By Jennie Rees for NTRA.com
LAS VEGAS — Lisa Blevins has been handicapping the horses since growing up in Newport, Ky., when Turfway Park was known as Latonia Race Course. But this is the first time that she qualified for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, being held Thursday through Saturday at Treasure Island.
Blevins was excited but decidedly relaxed Thursday morning not long before the competition began. She’d done all her handicapping for the day’s card and was getting ready to start doping out Friday’s races. In the NHC, participants Thursday and Friday must place $2 to win and show from a mythical bankroll on a single horse in eight mandatory races and 10 optional races each day. The top 10 percent, plus ties, then will progress to Saturday’s semi-final round.
Because the Fair Grounds, one of the tracks whose card is part of the competition, typically enters eight days out, Blevins had started her preparation early.
“If anything goes off at shorter odds than I’d like, I might do some switching around,” said Blevins, whose husband, childhood sweetheart Jobby Blevins, a previous NHC qualifier who came up just short this year. “Other than that, I’m done for the day. I started, gosh, Sunday night, whenever the first Fair Grounds races came up on line, I started handicapping then. I like to be prepared. Without knowing what the mandatories were, I just went ahead and looked at all of the card and started going at it.”
The Blevins both worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown, Ky., taking a buyout early retirement offer. They landed in the small town of Brookings in southern Oregon with Lisa putting her handicapping skills to work.
“The Kentucky weather, we wanted to get away from it,” she said. “We live right on the California-Oregon border, right on the coast. It’s called the Banana belt of Oregon. It’s a micro-climate area, like in a river valley. It almost never freezes there and it’s a rare day if it reaches 80 degrees.
“I just started looking. We wanted to live somewhere on the coast, East Coast or West Coast. Kind of like I do my handicapping, I did my research and we found Brookings. It’s just a small town, like 8,000 people. It is the most gorgeous rocky coast. We live in a state park scenic corridor.”
The Blevins actually accelerated their contest participation once they moved away from any nearby tracks, as they had in Kentucky. Portland Meadows to the north and Golden Gate Fields to the south are the closest.
“You know how a lot of people have like CNN or whatever on all the time? TVG is always on our TV. It’s muted, but it’s always on in the background,” Lisa said. “We’ve been going to the track together since we were kids. We went to high school together, that’s where we met. Jobby’s grandfather took him to Turfway and he got the bug. The earliest race I remember is my mother and I always watched the Kentucky Derby together. That got me the bug. When Jobby and I got together, we started going to Turfway in the winter and River Downs in the summer.
“One of our very favorite things to do is go to live racing. It’s a very social thing. When we were in Kentucky, we always looked forward to April and October for Keeneland. The past couple of years since we moved away from the tracks, we started getting even more into horse racing after not working anymore. That’s when we got more serious about qualifying and contest competition.”
Lisa said there’s room for fun at the NHC “and I’m trying to stay as relaxed as I can.
“I’ve done all my homework, I’ve handicapped the way that I want to and reviewed everything. I’m completely comfortable now. Being prepared is the best nerve-calming thing for me.”
Lisa said an interview that aired live on John Engelhardt’s Winning Ponies internet radio show “really boosted my confidence.
“That was great for me to go on and talk with him. And a couple of the horses I gave him ran really well.”
You can hear Lisa’s interview on Winning Ponies by clicking here. She’s halfway through the show. Jonathon Kinchen, going for a $2 million bonus if he wins after also being the NHC Tour champion, is on about 15 minutes into the show, after Engelhardt gives the week’s news.
UPDATE: Blevins got on a roll, hitting three straight mandatory races and loved Hiking, a 14-1 shot ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens in Santa Anita’s seventh race, a 1 1/8-mile turf allowance that was the last of the eight mandatory races. Hiking rallied late but wound up third.
Blevins finished her first day of NHC competition at 62.60 — good for 189th place out of the more than 600 entries.
“Yeah, Mike Smith (on victorious 6-1 shot Socialized) got away with some slow fractions there, and that’s always dangerous,” Blevins said, adding of the experience, “I’m really glad I was as ready as I was, having all my picks already made. There were a few I had to change. One of my horses got scratched (in an optional race), even after the early scratches came out, and I had to go back and re-evaluate the race to fill in for that. I actually didn’t get hot until the three mandatories in a row.
“I’ve done (contest play) enough to know it’s OK if you don’t cash early on because you can always hit several in a row. I actually looked at Mike Smith on Socialized. I didn’t think he could go a mile and an eighth on the lead. But he did it. Exactly what it was was risk-reward. I’ve bet Hiking before. She was flying at the end and just couldn’t get there.”