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Q&A: Jim Benes on winning the 2013 National Handicapping Championship
By Jay Privman
A professional horseplayer from the Chicago area, he won last week’s Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, earning a first prize of $750,000 for the 50-year-old single father of two daughters. Going into the tournament’s final race, Benes trailed eventual runner-up Roger Cettina by $2.40. He went on to win by $1.20.
How did you feel when you won? I know this sounds stupid, because it’s a great feeling to win, but I didn’t really feel any different than when I won a tournament at Hawthorne, even though this was for a lot more money. When you’re betting all the time, you’ve got to keep your head on straight or you’re going to lose. You have to figure out your next move. I got more enjoyment out of seeing how my friends and family reacted. My mom and I were very close. She died in 2001. Her name was Mary. The horse that won the last race was named Hail Mary. When that horse went to the lead, I wasn’t sure if it was a sign that I should have used her, or she was looking out for me, but it all worked out (his horse ran second, giving him the title). But when I talked to people about it right afterwards, I got choked up thinking about her.
I assume that’s the biggest score you’ve had in racing? Yes (laughing), I’ve never had a bigger score than that. I realized I’d won, but you can’t immediately realize what $750,000 is. I’ve never had an amount of money like that.
How will this change you? What it does is allow me to take care of my youngest daughter. She’s 9. My oldest daughter is in her 20’s and on her own now, but my youngest still lives with me, and this means I can take care of her.
Going into the second day, did you think you had a chance to win? I didn’t think the leader was uncatchable. I felt like I was handicapping well. And anyone can have one bad day. I’ve done it. I’ve blanked. It’s hard to put two good days together. It shows it’s up for grabs for anybody. Really, anybody can win these tournaments.
What was your strategy? I just felt that in the mandatory races, I had to make sure I made a good play. Those races are an even test. If all the races were optionals, you’d never go for a low-priced horse. You’re not looking for low-priced horses in the optionals. But in the mandatory races, you have to decide if a 2-1, or a 5-1, or a 7-1 is worthy. If you think a horse at 4-1 is value, you have to make that play. There are some guys who go for bomb after bomb after bomb. But in a mandatory race, can you afford to go for bomb after bomb? Having mandatory races makes it a truer test.
What tracks did you focus on? I play Chicago regularly, but they’re not running now. I’m sure the guys from California focused on the California races, and the East Coast guys focused on the Eastern tracks. It’s natural. That’s what you’re comfortable with. I wasn’t focused on one area. The first day was easier for me. There were races I actually liked. The second day, I had a harder time finding races I liked.
What information do you consider essential? I use Daily Racing Program, because it has pace figures. John Walsh (director of simulcasting at Hawthorne) printed out the Friday past performances for me before I left, and I did the work on the plane going out there. He helped me download the Saturday PP’s for Daily Racing Program, but I got such a late start that I ended up with a lot of optional plays late in the day, and it turned out that helped a lot. If I had fired with my optional plays earlier, I could have lost. I’ve been reading the Racing Form since I was in grade school. I’m not a sheet player. I don’t have a computer program. I just feel comfortable with my own handicapping.
Do you use speed figures or rely on trip notes? I have a friend who does figs for Chicago, and I do trip notes, and we share information. I have faith in his figs, and he has faith in my trips. But we just stick to Chicago.
How often do you go to the track? Every day. I love Chicago – Hawthorne and Arlington. I live closer to Hawthorne, but both are within a half-hour’s drive for me. There might be an occasion where something keeps me from the track, like doing stuff with my daughter, or we’re on vacation, but normally, day-in and day-out, I’m there live.
What was the first track you attended? Probably Sportsman’s Park, which was the best track. Unfortunately, it’s gone.
Why was it the best track? It was a bullring, so the horses were right on top of you. I started going there when I was about 8 years old. My father went all the time, and my grandfather, too. My dad liked to go to the track, and I liked to go with him.
So you’ve been a fan about as long as you can remember? I missed the first week of fifth grade because I hit a $3,000 trifecta at Detroit. I was up there with my dad. At my eighth grade graduation, the principal saw me and said, “You’re here? The track’s open. I thought you’d be at the track.” It was common practice for me to leave school at lunch and not come back, because I would go to the track.
Who were your influences as a handicapper? My dad always bet favorites over value, so I had to overcome that mindset. I just learned from other people at the track. In this game, you’re always learning. And if you don’t work, you pay the price.
Who is your favorite horse of all-time? Cigar. Being a trip guy, I never thought he got enough recognition for the trips he had. Every race, they’d just put him in the middle of the track, like they were saying, “We don’t care how many lengths we have to give up.” He was an amazing horse.
Favorite jockey? Growing up, William Gavidia. I remember him signing a program for me on a horse I won a bet on named Taxi Driver. I don’t get too attached to jockeys now. You really can’t as a gambler.
Will having won all this money change how often you go to the track? No. That’s what I do. I know it’s a lot of money, but after taxes, it’s not enough to retire on. I still have a daughter I have to raise. I love my job. I like getting up and having a challenge every day. I was never really good at taking orders. When I come home, win or lose, I only have myself to blame.
How much time do you put in to your work each day? An average day is 12 hours. It’s not a four- or five-hour day at all. You’ve got to stay disciplined and keep working.
The report I got on you was that you weren’t very talkative, but those PP’s are incorrect: I’m not really comfortable doing this. I enjoy gambling. I enjoy my work. A lot of people at the track like to talk, but it’s not a social event for me. I think some people at the track think I think I’m above them, but that’s not it at all. I’m there to work. I really don’t like talking about myself. But I guess you couldn’t tell from this conversation.
Have you found a societal stigma to being a horseplayer, as opposed to playing the stock market, which, if you ask me, is far more ripe for chicanery? It’s a shame horseplayers get looked down on, like we’re the equivalent of drug dealers. We’re not doing anything illegal. I remember in high school going out with a girl, and when her parents found out I was into the racetrack, they were like, “He goes where?” If I played the stock market, people would say, “Oh, you have a great job.” That’s accepted. To the general public, horse playing is not accepted, and that’s too bad. I haven’t lived high on the hog, but I’ve kept a roof over my head and always been able to pay bills.
Jim, great job!!! I went to high school with Jim and always wondered how he did at the horses as i knew him and his father were players. A couple of years back, I was reading a book about betting the ponies and Jim's name was mentioned as the turning point for the authors handicapping skills. I have become a horse player as well, but only a weekend warrior. It is awesome to see someone you know hit it big!! Jim, if you ever hit Delmar in the summer, send me a message.
Excellent questions and even better answers . I always enjoy when the little guy has his day . Hats off and way to go Jim.
Outstanding performance Jim. I thought your tenth place finish at the breaders cup gave away your improving form. I had you at 3 to 5 once I saw you found the leader board. Don't look back and the sky is the limit.
Good interview, good questions, swell answers. Long live Benes and his family.
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