LAS VEGAS--Keep the ball in bounds. Go into a four corners. Rag the puck. If there is a horse-racing handicappers’ equivalent of a stall, Chris Littlemore was looking for it Sunday.
Retired from his 31-year job near Toronto on a General Motors assembly line, Littlemore learned long ago how to bide his time. He did it successfully at Treasure Island this weekend, even as much of his big lead withered away until he hit a winner in the last race to clinch the $800,000 first prize in the $2.97 million National Horseplayers Championship.
“I wasn’t having a good day, and guys just kept picking away,” Littlemore said. “I was fortunate enough that no big long shots came in to overtake me.”
Littlemore, 58, turned his imaginary $212 stake through $2 win-place bets in each of 53 races into a winning total of $348.30 over three days. He started Sunday with a $51 lead that dwindled to $16.80 going into the last of seven mandatory races in the finals. That is when he backed War Heroine, a 3-year-old filly that won the ninth race at Santa Anita.
“I picked the right horse in the last one,” he said, “and it got me through.”
The second consecutive Canadian to be crowned NHC champion, Littlemore won by $33.20 over Keith Fenton, who held his ground in second place all day Sunday and earned $250,000. Garett Skiba, a six-time NHC qualifier from Hinsdale, Ill., rose from 20th to third on the final day, finishing $34.30 out of the lead to cash $125,000.
Both Littlemore and Skiba were on War Heroine in the last race; Fenton threw a Hail Mary by going with 11-1 Treasuring, which finished fifth.
“I played the horse that made some sense,” said Fenton, 53, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and plays regularly Lone Star Park. “If he would have won I’d be a winner. Thankfully (War Heroine) didn’t pay enough to place, and I held on for second.”
“I didn’t like (Treasuring), but I knew if she was the winner I’d probably get caught by Garett Skiba if he took it,” Littlemore said. “I was trying to block (Fenton) from getting by me, and it worked out.”
Skiba’s charge Sunday came entirely in the semifinals. Despite adding $27.40 to his mythical bankroll in the finals, he did no better than hold his ground in third.
“It was close,” he said. “You look back at so many plays, and there’s obviously things you could have done differently that would have changed things. But I can’t complain with third place. That’s the best I’ve ever done here by a long shot.”
Skiba was more diplomatic in the blush of the contest results than he has been recently on social media. He has not been shy with his criticism of the racing establishment, including the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which runs the NHC. He said on Twitter that he would “be taking big shots in my last NHC tournament. (I am) likely (the) only person who didn’t pay $50 for 2018.”
As his fellow Canadian Ray Arsenault did last year, Littlemore built his lead on the middle day of the tournament. Two long shots were the building blocks to his $51 lead through Saturday. He added $14.60 to his mythical bankroll during Sunday morning’s 10-race semifinals, but his lead still withered as others made bigger gains. Carrying a $33.60 advantage into the finals, Littlemore quickly gained $5.60 when Rocketry finished second in Gulfstream Park’s 10th race, the first mandatory play for the last 10 contestants.
“As the day wore on I kept missing, kept missing, kept missing, kept missing,” Littlemore said. “Then I caught a place score on (Rocketry). He was 25-1 and almost won the race; that would’ve been huge. But anytime you score it changes your mindset. You feel better about yourself looking at the races.”
Littlemore needed a strong finish in an on-line tournament last month to get him into the top 150 of the NHC Tour and – with that – a spot in this tournament.
Good luck has swirled around Littlemore recently. He retired from GM 2½ years ago with a fellow worker who just last month won a lottery worth $1 million in Canadian money. That translates to about $795,000 in the U.S., or about $5,000 shy of what Littlemore won this weekend.
“For me to do this two or three weeks after that is astonishing,” Littlemore said. “It’s life-changing for me.”
The 2016 NHC champion Paul Matties Jr. of Ballston Spa, N.Y., salvaged an apparent $10,000 victory in the $50,000 consolation tournament, which was open to the 632 entrants who did not make the semifinals. The formalizing of that result was delayed until Monday after it was discovered that a number of race selections had been punched into the wrong contest. Although the original picks were recovered, some contestants might have been under the false impression that they had not yet reached their limit of 10 races. Organizers then went back and took only the first 10 plays of each entrant.
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