LAS VEGAS--With a record 568 players filling a ballroom, a meeting room and the race book at Treasure Island, one might think the first-day leader in the National Horseplayers Championship would be feeling pressure.
That might have been the case if Michael Ryan actually had known Friday afternoon that he was in the lead.
“Shocked,” he said. “I knew we had a good day. After the last race we just had to stop by to see what happened. I was surprised.”
Before he left early, Ryan, 52, of Herndon, Va., turned his mythical $72 bankroll into $150.80 making the required 36 win and place bets to start the three-day contest that has a record total purse of $2,974,700. He leads Paul Langley of Lisle, Ill., by $2.10. John Farrar of Willimantic, Conn., and 25-year-old Jonathan Zvara of Canfield, Ohio, are tied for third, $4 behind Ryan.
Taking part in his third consecutive NHC, Ryan built most of his bankroll on three of the 10 optional races that he chose to bet. He correctly picked 11-1 Hunter’s Strike to win the third race at Oaklawn Park, he backed 10-1 winner Gray Admiral in the seventh at Santa Anita, and he backed Conquest Windycity at 16-1 to upset Mind Your Biscuits in a seven-furlong allowance at Gulfstream Park.
“That was actually an easy pick, because I thought the horse was good,” Ryan said. “I use The Sheets, and you could see where Mind Your Biscuits slipped just a little bit. I liked the winner a lot and would have played him at 10-1, and we were getting 16-1.”
Saying he would continue to bet against favorites the rest of the contest, Ryan also said his day job as a fraud investigator helps him handicap races. “It’s all the same thing,” he said. “It’s analyzing data.”
Ryan qualified by finishing 82nd on the 2017 NHC Tour, from which the top 150 were invited to this weekend’s championship. His best finish in this event was his first time two years ago, when he was 386th.
Langley, 72, who is retired from 54 years of work in the information-technology field, said he was not sure how he was able to make his way into second place. “Nothing special,” he said. “I can’t remember. I typically go for the outliers – something other than the favorite.”
Wearing a T-shirt from his old high-school football team, Zvara begged off an interview when he took the lead briefly late Friday, saying he did not want to jinx himself for the rest of the tournament.
Defending champion Ray Arsenault, who lives in both south Florida and Canada, is in a familiar spot after the first day. He is tied for 332nd, the best of his two entries. Last year at this time he was 333rd before making his big move on day 2.
After today’s races – eight mandatory and 10 optional – the top 71 entries will advance to Sunday morning’s semifinals. The top 10 from there will be in Sunday afternoon’s finals competing for a first prize of $800,000.
The regular edition of the racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current show covers the National Horseplayers Championship. National Thoroughbred Racing Association COO Keith Chamblin and Keeneland-based racing executive/horseplayer Jim Goodman are the guests. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.