Jim Benes of Countryside, Ill., topped a field of 455 to win the $750,000 first-place prize and an Eclipse Award as Handicapper of the Year at the 14th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Presented by Treasure Island and Sovereign Stable Jan. 26.
The 50-year-old Benes, a professional horseplayer, amassed a winning score of $268.40 from 28 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers and two mythical $4 win-and-place "Best Bet" wagers over the two-day tournament held at Treasure Island Las Vegas.
Benes, who qualified for the NHC at Hawthorne Race Course, was in second place at the conclusion of the first day, and stayed at or near the top of the pack throughout the second day. Going into the NHC's final event, race 10 at Santa Anita, Benes trailed eventual runner-up Roger Cettina by $2.40. His $2 win and place bet in that final race was on favored Hidethegoodstuff, who finished second to Hail Mary and returned $3.60 to place—enough to secure a final winning margin of $1.20 over Cettina, a Rumson, N.J., native, who receives $200,000 for his second-place finish.
"My mother passed away a few years ago," said Benes. "Her name was Mary, and when they were coming down the stretch of that last race and I heard a horse named Hail Mary on the lead, I wasn't sure whether it was my mom trying to tell me 'I'm here for you' or 'You should have bet on me!' The only other thing I have been able to think of since then is my 9-year-old daughter. She's going to be really happy and really proud of me when I get home."
Total winnings this weekend for Benes, including a $4,000 first-day bonus he received for registering the second-best score on Friday, amounted to $754,000.
Jeff Hartz of Runnells, Ia., finished third at $244.00 to collect $100,000. Richard Grose of Wentzville, Mo., was the fist-day leader, and faded somewhat to finish fourth with $242.60. He will take home $75,000. Dan Comoro of Tigard, Ore., rounded out the top five at $196.00. That score was good for $50,000.
The NHC 14 finals paid out to the top 40 finishers from a total purse of $1,5 million. Including $295,000 paid out to top finishers in the year-long, $295,000 NHC Tour, the aggregate payouts this weekend to contestants totaled $1,795,000, plus travel and hotel awards.
The highest finish among the eight previous NHC winners at this year's event was recorded by NHC VI champion Jamie Michelson, who checked in 78th. No one has ever won the NHC more than once in the event's 14-year history.
By virtue of his victory, Benes also automatically earns an exemption into next year's NHC finals.