01/26/2014 10:54PM

NHC 15

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LAS VEGAS - Jose Arias’s achievement in winning the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Sunday at Treasure Island here in Las Vegas cannot be overstated. It is difficult enough beating 400 of the nation’s best handicapping tournament contestants, and on that basis alone, Arias deserves much respect.

But to put Arias’s feat in perspective, consider this: Only one of the 14 previous NHC’s were won in “front-running” style, and that was when the contest was over only two days. This was the first year the NHC was contested over three days, with the final 50 segment of the contest taking place early on day 3 on Sunday (supplemented by the free roll $75,000 consolation tournament for those who didn’t make the final 50), followed by the final table closing segment of the contest for the top 10 contestants. Arias led for much of and at the end of day one, he led for most if not all of day two with a giant target on his back, and he led throughout day three. Very impressive.

The new final table innovation at this NHC proved to be a resounding artistic success. The contestants’s picks were announced before each of the final five mandatory races, eliciting cheers or boos (mostly good-natured) from the large crowd that remained in the main convention room, a crowd that also might have been held by the big Pick 6 carryover Sunday at Santa Anita. Whatever, there was palpable electricity as each mandatory race unfolded, and the place was on fire during the final race of the contest when Arias held off a late charge from runner up Tony Brice.

One surprise, at least for me, was how little movement there was in the standings during the final table stage. It’s tough to tell whether it was the way the final table mandatory races shook out, or whether it was because five races were too few to maximize final table excitement, or if the top 10 contestants played a little tight in what, for the NHC, was unchartered territory. But Brice’s move up to second in the last race was really the only significant move made during the final table.

In the “There Are a Thousand Ways To Lose” department, consider what happened to Brice in the last race of the NHC. Brice selected Fit to Rule in the nightcap at Santa Anita for his mythical $2 win and place bet. Fit to Rule held around 8-1 for most of the way, until very late when he fell to 6-1. If Fit to Rule odds dropped only a touch less than they did, then we would be celebrating Brice as the winner, because he came just $1.20 shy of catching Arias, whose pick in the last race was unsuccessful. But Brice was still thrilled, and called finishing second in the NHC a “life-changing” moment.

And I’m pleased to tell you that Jose Arias is the kind of guy you can be genuinely happy for. He was introduced to racing by his mom and dad, who took him to Santa Anita and Hollywood, and his dad taught him how to read the Racing Form. He is a quiet, almost gentle soul, and from observing him under pressure the last three days, he doesn’t appear to have one ounce of ego or malice in him.

Finally, there was some important racing over the weekend, but like many others, I was most taken by the two big 3-year-old performances Saturday at Gulfstream. Cairo Prince was simply terrific winning the Holy Bull. I mean, you don’t often see horses absorb three to four wide trips at Gulfstream and still run off and hide the way Cairo Prince did. Then again, Cairo Prince indicated to everyone how good he might be when he just missed in the Remsen after a most curious trip.

Top Billing also won laughing after making a bold four wide move on the far turn in an allowance race earlier on the Holy Bull card going the same 8.5 furlong distance. Top Billing ran 50 one-hundredths of a second slower than Cairo Prince did, but I’m not getting too hung up on that considering where Top Billing is at his particular stage of development.