By Jennie Rees
Paul Matties is professional gambler, so successful that he has hit multiple Pick 6s into the six figures and even more than $1 million at Santa Anita Park.
But the Jan. 28-30 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship for him had been like a horse who just can't win at a certain track, or even hit the board. That all changed Saturday when the 46-year-old from Ballston Spa, N.Y., held off New Jersey construction executive Roger Cettina to capture three-day, $2.77 million NHC at Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
"I have the worst record ever in the NHC going into today," Matties said. "I've qualified 11 or 12 times and never cashed."
The format of the NHC involves betting $2 to win and place on a single horse from a mythical bankroll. Matties finished with a score of $399.50, with Cettina second at $389.10 and former collegiate wrestler Charlie Davis at $340.60. Duke Matties, Paul's younger brother, was fourth at $337.30.
One sure bet: The $800,000 first-place check Matties collected will churn back into the business. In addition to being a professional bettor, he also owns racehorses with Duke Matties and their brother Greg, the Belmont Park-based trainer.
"When I meet anybody and they tell me they're a horseplayer, I automatically like them," Paul Matties said. "And I automatically think they are smarter than everybody else. So to beat all the smartest people in the world, what an honor."
The record 629 entries played 10 optional and eight mandatory races on Thursday and Friday, with the top 63 moving on to Saturday's semi-final round. Matties started out slow, earning only $28.60 the first day to rank 162nd, but surged with a big Friday to go to $223.90, good for sixth and a spot in the finals.
From there the married father of three sons sprinted to the lead, taking in a $368.10 to $343.30 edge over Cettina when the top 10 advanced to the Final Table, comprised of seven mandatory races.
Matties' big break came in Tampa Bay Downs' sixth race when R B Rainbow Dash, at $47, easily won an $8,000 conditioned claiming race, though under contest rules a win payoff caps at $42. That moved him from third to a lead he never relinquished.
Cettina also was second at the 2013 NHC. He said he was going for the victory and not trying to save second.
"I didn't even know I'd won $250,000 until my buddy Frank told me," said the runner-up, who also picked up an additional $25,000 as the top finisher from the season-long NHC Tour in the title competition. "Now it's $275,000 more than I came with."
Chick Matties, a serious contest player himself, said he has never been so nervous in his life as watching his two sons in the NHC Final Table.
"It was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done," he said. "I was a professional bowler, and I bowled Earl Anthony head-to-head, and this was like 100 times worse. I'd rather do it myself, but I was so happy they won. They work so hard at the game every day. So I was thrilled, but I was a wreck."
Here are the top 10 finishers in the NHC:
Paul Matties, $399.50 ($800,000 and Eclipse Award for Horseplayer of the Year)
Roger Cettina, $389.10 ($250,000)
Charlie Davis, $340.60 ($125,000)
Duke Matties, $337.30 ($100,000)
David Gutfreund, $331.80 ($75,000)
Joe Perry, $319.40 ($65,000)
Peter Deys, $307.80 ($59,000)
Ernie Powers, $304.90 ($54,000)
Stanley Bavlish, $284.20 ($52,000)
Mark Richards $283.20 ($50,000)