01/08/2010 12:00AM

Tour winner tries to match wife's feat


In the best marriages, there has to be give and take. Ask Bryan and Judy Wagner of New Orleans.

Bryan, 66, just earned $100,000 for winning the 2009 NHC Tour, the circuit that uses the qualifying tournaments for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship for a year-long competition. He also is eligible for a

$2 million bonus - on top of the $500,000 first-place prize - if he goes on to win the NHC XI finals on Jan. 29-30 at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

"Any wife would be thrilled if their husband won something like this, especially when Richard Goodall was asked after he won the NHC [in 2008] what he would do with the money, he said, 'I'm giving it to my wife,' " Judy said with a laugh. "That was a great precedent."

But, actually, the Wagners have been sharing their success for quite a while longer. In January 2001, Judy collected $100,000 when she won NHC II, the only time a woman has won the title of Handicapper of the Year. Bryan jokes that he has been known as Mr. Judy Wagner for more than half of their 15-year marriage.

"I'm pretty well known in New Orleans," he says. "I was the first Republican ever elected to the city council, I was mayor for a day, and I was part-owner of the Saints before Tom Benson bought out the rest of us in 1995. But in the horse tournament world, I'm Mr. Judy Wagner. She won the second NHC as the first and only woman to win it, and I was so proud of her accomplishment, and she's on the national player's committee. I was the little guy that carried her briefcase.

"But now hopefully I can have my own identity and be a good ambassador for the sport we both love so much."

Mr. Bryan Wagner - there, that should make him happy - downplays his own handicapping achievements. Like his wife, he has qualified for the NHC seven times, and that's after not trying in the first year.

They both paid the $125 to join the NHC Tour this year, the second year of its existence. Bryan, an insurance executive, thought he would have enough time to travel this year and take a shot at the year-end prizes of $100,000 for first, $50,000 for second, $25,000 for third, $10,000 for fourth, and $5,000 for fifth. Points are based on finish in each tourney, with 3,000 for a win, 2,150 for second, 1,575 for third, 1,400 for fourth, 1,225 for fifth, 1,000 for sixth, and then a graduated scale depending on the number of entrants in the qualifier. Points are earned by the top 10 percent for smaller tourneys up to a maximum of 30 spots for bigger events.

Judy didn't expect to enter enough tournaments to make a run for the title, but then she won the NHCqualify.com online tourney on April 25 and that put her on top of the leaderboard.

"Obviously, when you're on or near the lead, you're more invested and want to go more places," Bryan said.

Judy added, "We didn't really chase the Tour, it really grabbed us."

Bryan also officially punched his ticket to Vegas while playing from home when he won the NHCqualify.com contest on June 27. That helped him gain on the leaders, including his wife.

Mr. Wagner took over the Tour lead in November and that prompted them to play in the Keeneland tourney on Dec. 5 and at Turfway Park the next day. By the week before Christmas, his lead has shrunk to a mere 64 points. He had 10,064 while Steven Hartshorn of Newport Beach, Calif., was in second place at 10,000. Judy was hanging on in fifth place, which was important because the top five not only win cash but an automatic entry into NHC XII next year.

The last Tour point event of the year was at Del Mar Surfside on Dec. 26-27, a trip they hadn't planned to make.

"We knew we had to do it," Judy said. "The wolves were at the door, as a lot of other top handicappers were within striking distance and could have passed us if they won at Surfside. It was hard to leave the kids and grandkids, but we boarded a flight on Christmas night."

Bryan ended up finishing second to bring his total to 11,425. (Only a player's top five scores are used, so the 2,100 points he earned replaced a lower score.) No one else earned enough points to catch him, but what really made the trip worth it was that Judy finished third. That moved her into a second-place tie with Hartshorn, and they split the second- and third-place prizes to earn $37,500 apiece.

Michael Labriola of Richmond, Calif, finished fourth with 9,422 points to earn $10,000, and Shawn Turner of Middlestown, Md., was fifth with 9,275 to claim the $5,000.

Bryan Wagner is now focused on matching his wife as an NHC champion, but he knows the competition is tough, including from his partner in life and horseplaying.

"We share a lot of handicapping duties because of all the races you have to look at in a tournament," he said. "We have different ways of looking at races. I specialize a lot of times in cheap races and also love to look at long-distance first-timers. Judy looks more at trainers and jockey, horses for courses, and breeding. We share notes and make our own decisions."

He wants to win, but he also knows she is striving to become the first two-time NHC champion.

"We love to compete," Judy said, "but we're also each other's biggest cheerleader."

It's a marriage made in handicapper heaven.