01/30/2014 6:57PM

Arias won NHC 15 fair and square

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It makes a good story. A young bettor, on the precipice of the score of a lifetime, takes an extra step to ensure that he has the best possible chance to make $750,000. He makes a five-figure bet on one of the four horses who can beat him in the last race of the NHC in the hope that the price will go low enough so that even if the horse wins, he still holds on to win the contest. The scenario works like a charm. Best of all, there’s nothing in the rules or the law against it, and the winner gets alternately celebrated for his cunning path to victory or accused of manipulating the contest.

There’s just one problem: None of it is true. I asked Jose Arias, the winner of the 2014 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, point blank if any of the rumors about contest manipulation were true. His response: “That is ridiculous, borderline absurd. I did not consider making any type of hedge bet on that race. I didn’t have time to even think about making any kind of bet. I was totally focused on the contest. Also, I come from modest beginnings. I don’t have the means to put that type of money out there. I did not do that.”

There are several issues relating to any potential bet that is made on the last mandatory race as the NHC is currently constructed. One is the concept of “contest manipulation,” that is, deliberately betting a horse down past the point where the leader could be overtaken, and the other is simple hedging. Neither is expressly prohibited under contest rules.

Arias said he did neither, and there is no evidence to the contrary, so let’s look at what did happen. The winner of the last race was Fit to Rule, one of the first two horses I would have included when constructing my pick six. The horse was announced in the program as a first-time gelding and had run over the Beyer Speed Figure par four out of 10 times at much higher levels, and while he was eased in his last start, he was dropping big time in class with a good workout – singled out for praise by Andy Harrington’s National Turf clocking service as “good for the level.”

The horse was 4-1 on the morning line. At 8-1, he was an extreme overlay. Additionally, while people say there was a large, late price drop from 8-1 to 6-1, late drops in price are common today in the advance-deposit-wagering world, an everyday occurrence. Plus, the horse really only dropped from 8-1 to just under 7-1, going off at 6.80-1.

Tony Brice, who backed Fit to Rule, knew he was unlikely to win the NHC even if his selection got up. “I had to go with the horse I loved in the last race, even though I knew it probably wouldn’t be enough to win it,” Brice said.

“But why was there such a discrepancy between the win and place prices?” ask conspiracy theorists. It’s possible, as some have pointed out, that there were betting-syndicate types who were hedging the pick six, thus betting down the win odds on Fit to Rule. But I believe there’s another reason. Because he was a horse with potential soundness issues, this was a classic win or run-out-of-the-money horse. If he’s overcome the soundness issues, he wins; if not, he’s up the track. He was not a horse a big bettor bets to place.

I have multiple sources within the Southern California racing community telling me that the late five-figure bet on Fit to Rule was made ontrack at Santa Anita by people who thought the horse would run well. These people have zero connection to Jose Arias or the NHC.

The whole incident does raise a number of interesting questions. One obvious change to prevent the appearance of contest manipulation is to not publish the other players’ picks until the race goes off. I fully expect that to be a policy in place next year.

But what about hedging? That is a totally different matter, and any person trying to ensure that he scores big is eligible to do so, whether protecting his pick six bet or place in a tournament.

The difference in money awarded from first to second and down throughout the top 10 at the NHC is extremely top-heavy in a way that could invite hedging, and I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the possibility in the future with the current purse discrepancy at the final table.

The fact is that Arias won the tournament fair and square, with never a hint of impropriety in any shape or form. He is a most deserving winner of NHC 15, pulling off an unprecedented three-day, wire-to-wire win.