-track or online contests throughout the year. The top 64 finishers split prize money of $2,339,550, with the majority of that going to the top 10 finishers.
Including the purse money awarded to the top finishers on the NHC Tour, total prize money awarded over the weekend was nearly $2.8 million.
For most of the first two days, the field was chasing David McCarty, 79, a biotechnology entrepreneur from San Diego. He entered Sunday with a score of $248.80. In second going into Sunday was Sally Goodall, the 2020 NHC Tour champion and NHC Hall of Famer, who had $245.60.
Harrison was about 50 points behind, but he came out firing Sunday to hit both of his first two semifinal round plays. In a room full of the country’s top handicappers, it was a hunch play that propelled Harrison to the Final Table thanks to his winning pick on Let Me Finish in race 1 at Laurel, who paid $46.60 to win (capped at $42 in the contest) and $21.20 to place.
“That was one of my hunch plays and probably the reason I won,” Harrison said. “When I get into a discussion with my wife, she’s always telling me, ‘Let me finish.’”
Harrison passed McCarty and Goodall entering the Final Table, and in the late stages of Final Table play, which consisted of seven all-mandatory races, Harrison ($342) held off the challenges of Ryan Patrick Scully ($324.80) of Montgomery, Illinois, and A.J. Benton ($321) of Manchester, New Hampshire to win by a $17.20 margin.
Scully, 34, an NHC rookie, took home $200,000 for second and Benton, 41, a frequent online player, won $150,000 for third.
Fourth place and $100,000 went to another NHC rookie, Frank Paros, 62, from Jupiter, Florida. McCarty held on for fifth to win $75,000.
After the awards ceremony, Harrison tossed his program into the air as a tribute to the late Harvey Pack, a New York television personality and racing show host he began following in the 1970s.
“Is used to think (the NHC) must be tough, I’d like to do that one year,” Harrison of his two previous NHC appearances. “Those first two years got me a little more comfortable. I learned to just focus on playing the way you normally play. Don’t worry about all the chatter in the room.”
In an era ruled by computerized betting and handicapping programs, and speed figures such as “the sheets,” Harrison stands out as a relatable figure to many of his peers.
“I’m an old school guy. I use the Daily Racing Form. I’m a speed player, but you can’t just focus on one thing,” Harrison said.
TV Handicapper Kinchen disqualified for leaving event
Jonathon Kinchen, a FOX Sports handicapper who also works for NYRA-produced “America’s Day at the Races’’ on FOX, was disqualified from the championship for leaving the site and having someone else place his bets.
Kinchen, a six-time NHC finals qualifier, was in Las Vegas on Friday, but was seen on television on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, during the broadcast of Pegasus World Cup day.
The NTRA released a statement on Sunday regarding the rules violation:
“All wagers must be placed personally, and in-person, by the Contest Player. The disqualified player was not present at Bally’s during the NHC tournament, and his contest wagers were being submitted on-site by an intermediary without authorization. No authorization was given to the player to leave Bally’s or the State, he violated both.”
Added NTRA President and CEO Tom Rooney: “The rules are clear that participants must be onsite to participate in the NHC. The NHC is the world’s most prestigious handicapping tournament. The integrity of the event is of paramount importance – not just to us but to the thousands of men and women who attempt to qualify and play each and every year.
In a Twitter post, Kinchen apologized for violating the rules, and accepted the DQ, although he said he was not aware of the specific rule prohibiting a contestant from leaving the site.
“I apologize to my fellow competitors for distracting any attention away from the event itself an offer my congratulations to David Harrison on his well-earned victory,” Kinchen posted.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.