Tournament rookie Northern in 444th after Day 1 but with 18 more races ‘you’re never out of it’

Barry Northern is a lifelong racing fan who has never lived more than a few miles from Churchill Downs and now works as the Kentucky Derby Museum’s assistant manager of visitor services after spending most of his adult life selling golf equipment. Northern is a first-time qualifier for the $2.9 million DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Jan. 27-29 at Treasure Island Las Vegas. He spoke with veteran turf journalist Jennie Rees about his first day of competition Friday, when Northern finished with a bankroll of $41.40 to be in 444th place among the 653 entries.

So how was your first day?

“It’s been great. They feed you breakfast, feed you lunch. You get free drinks. They also for the contest give you a $100 chip to bet. That’s a pretty good perk.

“Now as far as my gambling, that’s hasn’t been good. I was 0 for about three races. But like I said (Thursday), I didn’t want to see that goose egg up too long, and I hit a $16 horse at Fair Grounds. Somebody always asks me about tips. Well, I had a friend call from Louisville who had been given a tip. I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know what it is.’ And it ended up that my horse beat his tip horse in a photo. I just don’t want to hear that stuff to sway my opinion. His was a short-priced horse anyway.

“I haven’t had much luck, but with 18 races to go (Saturday) you’re never out of it. And if you’re not in the top 60-something Saturday (to make the semifinals), there is a separate (consolation) tournament Sunday where the winner gets $10,000 and even 20th place gets $1,000. So there’s still plenty of opportunities to make some money.

“It’s a lot of fun, but basically it’s an eight-hour day. And I cannot sit in there that long. I tried to make a few bets ahead of time, get up and walk around, get outside and get some fresh air and come back and see how I was doing. That’s a long time to be sitting in there, even as much as I love betting horses.…. If I’m at the racetrack, I never stay in one place. I’m roaming all over the place. Here you’re kind of sitting at a table, so I just had to get up and get moving. When I went to the races with my mother as a kid, we never stayed in the same spot. Unless maybe Mother hit a winner and then we might stay there for another race.”

You’re sitting next to Stanley Bavlish, who won the 2007 tournament. What’s that like?

“Well, I didn’t want to stare at what he’s doing. Of course, he has a laptop, an iPad, a little bit of everything. He was very friendly. But I didn’t want to ask him too much. I kind of wanted to ask him his strategy. But then he might not want to tell me that, so I didn’t ask. But it’s kind of neat to sit next to somebody that I know his name in those contests all the time.”

Most of the 500-plus competitors are in the Treasure Island ballroom. Is there a code of decorum for the contest?

“It’s different watching how everybody does things differently. I was sitting a table, I guess six of us. There wasn’t a lot of conversation going on. If you’re at the track on a regular basis, you might be saying, ‘Hey, boy, I really like this horse.’ In there, you’re probably not going to say that.”

What about the feedback you’ve been getting? Pressure or fun?

“Anybody who knows me, cell phone is new to my repertoire. I’m one of the last to go to a cell phone. And my phone is blowing up with texts, which doesn’t happen. I know back home they’re sitting at the bar wondering how I’m doing, so I try to keep them updated. It’s not pressure. It’s just fun. They’re all pulling for me.

“A friend of mine just texted and said he just hit the late Pick 4 at Gulfstream, and that if he could hit four in a row, I can hit 18 in a row.”