Creative Approach to Making Money Betting the Fair Grounds Oaks
In Las Vegas, a place known for headline productions and glitzy extravaganzas, the NTRA put on its annual show that served as the hottest ticket in town for horseplayers. Racing fans from everywhere converged on the Horseshoe Las Vegas from March 10-12 for the granddaddy of all handicapping contests, the 24th annual National Horseplayers Championship (NHC). At stake was over $3 million in prize money and the Eclipse Award for Handicapper of the Year.
The 2023 NHC winner was Paul Calia of Kansas City, Mo., who defeated a field of 779 entries to win the three-day NHC, the most prestigious and important handicapping tournament in existence. Calia, a retired Social Security administrator, was playing two entries, and placed both of them in the top four on the leaderboard. Calia amassed a winning total of $362.50 based on $2 win-and-place bets on 18 races per day from all of the winter-spring season’s top simulcast tracks and earned the tournament’s top prize of $800,000. Calia also won another $150,000 for his fourth-place finish, and when you add in the $10,000 he earned for Saturday’s top daily score, his combined winnings for the weekend totaled a whopping $960,000.
“I can’t believe it, I’m so grateful,” Calia said as he held his Eclipse Award in his hands for post-tournament interviews. “I’m so happy, and to have two (winning entries) in there, I’m so fortunate.”
Calia was not a wire-to-wire winner. He got off to a mediocre start to the tournament in the first day of action on Friday as Francis Boustany, a 72-year-old dentist from Lafayette, La., took charge and led after Day One. Boustany held the lead through Saturday, but that’s when Calia unleashed his rally and began to soar upward on the leaderboard.
“I had a slow start on Friday but on Saturday I got hot. I had just about every longshot that came in,” Calia said. “I acted like this was just a day at the races – then all of the sudden, I’m in contention! I knew I was in a good spot, I was just trying to stay focused.”
Calia assumed the lead in Sunday morning’s semi-final round and advanced both of his entries to Sunday afternoon’s decisive Final Table where the top 10 entries battled it out through the last seven bets of the tournament. He extended his lead and won by a comfortable $32.20 margin over Boustany, who held on for second with $330.30 and took home a not-too-shabby consolation prize of $250,000. Finishing third was Gary Fenton, the chairman of Thoroughbred Owners of California and managing partner of Little Red Feather Racing. Fenton totaled $309.60 and won third prize of $200,000. Calia’s second entry finished fourth. Rounding out the top 5 was David Browning of Lexington, Ky., who scored $302.80 to win $125,000.
The Final Table was rounded out by the rest of the top 10 including sixth-place finisher George Novick of Pocono Pines, Pa. ($85,000 prize), seventh-place finisher Steven Wells of Fordville, N. D. ($80,000), eighth-place finisher Joseph Paese of Middletown, Pa. ($75,000), Steven Wells’ second entry in ninth ($70,000), and Steve Nemetz of Vancouver, B.C., who finished tenth to win $65,000.
The top 10 percent of the 779-player field earned cash prizes on a sliding scale from $50,000 for 11th place down to the 78th place finisher who won $12,050.
Calia, who earned his NHC qualifying berths online at HorseTourneys.com and in a free NTRA contest early in 2022, was making his second appearance in the NHC finals, but the 2023 NHC was the first tournament he ever actually won. The championship was clearly no fluke, however, because Calia evidently has the magic touch when it comes to the NHC. He finished fourth in his only prior NHC appearance in 2021, taking home $100,000 two years ago. His all-time NHC winnings have already surpassed the $1 million mark after playing in just two finals.
While Calia may not have a lot of handicapping tournament experience, he does have a lifetime of experience as a horseplayer. He said his handicapping philosophy is “Just try to get lucky and be smart. Get yourself a Daily Racing Form and practice.
“My dad took me (to the track) when I was a little kid. Fonner Park. They used to have state fair racing at Lincoln. Ak-Sar-Ben,” Calia said.
Noting that he lives in a part of the country that is not close to any live racing, Calia said his play has gravitated online in recent years to sports betting and online handicapping tournament sites. Despite his remote location in the center of the country, however, Calia didn’t fly to Las Vegas. He made a 19-hour drive from Kansas City.
The NHC also included a Sunday consolation tournament worth $30,000 for the roughly 700 entries who failed to make the cut. The winner of the $10,000 first prize was Karen Richards of Pembroke Pines, Fla.
In addition to its three presenting sponsors – Caesars Entertainment, Horseshoe Las Vegas and RTN – the NHC is supported by official partners Daily Racing Form, EquineEdge, Four Roses Bourbon, and Race Lens.
Handicappers cannot buy their way in to the NHC finals. The event in Las Vegas is the culmination of a year-long series of NTRA sanctioned on-track and online handicapping contests on the NHC Tour. The players in the NHC earned their qualifying berths with wins or high placings in contests and tournaments on the NHC Tour. In order to join the NHC Tour, go to www.ntra.com/nhc/membership for information.
“There are three pillars to the sport of Thoroughbred racing – you have the horse and its connections, the racetracks, and the horseplayer,” said NTRA President and CEO Tom Rooney. “So, if horse racing is a three-legged stool, we aren’t anything without the horseplayer. The excitement at the NHC is vital to everything we do as an industry. This year’s NHC is bigger than ever before and I’m proud that the NTRA has this unique opportunity to showcase the best of the best in handicapping and celebrate what it means to be a horseplayer.”