Paul Matties Jr., a professional gambler and horse owner from Ballston Spa, N.Y., captured last year’s $2.77 million Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. The 47-year-old married father of three is one of nine former NHC titlists who will try to become the first two-time winner this Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island Las Vegas. Among those Matties beat last year was his brother, Duke, who finished fourth and is back again this year. Their father, former professional bowler Paul “Chick” Matties Sr., also qualified for the 2017 competition. Veteran racing journalist Jennie Rees caught up with the reigning champion as he was between flights on his was to Las Vegas. 

After you won last year, you said that until then you had “the worst record ever in the NHC” and had never cashed in about a dozen years of qualifying. Do feel like your karma has changed or did you learn anything that might help become the first two-time winner? 

“The new format is really good for me. I think that was the big difference. I’m going to try to do the same thing; I’m not worried about winning, just try to make each cut as we go. I like that format, instead of taking longshots so early, like in the past. Now it’s an extra day. You played two days (before) and you had less picks. Now we have probably triple the picks we used to have. And most of them (before) were mandatories. You pretty much had to take 20-1 shots, because if one of them won, somebody was going to have it, with so many people in it. You don’t have to do that at all now. There are 18 picks each of the first two days, and only eight — less than half — are mandatory. You can pick horses you like (in optional races). And you have that extra day. That second cut is really good. You make like (10 picks) in half a day, so you really have to be on your toes to make it to the Final Table.” 

Reflect back on last year, finally making the Final Table and then winning the whole thing — and beating your brother on top of it! 

“I was doing a lot of positive things for that whole week and pictured myself winning. The one thing I couldn’t envision was all the other things that come with winning it. That’s pretty amazing. Everything that’s happened in the last year, related to winning, has been something I never would have predicted or thought about. It’s such a big thing, an honor to represent other horseplayers all year long. It’s really cool.” 

Including going to the Eclipse Awards and getting an Eclipse trophy as 2017’s champion handicapper. 

“Yeah, that was pretty good. But hanging around Saratoga, and people coming up and congratulating you. People I didn’t know made me pins that said ‘NHC winner’ and saying, ‘You deserved it.’ You don’t expect that stuff, and it’s really nice.” 

Did people at Saratoga want to get selfies with you? 

“Yeah (laughs). I had one in Florida at the Eclipse Awards. We were in the hotel and some political pundits were all standing there wanting to be seen. And then a couple of people came up and wanted a picture with me, and I was just standing there waiting for my wife. They (pundits) were looking at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’ It was pretty funny.” 

So do you think you know what winning the Kentucky Derby or Miss America is like now? 

“I was joking about that to (racing radio personality) Steve Byk. Definitely Miss America. You represent the horse-racing world for a year, and you do all these radio shows and TV and they want you to pick things. And they accept you. You don’t have to prove yourself over and over and over again, like most of the time in horse racing.” 

You were a top handicapper before (including hitting a $1 million Pick 6), but I guess it’s like a top trainer who doesn’t get that recognition until they win the Kentucky Derby. 

“You seem to get instant respect. It’s similar to that.” 

Not to throw cold water on it, but to show how tough it is, of the seven former NHC champs competing last year, only one (Stanley Bavlish) advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round, finishing 15th. The next highest finish by a past titlist was 161st.  

“Everybody has been telling me, ‘You’re going to be a repeat winner.’ And I know how unrealistic that is. I’ve been doing something I normally don’t do: I’ve been talking myself (into thinking) that I’m not going to win. I don’t want to think things that aren’t real. So I’ve been trying to be grounded. I really just want to make that first cut. I figure if I get that far, the stuff I learned might take over. But I don’t want to think ahead. I just want to do well the first two days, enough to get in there. 

“Somehow I want to get myself into the mindset that I had last year. And you can’t really think that way knowing that you won last year. (laughs) It’s been hard…. Roger Cettina, who finished second last year, he’s finished second twice. I’m trying to use him as an inspiration. He probably had the same feeling I had last year, and yet he came really close to winning. Not to harp on it, but with the different format, I think it will be a little bit different now. There used to be a joke that you were just in it for the lottery. I don’t think people think that anymore. Little by little they’ve gotten to a good format. Of course, picking races over three days, you still have to be really lucky.” 

Can a first-time qualifier win, or do you have to go through it at least once? 

“Before, yes. Now, I’m not so sure. With this new format, you better be focused. You’re not going to be able to come in there and go out all night the two nights. There are just so many moves you have to make. In the old days, you only had to make one or two right moves. I do think you could win the first time if you got rolling. I think the hard part for anybody doing it for the first time is the psychological aspect if you start losing. That would be really overwhelming, having to make so many picks and having the first eight or nine run poorly.” 

Last year you said you’d use some of your $800,000 prize money to buy racehorses, to be trained by your brother Greg. Did you? 

“Yeah. I haven’t had much luck. In fact, this year was the worst year I’ve ever had owning horses, and that goes back to 1990. And I’m buying more babies. I’ve got three just turned 3-year-olds who are close to running that we have a lot of hope for. The babies I had last year didn’t really pan out.” 

What is a tougher way to make a go of it: Betting horses or owning horses? 

“Owning horses, definitely, is harder. I keep trying. But since I started owning horses, it’s gotten so much more expensive.” 

This year your dad, who was a popular interview after you won, also qualified.  

“Yeah, he’s all excited. He’s telling everybody he’s going to win.”