Albion Benton is an easy guy to root for. The 39-year-old estimates that he works 90 hours a week between three blue collar jobs — including pizza delivery — from his native New Hampshire.
He delivered a spectacular performance on Day 1 of the National Horseplayers’ Championship at Bally’s, backing two cap horses within the span of a few minutes to propel himself to the top of the leaderboard with a total of $178.40. My live radio coverage of the contest’s second day with Steve Byk will continue at approximately 3 ET today over at http://stevebyk.com/listen-live-siriusxm/
Like so many of the younger players at the NHC, Albion Benton started playing contests after he saw the Horseplayers TV show back in 2014. He received his first ever NHC qualification this year via an online tournament.
Benton’s two biggest scores Friday came in a pair of optional plays as he had 43-1 shot Ecologist in Golden Gate Race 4 and backed 20-1 shot Sara Sea in Oaklawn’s Race 7 among his 18 mythical $2 Win-Place wagers.
“For me it was just to try and get to Day 2 and have the chance to make it to Day 3,” Benton said of his NHC strategy. “I didn’t really have any hopes or anything, I was just going to try and pick the horses that I like and if they run they run and if they don’t they don’t.
“For me, I thought (Ecologist) had some really nice works coming in and I thought I would take a shot on him. And he ended up floating up to 40-1 which is even better. I know they cap you, but I had to take a shot.”
Those over-cap horses often provide more “value” than just they points they return to players because many in the contest will avoid them meaning when you hit them and move up, you move up alone. That’s the type of hit that provides the separation Benton enjoys heading into Day 2.
With more than a $25 lead heading into the seventh and final mandatory race of the day, Benton began to turn his thoughts to what lies ahead for him in the coming days – and months. In finishing atop the leaderboard for Day 1, Benton earns a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry for 2020.
“My wife will be extremely excited about that for sure,” Benton smiled. “We’ve always wanted to go to Keeneland (host of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup)…for me it would be a dream to go there.”
Benton honed his skills at old Rockingham Park, playing in little de facto match-up contests with his uncle.
“Believe it or not, my uncle used to go head to head with me every single day,” the 39-year-old recalled. “It was you pick a horse, I’ll pick a horse in the same race and whoever gets the highest total is declared the winner.
“He would always get me all the time and I was like ‘I’m tired of this, I’m just going to try and beat him.’ And I finally beat him and I’ve been (handicapping) now for 20 years.”
John Vail of Lyndhurst, NJ – who is playing in the NHC for the second time, finished second on the day behind Benton with a bankroll of $153.20. Vail also hit with longshot plays Friday – including 43-1 shot at Oaklawn – to put himself in prime position.
“I’m absolutely satisfied. I’m looking to go into tomorrow, hopefully get a few winners, and see how we wind up. I’ll try to do the same thing. Look at the program and hope to just get a couple of long shots throughout the day.”
Brian Sullivan is sitting third with a bankroll of $134.20 with NHC Hall of Famer Trey Stiles ($132) and Ralph Magnetti ($128) rounding out the top five. Ray Arsenault, the 2017 NHC champion, is tenth with a total of $117.60 with defending champion Scott Coles ($84.80) ranked 84th with one of his two entries.
The two players competing for multi-million dollar bonuses have some work to do. Tour winner Brad Snyder sits in a tie for 431st with $35.80 and BCBC winner Brad Anderson is in a tie for 445th with $33.20. The NTRA provides a searchable leaderboard, updated after each mandatory race, at www.ntra.com.
NHC entrants were required to place 18 mythical $2 Win and Place wagers – eight on mandatory races that everyone played and 10 on any of the other races from eight designated racetracks across the country. Due to Aqueduct cancelling its card on Friday due to high winds, only seven mandatory races were used with players making one more optional pick.
The three-day NHC continues Saturday at Bally’s. Day 1 bankrolls will carry over to Day 2, which will require mythical wagers on eight mandatory races and 10 optional plays. The top 10 percent of the field after Day 2 will continue on to the Semifinal round Sunday and the top 10 will play at the Final Table to determine the ultimate rankings, including the $800,000 first-place prize, and Eclipse Award winner as Horseplayer of the Year.