01/28/2016 9:06PM

Racehorse owner leads after Day 1 of NHC

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Day 1 of the 17th annual National Handicapping Championship is in the books at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. The field is led by first-time qualifier Phil Bongiovanni, a 43-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse owner from Yorba Linda, Calif. Bongiovanni’s bankroll sits at $200 after the first day of the three-day tournament.

Bongiovanni got his score by hitting two “cap” horses worth the maximum of $42 to win and $22 to place to help establish a clear lead. As the Day 1 leader, Bongiovanni earned a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge berth. Bongiovanni’s bombs came early in the contest – Point Made, the longest shot in a short field of seven, paid $99.60 and $35.60 in Gulfstream Park’s fourth race, and Tipsy Suspect,  who went gate to wire at 50-1 against 11 other Arkansas-breds, returned $102 and $26 in Oaklawn Park’s third.

“I’m a trips guy, and I have a lot of contacts in the industry that I reach out to,” said Bongiovanni, who campaigns horses under the banner of Gulliver Racing. His best horse has been the 7-year-old California-bred gelding Motown Men, who earned $259,214 in 11 starts last year and is approaching $500,000 in career earnings. Bongiovanni plays in contests in partnership with Southern California handicapper Bob Ike.

“I feel like the horse that went a 21 and 2 quarter,” he said. “We shot out and hit those two cap horses early. There are a lot of good handicappers here, and I’m realistic; I have no delusions of grandeur. Today was a lucky day. If I can keep the luck rolling, that’s great, but no one can take away the fact that for one day at least, I finished first.”

The Top 10 were rounded out by Dan Camoro ($166.60), Joe Perry ($156.80), Jim O’Nail ($149.70), Cheryl McIntyre ($147.60), Robert Felty ($144.80), Charlie Davis ($140.20), Roger Cettina ($139.20), Gaylord Grundy ($138.80), and Charles Hogan ($132.50).

Perry’s story is of particular interest as he has two entries in the top 14. Perry, a 56-year-old accountant from Hamilton, N.J., has won 10 tournaments, with his biggest win being a $25,200 payout at a Sports Haven contest in Connecticut in 2008.

His strategy was generally to play his optional races the same across his two tickets and to split them up in the mandatory races. “I played them half split up and half the same,” said Perry, an eight-time NHC qualifier.

He is not thinking at all about the new NHC rule that allows players to advance two entries to the final table. “I usually struggle in these contests, and I’m hoping to get money,” he said.

Speaking of multiple entries, Jonathon Kinchen also landed his two entries in the top 50. Kinchen, who is eligible for a $2 million bonus if he wins NHC 17, led the field early in the day and finished with both of his entries within striking distance in 27th ($113.10) and 45th ($102.60).

Said Kinchen: “If you’d have told me this morning when I woke up, ‘Hey, you’re going to have two in the top 50 after Day 1,’ I’d be like, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”

Three former NHC champions are in the top 50: Stanley Bavlish (2007) is 22nd ($122.4), Richard Goodall (2008) is 47th ($98.20), and Michael Beychok (2012) is 49th ($98).

:: NHC 2016: Video updates and news coverage from Las Vegas

:: Play at Home: Play online to earn a spot in the 2017 NHC at NHCQualify.com.

Full standings can be viewed online at NTRA.com, where the homepage features a scrolling live leaderboard of the top 63 players (representing the top 10 percent in line to make the cut and continue to the semifinals after Day 2 play Friday) and sortable/searchable standings of the entire field.

The 629 NHC entrants were required to place 18 mythical $2 win-place wagers – eight on mandatory races that everyone played and 10 on any of about 45 other races from six designated racetracks across the country.

The three-day NHC continues Friday at Treasure Island. Day 1 bankrolls will carry over to Day 2, which will have eight mandatory races and 10 optional races. The top 10 percent of the field – 63 entries – after Day 2 will continue on to the semifinal round Saturday, and the top 10 will play at the final table to determine the final rankings, including the $800,000 grand prize and Eclipse Award winner. Players outside the final cut will play in a separate $50,000 consolation tournament Sunday with reset mythical bankrolls.