01/26/2013 7:32AM

National Handicapping Championship: Grose opens huge lead after first day

Harold Roth/NTRA
Day 1 leader Richard Grose is the CEO of an asphalt maintenance company in Wentzville, Mo.

LAS VEGAS – Richard Grose steamrolled the competition on the first day of the 14th annual Daily Racing Form/National Handicapping Championship that concludes Saturday at the Treasure Island Hotel-Casino, where the eventual champion will win $750,000 and the title of Handicapper of the Year.

Grose, 56, who is CEO of Ram Driveway Sealing Inc., an asphalt maintenance company in Wentzville, Mo., was the leader when the first scores were posted after the first mandatory race of the tournament and he finished the day atop the field of 455 horseplayers with the outstanding score of $235.60 to earn the $5,000 daily prize. Grose is more than a cap horse ahead of his nearest competitor as Jim Benes trails him by $66.60.

Benes, of Carol Stream, Ill., is in second place with a score of $169 and earned $4,000 in daily money, followed by David Gutfreund at $166 to take $3,000 back to sweet home Chicago; Tim Darnell of Lovettsville, Va., at $155 to earn $2,000 for fourth; and Dan Flanigan of Medina, Minn., at $153.60 to earn $1,000 for fifth,

NHC finalists make $15 mythical wagers each day with eight races being mandatory and seven being player’s choice. The regular wager is $2 win-and-place, but this year they added a “best bet” where each contestant can bet $4 win-and-place on one of their mandatory-race selections. All prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place ($64 total) for scoring purposes.

Grose is more than a cap horse ahead of his nearest competitor as Benes trails him by $66.80, but with the new format allowing the double-bet, there are 32 contestants within reach if they were to hit a cap horse on their best bet, so the tournament is far from over.

Grose, a longtime player on the tournament circuit who uses his own handicapping program, has usually flown under the radar, but Friday everyone knew his name. He fired away with his best bet in the first mandatory race of the contest, the third race at Gulfstream, on Grande Chica, a 13-1 shot that ran down the 8-5 favorite Bin Elusive and paid $29 to win and $9.40 to place in the $15,000 claiming race. The double-score was worth $76.80 to Grose and a few smaller payoffs put him at $123 when the first scoring update was posted after the race.

“She came up as one of the top plays on my program and I got the odds I was looking for,” Grose said. “I heard people talking about how the California tracks were going to be sloppy or with small fields, so I decided to let it rip. It seemed like no better time than the present.”

A lot of times in tournaments you’ll see someone go to the lead, but then come back to the competition, but after staying at $123 after the second scoring update, Grose kept adding to his score: $145 after the fourth mandatory, $182 after the fifth, $182 after the sixth, and $228.40 after the seventh, in which he hit Warren’s Dove in Oaklawn’s ninth race at 14-1 (and was also used by many on the leaderboard that were trying to catch Grose). In all, Grose had four winners and two seconds from his 15 plays.

Gutfreund, playing in his ninth NHC finals and part of the ESPN2 broadcast team at NHC7 for those that remember that broadcast, praised Grose but said he’s going after him

“What Richard did was one of the great accomplishments in tournament history,” Gutfreund said. “He pretty much hit everything he could hit, it was amazing to watch. But I see Saturday as the biggest day of my professional career. I’ve been waiting a long time to be in this position and don’t want to waste it.”

Gutfreund had four winners just like Grose and Benes, but had an incredible six place horses as only five of his plays finished out of the money.

The NHC finals, which is also sponsored by Sovereign Stables, is the year-end championship in which contestants have to earn their way into the field at qualifying tournaments at racetracks, OTBs, casinos, or online. Three of Friday’s top 5 came directly via online tournaments as Grose and Flanigan qualified for their berths at horsetourneys.com and Darnell made it at Xpressbet. Gutfreund qualified in the Players Challenge held in Sioux Falls, S.D. (run by online site horseplayersqualify.com) and Benes earned his seat at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, Ill.

The field was expected to have 459 finalists but there were four no-shows. Friday’s contest tracks were trimmed to six with the cancellation of Aqueduct, leaving just Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita for contest plays. Tournament organizers had already decided not to use Aqueduct for any mandatory races just in case and the same holds true for Saturday.

Saturday’s mandatory races and full payout schedule for the top 40 overall finishers can be found at drf.com/nhc. We’ll be Tweeting @DRFInsidePost throughout the day Saturday until the NHC 14 champion is crowned.