01/12/2012 12:35PM

NHC gives Tour winner shot at $3 million payday

Paul Shurman (left), the 2011 NHC Tour winner, at the 2010 NHC finals with, from left, William Shurman, Steve Wolfson Jr., Steve Wolfson Sr., and Mitchell Schuman. Paul Shurman will play in his 10th straight NHC finals this year.

You can call Paul Shurman the reluctant bonus baby. Or the accidental treasure hunter.

When the 13th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship takes place at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino on Jan. 27-28, Shurman will be one of 484 horseplayers shooting for the record $1 million first-place prize and the title of 2011 Handicapper of the Year.

As winner of the season-long NHC Tour points title, however, he will be the only player eligible for a $2 million bonus, which he will win if he can pull off the double at the NHC finals.

But going for the bonus wasn’t something Shurman was planning to do at the start of the year.

“All I wanted to do was qualify again,” said Shurman, a 57-year-old worker’s compensation attorney from Dix Hills, N.Y. “It was only by accident that I was in the running for points.”

Shurman, who won $75,000 for this year’s Tour victory, said he didn’t seriously consider going for the points title until late summer, when a strong showing in a tournament put him in the hunt.

“As Ross Gallo told me: ‘No one chooses the Tour, the Tour chooses you,’ ” he said, referring to a veteran tournament player. “That’s very true.”

To qualify for this year’s NHC, players had to pay a $45 membership fee, which allowed them to earn a berth in more than 100 qualifying tournaments at racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and online. Those who didn’t pay the fee in advance played for prize money only.

The circuit was turned into the NHC Tour three years ago to award those who compiled the most points during the year. The Tour standings are based on members’ five-best finishes in qualifying tournaments throughout the year. Each tournament awards 3,000 points to the winner; 2,100 to the runner-up; 1,575 for third; 1,400 for fourth; 1,225 for fifth; and 1,000 for sixth. Points are then awarded to other finishers on a graduated scale depending on the number of entries.

Shurman had been in the running for the Tour points title before, in 2009. “It was brutal, very intense,” he said. “And I swore I’d never do it again.”

Early this year, Shurman set about trying to qualify for the finals with mostly online tournaments at NHCqualify.com. He earned 300 points for finishing 30th in the February tournament and another 729 points for finishing 15th in the March tournament. He just missed earning an automatic berth to the finals when he finished ninth in an NHCqualify.com one-day contest April 9, when spots were awarded to the top eight finishers, and 12th in another tourney April 23, when spots were awarded to the top 10.

Stepping up his efforts just to qualify for the finals, Shurman planned an ambitious schedule: Del Mar Surfside Race Place for its July 15 contest and another one July 16-17; back east to Foxwoods on July 23; back west to Wynn Las Vegas on Aug. 5-6; back east to Nassau OTB on Aug. 7; and then Saratoga on Aug. 13.

A second-place finish at Del Mar Surfside gave him the NHC berth he had coveted and 2,100 Tour points.

“If I had qualified with one of those close calls,” he said, referring to the April 9 and April 23 tourneys, “I wouldn’t have been at Surfside and wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

Shurman had accomplished his goal of qualifying, but he continued with his travel plans, finishing fifth at Foxwoods for 1,225 points and winning the Nassau OTB tournament for 3,000 more.

With his five-best Tour finishes now totaling 8,100 points, Shurman said he still wasn’t considering the points title until a second-place finish in the DRF Bets contest in August lifted him in the standings.

“You place a $2 bet every day of the month, and I was down to five days left with zero collections,” he said. “But I hit the longest shot on the board one day and then an 11-1 horse and another at 4-1. I took second and was up to 9,200 points without even trying, and now I’ve gotta play for the title.”

Shurman then won the Bettor Racing/HPQualify.com tourney Sept. 3, putting his points total at 11,425.

But just as Shurman had begun to take the Tour title seriously, he was passed by Christopher Skotz of Campbell, Calif., who finished second in an Ellis Park/Horsetourneys.com event Sept. 24 to give him two firsts, two seconds, and a fourth for 11,600 points.

Around that time, a name Shurman had never seen before also appeared as a threat: Wayne A. Collier of Slidell, La. Collier hadn’t earned a single Tour point until he won and qualified at Fairplex Park on Sept. 23 and then won another Fairplex tourney on Sept. 25 before finishing second in an online Ellis Park/Horsetourneys.com contest on Sept. 30.

“All of a sudden, Collier had 8,100 points from just three cashes and threatened to blow past us,” Shurman said.

Shurman regained the lead in the standings with a win in the TwinSpires.com Handicapping Series on Oct. 29, which gave him three firsts and two seconds for 13,200 points. For the year, Shurman ended up with three tournament wins, four seconds, two thirds, and a fourth.

When the dust had settled, Collier ended up with three wins, a second, and a third, finishing second to Shurman with 12,675 points and collecting $25,000. Prize money was paid to the top five this year: Skotz received $15,000 for third with 11,775 points; Gaylord Grundy of Airdrie, Canada, received $7,500 for fourth with 11,600 points; and Mark Streiff of Mission Viejo, Calif., received $2,500 for fifth with 10,350 points. Paul Weizer of Leominster, Mass., just missed cashing with 10,300 points.

Shurman said the money wasn’t his primary motivation; it was more about competing with other handicappers.

“This is something I’ll have forever,” he said. “The money isn’t the main thing, but it does help justify what we do with friends and family. Some will ask if I’m doing any poker tourneys over the weekend, and I have to explain it’s horse racing.”

Shurman will play in his 10th straight NHC finals, a record he shares with Sally Wang Goodall of Las Vegas, Trey Stiles of Houston, and Robert Bertolucci of San Mateo, Calif. His best finish came in 2009, when he was third and won $100,000. Shurman’s younger brother William, 53, has qualified for the NHC the last nine years himself. William’s best finish came at NHC VI in 2005, when he placed sixth after being the Day 1 leader.

Shurman acknowledged that playing for the $2 million bonus does add pressure, but said he doesn’t plan to change the way he handicaps or plays the tournament during the NHC finals, which will be held in a ballroom setting for the first time with a record number of finalists.

“My goal, as it is every year, is to be in the mix on Day 2,” Shurman said. “From there, you just hope it’s your day.”

Keith Chamblin, the NTRA’s vice president of marketing, applauded Shurman’s accomplishment and wished him luck in the NHC finals, which is expected to give out around $1.65 million in prizes, up from $1.05 million last year.

“We had 4,609 sign up for the Tour this year, so he beat a lot of great handicappers,” Chamblin said. “We just did a survey that showed that 18 percent of NHC Tour members play in 10 or more tournaments a year, and 74 percent say the Tour motivates them to play more. We hear the complaints of some tournament formats and the points system and other things that we’re always trying to improve, but at the end of the day the advent of the Tour has increased additional play.”

Shurman is on the NTRA Players’ Committee, which meets to discuss tournament rules and offers input to the NTRA. He said chasing the title and talking with fellow competitors has helped him formulate more ideas.

“There’s a bunch of people who travel to a lot of these tournaments and spend their time and money, but they might only be competing for berths to the finals,” he said. “That’s hard to keep doing, so we need to find a way for these events to have more prize money.”

The other NHC finalists will be trying to beat him at the end of the month, but that other goal of pumping up the purses in the qualifying tournaments is something they’ll all be cheering for him to accomplish.

Especially if they’re ever “forced” into chasing the NHC Tour championship themselves.