01/31/2011 1:12PM

Quitting his day job pays off for John Doyle in NHC

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LAS VEGAS – John Doyle made the right career choice.

Doyle, a 49-year-old former IBM account executive from Scottsdale, Ariz., who retired to become a professional horseplayer, topped 300 other contestants to win the $500,000 first-place prize and title of 2010 Handicapper of the Year at the 12th annual Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Championship at the Red Rock Resort last Saturday afternoon.

“I was making a good living, but I wanted a career change and I love everything about horse racing as a sport as well as handicapping,” said Doyle, who added he made about an 8 percent return on investment last year but wouldn’t say exactly how much. “It wasn’t no $500,000.”

NHC XII VIDEO: More interviews from Las Vegas and scenes from the tournament

The NHC is the championship event of a year-long series of 110 horse handicapping tournaments that sent qualifiers to Las Vegas for the finals. The format requires each player to make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day with eight being mandatory and seven being player’s choice from a list of eight contest tracks.

Doyle used Dapper Gene in the 10th race at Santa Anita, the last race of he 12th annual NHC, which had a record purse of $1.05 million purse, to bypass Ron Geary of Louisville, Ky. Dapper Gene paid $13.20 to win and $5.40 to place to give Doyle a final score of $234.80 from 30 contest plays over the two-day tournament.

“It was between the 7 [Wing Forward] and the 4 [Dapper Gene],” Doyle, a Bronx native who made the finals through NHCqualify.com, said of how he approached the final race. “[Trainer Mike] Mitchell, [jockey Joe] Talamo, off the claim and down the hill, I decided to go for it.”

NHC 2011 winner John DoyleDapper Gene sat seventh after a half-mile of the 6 1/2-furlong race and closed with a rush and beat Stoneside, whom Geary had played, to win the claiming race with a $34,000 purse that was worth a lot more to the NHC contestants.

Geary, the owner of Ellis Park who qualified at Fairplex Park, finished second with a score of $226.40 to collect the $150,000 second-place prize. Day 1 leader Thomas Anderson of Burnsville, Minn., and who qualified at Canterbury Park,, held on for third at $213.40 and won $100,000.

Doyle was in 19th place entering Saturday’s final day.

“I wasn’t crazy about the day’s cards, but I’ve had those days before when I felt like that and I’ve had a great day,” said Doyle.

Doyle mostly sat off the pace until making his move in mid-afternoon when he hit back-to-back races with Amazombie in Santa Anita’s sixth race, the Sunshine Millions Sprint, as the 11-1 shot returned $24.80 to win and $8.40 to place, and then J W Blue won the seventh at Oaklawn and paid $14 and $6.

He knew he was closing in on Geary and Anderson, but because the standings are only updated after the mandatory races, he didn’t know how close he was when the sixth and seventh mandatories of the day – the sixth at Golden Gate and the ninth at Oaklawn – were coming up around 3 p.m. Pacific. He really liked the winners of those races, Heavenly Wind ($7 to win and $3.60 to place) and Where’s Winston ($7.20 to win, $4.80 to place), but he went with longer shots. When the updated standings were posted following his losing plays, he was in third place, just $7 behind Geary, but he could have been in the lead if he had used either one.

“I really thought I blew it right there,” he said. “But I kept confident knowing I just needed one more solid winner to have a shot.”

Dapper Gene looked good enough to him, and got him the victory.

Doyle was actually playing in his first handicapping tournament with prize money as the NHCqualify.com events are just for earning spots to the finals in Las Vegas. But Doyle isn’t a Johnny-Come-Lately to the sport. He said he started going to the track when he was 7 and really fell in love with horse racing when he saw Secretariat win the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in 1973.

A lifetime love of the game had begun, and Doyle said the culmination of a dream came with him winning the NHC.

“I know people will say I’m crazy,” said Doyle, “but I believe in visualization – I pictured myself getting the big winner’s check, and I pictured myself receiving the Eclipse Award. It worked for me.”

The top 30 finishers at the NHC earned cash prizes and were honored Saturday night at an awards banquet at the Red Rock. Past NHC champions also received actual Eclipse Awards for their Handicapper of the Year titles after only receiving recognition in the past.

Doyle will receive his Eclipse at next year's awards, and he also receives an exemption into NHC XIII, which is expecting to increase to a field of 500 handicappers competing for a $2 million purse and $1 million first-place prize. The race to make that field is already on, as the top six finishers from the 2010 NHC Tour have earned seats, plus five from a 2011 NHC Tour online event, another nine from a tourney at NHCqualify.com and the top two finishers (Jeffrey Hartz of Runnels, Iowa, and Robert Bertolucci of San Mateo, Calif.) in the $100 buy-in Red Rock Shootout held Sunday.

And many more will visualize themselves chasing the NHC dream just like Doyle, even if they don’t quit their day job.