LAS VEGAS, Nevada (February 7, 2020) – As he stood inside the Bally’s Event Center Friday evening surrounded by nearly 600 of his horseplayer brethren, Albion Benton recalled the early handicapping mettle instilled in him during his early days growing up near Rockingham Park in New Hampshire.

“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.”

Benton’s ability to one-up his contemporaries was on full display during the opening day of the 21st NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) Presented by Racetrack Television Network, Caesars Entertainment and Bally’s as the first-time qualifier hit a couple of longshot plays en route to posting a leading bankroll of $178.40.

Video: Benton discusses his stellar first day at NHC2020:

Given that he works about 90 hours a week between his three jobs, Benton has only been able to get serious about contest play over the past year.

In August, he qualified for his first NHC when he hit a 7-1 shot at Saratoga with one race to go during an August 23 tournament to pass more than 20 competitors and earn the win. That victory was one of six top-10 finishes Benton had in online NHC qualifier contests in 2019, and it was that kind of steady momentum that served him well in the field of 564 individuals.

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.

“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.”

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.”

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 to put himself in prime position.

“My goal was to just compete, just to try to finish with some points,” the 55-year-old Vail said. “I didn’t realize that I was going to have such a decent day. I did have three long shots, one was the cap horse. That was my biggest hit of the day. 

“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.

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.

Draft Kings is the exclusive sponsor of the NHC Final Table. Official Partners of the 2020 NHC include STATS Race Lens, TVG, Daily Racing Form, Insurance Office of America (IOA), and NYRA Bets.