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Updated on 02/01/2012 3:59PM
National Handicapping Championship decided by a single dollar
By Dave Tuley
LAS VEGAS – What's the difference between $150,000 and $1 million?
That was the margin of victory as Michael Beychok became horse racing's latest millionaire by winning the 13th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in the final race Saturday to claim the $1 million first-place prize and an Eclipse Award as Handicapper of the Year.
Beychok, a 48-year-old political consultant from Baton Rouge, La., finished with a final score of $238.60 to rally past Dave Flanzbaum, 45, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., who finished with $237.60.
The 13th NHC, which was also presented by Sovereign Stable, was held Friday and Saturday in the ballrooms at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino with a record 480 contestants. Finalists made 30 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers over the two days, including 15 mandatory races.
Flanzbaum was atop the leader board the last time it was updated for all the contestants to see after the last mandatory race of the tournament, just $11 ahead of Beychok.
Flanzbaum disappeared from the tournament area and rumors swirled that he was out of optional plays. Beychok used Glorious Dancer in the contest's final race, the ninth at Golden Gate, an $8,000 maiden claimer that was worth a lot more to NHC contestants.
Glorious Dancer ran down Greeley's Agenda in deep stretch to win by a nose (which would have also been accepted as the answer to our original question) and was cheered home by Beychok, his brother Ben, his son Bradley, and other contestants at his table, including James Dickson of Horseplayernow.com and Peter Rotondo, vice president of media and entertainment for Breeders' Cup LTD, and his father.
“I had to sweat out the win and then sweat out the odds,” said Beychok, who was cheering “3-1, 3-1...” before the off odds were posted. “It was 5-2 before the race. I was afraid if it didn't get to 3-1 that it wouldn't be enough, especially as it didn't pay as much as I wanted to place.”
Glorious Dancer paid $8.20 to win and $3.80 to place for $12 in contest points to put him over Flanzbaum's assumed score.
What he – or many others in the tournament area – didn't know at the time was that Flanzbaum did have one bullet left and used it with the No. 2 horse, Royalism, in the last race. Royalism went off at 9-1 but was only able to get up for third, three-quarters of a length behind Greeley's Agenda.
“I had three ways to win it – if my horse won, if it finished second, or if he didn't pick the winner,” said Flanzbaum, who left the non-smoking ballroom to smoke a cigar and watch the last race in the race book downstairs. “I liked the horse at the beginning of the day, so I stuck with her but she didn't get there.”
Flanzbaum, who earned his berth at NHCqualify.com, collected the $150,000 second-place prize.
Beychok, who qualified for the 13th NHC by finishing third in the TwinSpires.com Online Handicapping Championship on Nov. 19, was still in shock half an hour after learning he was officially the winner.
“I've never actually won a tournament before,” Beychok said. “I've had seconds and thirds, so I guess I picked the right time to win one.”
Beychok was in 23rd place after Friday's action with a score of $106.40 and said he was aiming for around $220 to $225 based on previous NHC finals. The horse that really got him in contention was Hooh Why in Gulfstream's eighth race, the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf.
“I told the people at my table that if I won that race that it was going to get really crazy,” said Beychok, who wasn't sitting in the main Treasure Island Ballroom, which had enough seats for the full field of 480, but instead was in a smaller ballroom set up for those who preferred to sit with family or friends. Hooh Why paid $37.40 to win and $11 to place and it did get crazy as his table turned into a cheering section.
“They were out of contention but they were happy for the hot guy. That's what horseplayers do,” said Beychok, who is a member of DRF handicapper Dan Illman's blog community. “They were great and it helped a lot to keep me focused.”
Beychok was still short of his target number but got close over the next two hours with Chokecherymary ($18.80 to win, $8 to place) in the sixth at Santa Anita and Hey Cuz ($14.20 to win, $6.40 to place) in the 11th at Gulfstream to put him at $219.40.
Obviously every dollar mattered, so a race that turned out just as important to Beychok was the seventh at Santa Anita. Scofield Barracks was eighth in deep stretch and Beychok's table had even stopped cheering when it closed with a rush along the rail to grab second by a neck and return $7.40 to place and put him within $11 of Flanzbaum.
“You could say that was the difference for me winning because without those points I would have been looking at other horses late and probably wouldn't have been able to use Gracious Dancer,” Beychok said.
He had four plays left and figured he could get those $11 from two short prices, but he blanked on his next three plays and it all came down to Glorious Dancer. The rest, as they say, is history.
This was the first time the NHC paid a $1 million prize to the winner. The past four years, the top prize was $500,000. Prizes were paid through the top 50 as well as daily prizes.
Darwin Labordo, 62, of Sierra Madre, Calif., rallied late to get third-place money of $80,000 with a score of $206.60. Gaylord Grundy, 58, of Airdrie, Alberta, was fourth after Day 1 and finished fourth with $196.10 points to win $50,000. The top female finisher was Donna Labriola, 43, of Richmond, Calif., just behind Grundy by a dime with a score of $196 to take home $37,000.
Paul Shurman, 57, of Dix Hills, N.Y., who won the 2011 NHC Tour and was eligible for a $2 million bonus if he pulled off the double, finished sixth and had to settle for $26,000.
Nolan White, 36, of Canton, Texas, who led after the first day of the tournament with $164.30, finished 13th with a total of $184.30 to pick up $7,000 in addition to the $2,500 he earned as Friday's top scorer.
All had dreams of collecting the big prize, but Flanzbaum summed it up best: “I'm a Cubs fan. There's always next year.”
Beychok, who said in his bio before NHC 13 that he would “party like a rock star” if he won the million dollars (and was off to a good start Saturday night with two magnums of Dom Perignon at his table at the awards banquet), earns an exemption into NHC 14, but for everyone else the quest began Sunday with a $200 buy-in contest at Treasure Island. Dick Mueller of White Bear Lake, Minn.; Joe Jarvie of Renton, Wash.; and Mark Deaton of Somerville, Ohio, picked up the three berths for next January's finals back at TI.
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