TVG on-air analyst Dave Weaver is in the midst of what he refers to as a “dream weekend.” Today through Sunday he’ll make his first appearance in the world’s richest handicapping contest – the Daily Racing Form/NTRA NHC Presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas – and Saturday he’ll take a short 5,000-mile roundtrip detour to South Florida to watch a horse he part-owns, War Story, start in the world’s richest race – the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino.
“I drove five hours last night from my home, near Los Al, to get here,” Weaver said. “I’ve got a flight to Miami in the morning. I’ll be at the Pegasus to party like a rock star. Then I get back on the plane at 8:30 p.m. (ET) and I’ll be back in Vegas by 11 (PT).”
Weaver is a “very small partner” in the War Story ownership group, Looch Racing Stables, which is led by Ron Paolucci and also includes Glenn Ellis and Imaginary Stables. The partnership came to an agreement to run with Dan Schafer, purported Northern Kentucky pizza magnate and one of 12 investors who “own” spots in the Pegasus starting gate.
“I’ve never met Dan,” Weaver said. “He bought a section of the racetrack, something like 200 tickets, so I get to hang out with him and all these fans. Win, lose, or draw it’s going to be a fun experience to be there.”
War Story enters the Pegasus off a win in December’s $75,000 Queens County Stakes at Aqueduct and was assigned morning line odds of 50-1 against the world’s two top-rated horses, California Chrome and Arrogate.
“He’s getting better his last few races and really learning how to get out of the gate,” Weaver said. “He’s had head issues but mentally he’s starting to figure it out and I’m expecting a big race.”
The Pegasus is a mandatory race in the NHC, but as part-owner of an entrant Weaver will be assigned an alternate race for that mandatory selection. Weaver will submit all of his Saturday selections that morning before departing for Florida.
FIRST COUPLE OF HANDICAPPING BACK IN ACTION AT NHC – Judy and Bryan Wagner, the first couple of handicapping contests, are back at the NHC after not participating the past two years. That’s because they were not eligible after 2001 NHC champ Judy Wagner was elected as the horseplayers’ representative on the board of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. This year, however, the NTRA changed the policy to allow board members to play in the world’s biggest handicapping tournament, which it owns.
“The year that I was elected to the board, both of us had already qualified, so we had to give that up,” said Judy Wagner. “The board changed the regulations at the end of March. Bryan and I were in a panic that we’d embarrass ourselves and not qualify.”
They needn’t have worried. In their first contest, at Keeneland, with Bryan – the 2009 NHC Tour winner – qualifying. Judy became eligible in May in a contest at Treasure Island. By June they both had the maximum two entries. It took even less time for Bryan to earn a seat in the 2018 NHC, finishing third in Thursday’s Last Chance/First Chance qualifier at Treasure Island, which offered three seats to next year’s big show.
“If I had won the last race, I would have knocked him out,” Judy said. “But we’re not competitors. We’re each other’s biggest cheerleader.”
Asked the difference between handicapping at the races and a tournament, she said of tournament competition: “You’re handicapping the people in addition to the horses. Some people have patterns that you can predict what they’ll do. Other people are like misguided missiles; you never know where they’re going.”
Judy Wagner is first vice chairman of the Louisiana Racing Commission and a past chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. She’s very bullish on continued growth of tournament competition. She also believes the sport will get a huge boost with the new IRS regulations being presented to the Treasury Department to modernize the regulations concerning how and when money is withheld from large payoffs, basing it on the actual cost of the wager rather than the archaic assumption that everything was a $2 bet.
“The NHC is one of the most successful aspects of horse racing the last few years,” Wagner said. “And I think this taxation issue will really help horseplayers so much, that we have tremendous potential to grow. But the horseplayers have got to offer comments, because we’ve got to be a united front.”
Horseplayers and racing fans can comment — with the option of using one already prepared — at ntra.com/comment.
JOHNSON RELYING ON ‘SKULLDUGGERY’ – If Dennis Johnson wins this weekend’s $2.9 million DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, the lifelong racing fan from Chicago will cheerfully admit resorting to skullduggery.
Johnson is one-for-one in handicapping tournaments, having won Kentucky Downs’ Sept. 10 NHC qualifier in his competition debut. He is leaving nothing to chance as he tries to go to 2-for-2 and collect the $800,000 first-place money and the title of 2017 Eclipse Award champion handicapper.
Here’s Johnson packing list for his Vegas trip: Toothbrush? Check. Cubs shirts? Check. Lucky skull? Check.
Twenty-eight years ago, he was with friends at the now-shuttered Balmoral Park in Crete, Ill. Johnson left busted but spotted a little rodent skull in the parking lot.
“We took it back to my buddy’s house, played cards, played dice. I won every time,” he said. “We brought it to the racetrack, and we started winning.”
As if not wanting to drain the luck, Johnson picks his spots, carefully transporting the 1 X 2-inch skull in a miniature metal case lined with blue velvet. He took it to Kentucky Downs, and now to Vegas, where the NHC runs Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island Hotel & Casino.
Johnson had never competed in a handicapping contest until he visited Kentucky Downs hard on the Tennessee border.
Johnson is pals with Joe Kristufek, the well-known paddock handicapper in Chicago, at Churchill Downs and Kentucky Downs. Kristufek told Johnson that he really needed to experience the uniqueness of Kentucky Downs’ all-grass meet spread over five dates in September. He suggested Johnson come Sept. 10, not only the track’s signature card but when a handicapping contest would send its first three finishers to the NHC.
“He’s a strangely superstitious guy,” Kristufek said. “If I was going to bring one friend to come to Kentucky Downs to play in the tournament, I’m bringing the lucky skull.”
Johnson’s winning play in the Kentucky Downs’ NHC qualifier was 12-1 Lots O’ Lex in the One Dreamer Stakes on a day otherwise devoid of long-shot winners.
“It’s a beautiful track,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to go back. I know my family wants to go down there. It’s a good atmosphere, a good family environment. I wasn’t expecting how nice it was. You get good horses there, and even favorites pay a square price.”
Kristufek came to Vegas with Johnson, serving as his friend’s advisor. One of the first things Johnson did upon arriving at Treasure Island was to bet on himself to win the NHC. He said he got 200-1, lowering the odds to 100-1. Given that Johnson was wearing a Chicago Cubs shirt, he was asked the bigger upset: The Cubbies finally winning the World Series or Dennis Johnson taking the NHC.
“Oh, definitely me winning,” the professional handyman said with a laugh. “The Cubs were overdue.”
Matthew Bickey of Beckley, W.Va., who fell in love with racing when he went to Keeneland while in college at Transylvania University, finished second in the Kentucky Downs contest, with Mark Waggoner of Lexington finishing third.
SATURDAY MANDATORY RACES ANNOUNCED – Tournament officials released the eight mandatory races for Day 2 of the NHC today at 7 a.m. PT. In chronological order, those races are (all times Pacific): Gulfstream 7, 11:32 a.m.; Santa Anita 2, 12:15 p.m.; Aqueduct 8, 12:50 p.m.; Laurel 9, 1:30 p.m.; Gulfstream 11, 1:50 p.m.; Gulfstream 12, 2:40 p.m.; Santa Anita 7, 3:12 p.m.; and Santa Anita 10, 4:48 p.m.
SUNDAY MANDATORY RACES TO BE ANNOUNCED SATURDAY MORNING – The mandatory races for Sunday’s Final Table will be announced Saturday at 7 a.m. PT. Players and fans can find the races on NTRA.com and the NTRA Twitter feed, @NTRA, and NHC entrants can pick up a sheet listing the races at the registration desk outside of the Treasure Island ballroom.