Barry Northern, 60, 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 $2.5 million DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Jan. 27-29 at Treasure Island Las Vegas. Northern is sharing his thoughts and experiences with veteran turf journalist Jennie Rees before and throughout tournament handicapping’s biggest competition. 

How did you get interested in horse racing? 

“I give my mother most of the credit, or the blame — whichever one you want. My dad liked horse racing; my mother loved it. I was the youngest, so my brother and sisters would head to school, and Mother and I spent our day at the racetrack. She was a handicapper, loved reading the Racing Form. Any time we had a day off from school, we were coming to the racetrack. When I went to DeSales High School (three miles from Churchill Downs), as soon as school was over, the priests and a bunch of students were heading here to the races.

“My first recollections of the Kentucky Derby start when I was five. My Uncle Joe attended 75 in a row; from 1922 to 1996 he never missed a Derby. In 1962, before he left to the track, he pinned a button on me that said, ‘I like Decidedly.’ I watched Decidedly win that day, and I was hooked. I still have the button. My mother’s brother Mike Barry was a sports writer and at one time the dean of the Derby writers, covering more than anybody at one time. He went to 66 of them, I think, so it’s in the blood. It’s like Christmas time in my house for the Derby. We all went to grandma’s and all the adults would head to the track. I just remember they all were in a really good mood when they got home. I figured that out later.

“I’ve been at the Derby Museum about six years. I tell people every day when I’m doing the tours, ‘My mother is looking down at me, thinking ‘What the heck took you so long?’”

What got you into tournament competition?

“Churchill Downs had their first one about 1991. They had qualifiers each week to get in the final. I qualified and finished second in the very first one they had. I fell in love with contests, but more so these last couple of years because Churchill Downs did away with their bigger contests. The last year and a half, I got onto I play TwinSpires ones, too. But HorseTourneys is where I’ve had a lot of luck. Sometimes it’s a cheap day. You can enter these contests for $18. Well, there’s your action for the day and you have races to bet all over the country. So it can be a cheap way to still follow the races.”

What’s the closest you’ve made it before to get to the NHC?

“Not very close. Churchill Downs several years ago, when they used to offer the trips, I was in the finals a couple of times there but didn’t necessarily do very well. I had a friend who did very well. You got a trip for two, and he took me. That was my first taste of the big NHC contest. I thought that day, watching him play, ‘Boy, I’d like to do that someday.’ That’s been about 16 years ago. But I haven’t really tried very much since then up until the last year or two.”

So for a lifelong fan, how excited are you about going to Vegas?

“Well, I’m a week away. I get more excited about it each day, no question. I can’t wait. The last time I was out there, 16 years ago, I think my friend Kevin McCutcheon finished 13th in the NHC and that got him nothing. These days, if you finish 12th or so out there with the money they’re giving away, you’ll do OK. I realize my odds are about 600-1 — there will be about 600 people in there. But at least I have a shot. It just has to be your day that day.”