01/30/2014 1:42PM

Q & A with Jose Arias: NHC winner talks about his score of a lifetime

Jose Arias set a two-day tournament record on his way to victory in the National Handicapping Championship.

Jose Arias, a 36-year-old environmental safety engineer from Bell Gardens near Los Angeles, put up a record two-day total in the 15th National Handicapping Championship at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas from January 24-26 after taking the lead late on Day 1. On the third day of competition, Arias, a graduate of the University of Southern California, grimly held off all challengers, proceeding to the first ever NHC Final Table. In the end, he bested Colleyville, Texas, resident Tony Brice by a mere $1.20.

With the victory, Arias earned first-place prize money of $750,000, plus will receive an Eclipse Award next January as 2014 Handicapper of the Year. We caught up with Arias three days after his big win to get his thoughts on the event and his achievement.

When did you start playing the horses?

When I was about 15 years old, I went to the track with my dad. I did it just to spend time with him. He loved going to the track. He worked during the week and on the weekend he’d go to the racetrack with his friends. I enjoyed the racing. And I enjoyed the camaraderie. My mom would come also and sometimes we’d have a big group of 7 or 8 people. It was a very fun time. Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar. And I learned the basics of the Racing Form from my dad. And I’ve been going ever since – though I did take a little break for college.

How do you pick the horses you bet on?

When you analyze a horse race, it’s a huge puzzle. There are so many different factors. Every race is so different and that’s what makes it so exciting. And when you analyze a race, there are so many variables. Sometimes I’ll look at the early fractions of the horses and make a play because of the pace. Sometimes class is the most important thing. If the track is favoring speed, then that becomes more important. There are some days it doesn’t matter how good the closers are, you can’t pick a closer. I’ll look at a race and try to see where my advantage is.

Let’s talk about some of the most important picks you made in the contest, starting on Friday. You took the lead that you never gave back on Macaabra. What did you like about her?

I loved that horse. I didn’t think I was going to get the big odds that I got, but there were a lot of horses that could have won that race. Somehow, people forgot about her. I knew she was as fast as those horses if not slightly faster. She’s a closer and she had the best closing fractions. And I loved the post that she had. And I figured the race would set up for her because there was enough speed so she could close on those other horses. And the way I pictured the race was exactly how it unfolded.

On Saturday, you had Weewinnin. What did you like about him?

He is a great horse. I believe he’s one of [trainer Brian] Koriner’s best horses. I was so impressed with his race in the King Glorious Stakes. And he’s a good horse who never gets any respect. He was 60-1 and he won. And I was one of the few people that bet him. And on Saturday again he got no respect. He was 8-1 on the morning line and he goes off at over 20-1. I couldn’t believe it. So that was a simple one for me.

Sunday wasn’t like Friday and Saturday for you. You definitely slowed down a bit. But there was one horse that was key for you, even though she only placed. I’m talking about Wonderfully.

I thought she could win, but she ran a good race and finished second. And at that point, I was just so happy to get any points.

Did you start to lose confidence a bit around that point?

Trust me, I was worried. There was a great group of handicappers catching up to me. My horses were trying but they weren’t coming in first or second. But I just kept doing the same thing. I had my picks going into the day and I stuck with them. It’s very important to be prepared. I had my list of plays and then I had some alternate plays in case the price went too low on one of my main plays. Usually you’ll at least get a couple of seconds, but none of mine were coming in until Wonderfully. And that was very wonderful.

Talk about the experience of the final table.

It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve gone through in my life. I love the new format, I think it’s more compelling. I was nervous about the third day, but I think the final table aspect is really great. It’s such a process, trying to qualify and getting to the NHC. And then I’m there and I’m at the final table and I’m right on the cusp of becoming the champion. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

There has been some chatter online that in the last race of the contest you might have bet winner Fit to Rule to drive his odds down so he couldn’t beat you in the contest. Is there any truth at all to those rumors?

That is ridiculous, borderline absurd. I did not consider making any type of hedge bet on that race. I didn’t have time to even think about making any kind of bet. I was totally focused on the contest. Also, I come from modest beginnings. I don’t have the means to put that type of money out there. I did not do that.

What did it mean to you to have so much support from the crowd at NHC 15?

Horseplayers are a wonderful group of people. I see a lot of those same people at Santa Anita and going around to different tournaments. It was wonderful getting that support, having people text me “get ready,” or “you can do it.” It was a very memorable experience feeling all the love and support from everybody there. When they started chanting my name after I won – that was the cherry on top. It was very emotional. I felt all this gratitude.

Just to bring our conversation full circle, you mentioned going to the track at first with your parents. What did they think of all this?

They’re older now and they don’t go to the track as much as they used to but they were following along from home. My sister was looking on the Twitter feed and she was telling my nephew and he was telling my parents how I was doing. That’s how they found out I won. They were all elated.