Rookie qualifier remembers tough beats better than wager that got him to handicapping’s big show

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. 

You’ve played in handicapping contests since 1991. What got you playing more the last year or so, with the goal of getting to the NHC?

“I guess getting in some of those competitions and seeing the prizes they were offering. I was coming close to qualifying, and that just whetted my appetite for wanting to get there. And I just loved playing in the contests. They’re a blast.”

Do you recall the race in the HorseTourneys contest that got you to Vegas?

“I should, but I can’t. For me, I’m a maiden race guy. I love the breeding. If they give me certain races that I can pick, I’m usually looking for a maiden race. But in that particular contest, they laid out the races for you.”

Are you more likely to remember the close beats?

“Yeah! I had a very close beat at Keeneland in a live-money tournament. That’s one I’ll never forget. Coming into the last race, I had one shot. I made one large bet in a trifecta and ran first, second and fourth.  First, second and third probably would have won the contest, a lot of money and a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. I was in the upper reaches of Keeneland, and I told my friends waiting for me down below, ‘Lucky I didn’t jump off the roof.’ It was that close. Because coming down the stretch the first two (about 15- and 25-1 odds) were out on top, and all I needed was one of my three or four picks to get up for third.”

Do you like the $2 win and $2 place format of NHC vs. live money?

“I do. I like the ones they have on HorseTourneys. They have two different formats. One you can play live, or one you can play ‘Pick and Pray.’ That means you bet all those races before they ever start, and you’re locked into those bets. I kind of like those. Because sometimes those live-money tournaments, you can be doing very well, and come the last race, anybody in the back of the pack is going to take the longest shot on the board. If that horse hits, they all leapfrog you.

“One thing I like about the NHC is that you can’t buy your way in. You have to win your way into the contest. I realize after going to Keeneland and seeing those people, I could tell a lot of them, it’s all they do. Some of them are professional handicappers. Felt a little out of my element there — all the laptops out there, and I’m kind of a Daily Racing Form-type guy. I will take an iPad with me, but I’d just as soon have the Racing Form than anything else. Even when I have the Racing Form online, it’s still not the same as having it in my hand. When I walked into my grandmother’s dining room, Racing Forms were stacked about five or six feet high over in the corner. I’ve got pictures of me at 5-year-olds sitting with the Racing Form. I don’t think I was reading. But I was looking.”

How do you bet when you’re at the races on your own?

“I’m a Pick 3 and Pick 4 player, pretty much almost always. Betting to win, I look for maiden grass races. That’s what I like the best. When you’re pari-mutuel, you’re betting against everybody else out there, so you’ve got to look where you think you’ve got the edge. I think I’ve got a little edge on breeding side of grass, at least that’s what I like to think.”

Do you think you’ll be doing a lot of studying out there? It’s Las Vegas!

“I know. I’ve got some friends going with me. When the first day is over, I’ll probably be heading out (on the Strip) afterward. I hope on the plane ride out there to do a lot of studying for Friday and Saturday.”