01/30/2016 10:23PM

Watchmaker: You got to love new NHC champ's attitude


LAS VEGAS - Moments after winning the 17th Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship here Saturday afternoon at Treasure Island Las Vegas, and a first place purse of $800,000, Paul Matties had this to say: “Whenever I meet someone and they say they are a horseplayer, I automatically like them, and know they are smarter than anyone else.”

Obviously, we all can feel very good about our new NHC champion.

Matties, who pinpointed the victory by R B Rainbow Dash at 22-1 in Saturday’s sixth race at Tampa Bay Downs as the turning point in his tournament, was powerful in this NHC. He had to be to fight off a fierce challenge from runner-up Roger Cettina, and the remainder of a salty Final Table of 10.

In addition to Cettina, who was also the runner-up in the NHC in 2013, this Final Table included Matties’s brother, Duke, who was in his 12th straight NHC; tournament veteran David Gutfreund; Joe Perry, who was in his seventh NHC; and Stan Bavlish, who won the NHC in 2007.

But as formidable as the competition was, once Matties took command Saturday, he proved iron on the lead. This was not a surprise, as he is as seasoned a tournament player as you will find on the circuit. And Matties is a worthy successor to John Oneil, the NHC 16 champion whose rein was an exhibition of pure class.

How can the Final Table concept be improved?

The NHC is a great event, and it was made even better with the introduction of the Final Table of 10 two years ago. But I do think a few tweaks should be considered to ensure the final table is competitive beyond a two- or three-person competition.

Matties came into the Final Table round with a point score of 368.10, which was $50 more than the third place contestant after the semifinals, and more than $100 more than the 10th and final member of the Final Table. In other words, many of the members of the Final Table had no realistic chance of catching Matties.

Now, that does speak to how strong a tournament Matties had, and he should reap every benefit of what he earned through 46 plays in the first 2 1/2 days of the tournament. However, if you are going to have a Final Table of 10, then you have to give contestants seven through 10 some hope of winning, because the way it has gone in the first three years of the Final Table, it’s clear they don’t have much of a shot.

I don’t like the idea of reverting to cash tournament play for the Final Table, where a contestant can go all in at a point of their choosing. I really don’t like the idea of completely changing the format of the tournament at the final stage.

Perhaps a better idea might be to offer the Final Table contestants one “push” play, where instead of a $2 win/place wager, they might get a $10 win/place wager. That could give some of the Final Table trailers a chance at winning, and the concept remains true to the DNA of the NHC.

But if that, too, seems unfair to a Final Table leader who has built a commanding lead because he has been just that much better than everyone else, then maybe a better tweak would be to reduce the Final Table to five contestants. That might narrow the field to folks who have a realistic chance of winning.

Mohaymen, Cathryn Sophia impress

The two best horses I saw race Saturday were very likely the two best everyone else saw race – Mohaymen and Cathryn Sophia.

I know Mohaymen was right on top of a slow pace in the Holy Bull, and in general, I tend to downgrade horses who win after getting great trips being with slow early paces. But it was different with Mohaymen. He was just so dominant winning the Holy Bull; his 3 1/2-length win margin really doesn’t do him justice. And he romped while not being fully cranked what with much bigger fish to fry down the road. Mohaymen is a very serious 3-year-old, and what he did Saturday should make him a clear future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Also, don’t be thrown by Mohaymen’s preliminary Beyer Figure of 95. The Holy Bull was Gulfstream’s only dirt route on the card, and the slow early pace had to knock that number down to some extent.

As for Cathryn Sophia, she was 1-10 in the Forward Gal earlier in the Gulfstream card, so she was expected to win big. She also wound up running her seven furlongs .23 of a second slower than Awesome Banner did winning the Swale for males at 4-5 in the very next race. But this was all about how Cathryn Sophia won.

Cathryn Sophia ran her overmatched opposition silly from the start in her first two starts, which she won by ridiculously large margins. But on Saturday, Cathryn Sophia didn’t break sharply, and found herself boxed in behind horses. She showed a new dimension overcoming a trip alien to what she has known, and she overcame it with impressive style.

2016 NHC final top 10

1 Paul Matties $399.50 $800,000 (and Eclipse Award for Horseplayer of the Year)
2 Roger Cettina $389.10 $250,000
3 Charlie Davis $340.60 $125,000
4 Duke Matties $337.30 $100,000
5 David Gutfreund $331.80 $75,000
6 Joe Perry $319.40 $65,000
7 Peter Deys $307.80 $59,000
8 Ernie Powers $304.90 $54,000
9 Stanley Bavlish $284.20 $52,000
10 Mark Richards $283.20 $50,000