01/28/2013 2:32PM

NHC and Gulfstream Stakes Notes

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In the opinion of many who participated in one form or another, the 14th National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island in Las Vegas was one of the best ever. Honestly, I can't think of one significant glitch that took place this year in an event that is far from a piece of cake to pull off.

As was the case last year, Treasure Island’s set up for this event in the ballrooms on the second floor was ideal. The super sized monitors all along the ceiling line meant there wasn’t a bad view regardless of where one sat. And I don’t know how T. I. did it, but the projection screens in the main ballroom had excellent resolution and clarity that greatly exceeded what one might have previously experienced from this particular technology.

The self service machines that were an option to live tellers received rave reviews from contestants, many calling them the best they have ever encountered. And the wi fi, a critical consideration since so many tournament contestants are computer players, was strong and steady throughout. But most importantly, with some 500 contestants, plus a number of tournament administrators and officials, things never felt too crowded or congested, not even when buffet lunch was served, because there was room enough for three separate buffet stations.

This was year two of a two year contract for the NHC at Treasure Island, and as of this writing, the 2014 NHC does not have a home. But T. I. did such a good job this year that it has to be considered the favorite to host it again next year. Besides, between the ability to house 500 contestants under one roof, have them just one elevator ride away from the tournament site, and with a Pacific time zone that is ideal for a national contest, the logistics of an event like the NHC is made for a Las Vegas site like T. I. It’s also a special treat (and I’ve heard a definite perk for many contestants) that a trip to the NHC the last two years (and its first number of years) meant a trip to the Las Vegas strip. This is a big deal because there is nothing like the Vegas strip.

Like last year, NHC 14 came down to the last race in the tournament and Jim Benes, thanks to a $3.60 place return on his final play that amounted to $550,000 (the difference between first money of $750,000 and second place), got up to narrowly win. In doing so, Benes poked a hole in the theory that contestants who are chasing, as Benes was from second going into the last race, must opt for price over form. Benes wound up making his last play on the favorite (interestingly, the leader went with a 25-1 shot) because, as he told me soon after his win was made official, he wanted to play his own tournament, and go with the horse he liked the best. He did get a break, though, when a 10-1 shot won that race.

Benes is a man of few words, and it was probably a relief to him that he had to hustle off the stage at Saturday night’s award dinner so he and his group could make the start of the Kevin James show. But a couple of people who claim to be long-time friends told me he is really a great guy.

The thing that never ceases to amaze me at the NHC is the camaraderie between the vast majority of the contestants. Unfortunately, you don’t see nearly as much of this at the race track anymore, and maybe the fact that there is a sharp distinction between being a horseplayer, and being a contest player, has something to do with it. The two really are radically different exercises. In any case, it is striking to observe the genuine friendships between many NHC contestants. It’s not surprising, however. The majority of NHC contestants, year after year, are genuinely nice people.

A couple of quick Gulfstream stakes thoughts:

I suppose it’s possible that Itsmyluckyday, who followed his big win in the Gulfstream Park Derby with an even better win in Saturday’s Holy Bull, is only a Gulfstream Park freak. But he has become a running fool, and I suspect he is much more than just a horse for course. His win over the previously undefeated champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull was thoroughly decisive by every measure.

As for Shanghai Bobby, I understand why his people would want to go on to the Florida Derby. The Holy Bull was his first start since the Breeders’ Cup and though it was his first loss, he earned a career best Beyer Figure in defeat. Still, if ever a horse looked destined to be a miler, it’s him. Shanghai Bobby strikes me as being like Uncle Mo in that regard.

Kauai Katie, who won the Forward Gal earlier on the Holy Bull card, is a very special sprinter. She might only be 3, but I think she’s in Groupie Doll’s class. And if you know how I feel about Groupie Doll, you’d know I’m paying Kauai Katie a very high compliment.