Paul Calia was
the human equivalent of a maiden pulling off an upset in the Kentucky Derby.
a winner in any handicapping contest anywhere, Calia broke his maiden by conquering
the biggest of them all. Using the two entries he earned as an also-ran in
qualifying events, Calia finished first and fourth Sunday in the 24th annual
National Horseplayers Championship at Horseshoe Las Vegas.
“This was my
first win ever in a contest,” said Calia, 57, a retired Social Security
disabilities examiner from Kansas City, Mo. “I never won any of the qualifiers.
I think I hit fifth, something like that. It was the top five or six that made
it. The other one was one of those where maybe I was in the top two or three. I
came third or something. You know what I mean?”
Calia may not
remember the details of how he got to the NHC. But he will not forget the
unlikely feat he pulled off in the biggest handicapping contest in the world,
what with a record 779 entries vying for $3,115,350 in prize money. With
$800,000 for first place, $150,000 for fourth and a $10,000 bonus for having
the highest score within the third and final day of the competition, Calia
earned a total of $960,000.
And to think
he never even entertained the notion of actually winning the darn thing.
really think about winning, because I’ve never won one,” Calia said. “Why would
I? I’m just trying to pick someone to win the exacta. I’m not thinking about
Not that he had
not shown a penchant for the mythical $2 win-place format of the NHC. The only
other time he qualified for the contest, he finished fourth. That was in the
summer of 2021.
that. In his two times in the NHC, he has finished fourth, fourth and first.
“I got lucky,”
said Calia, who grew up going to the races in Nebraska with his father. “The
first time I felt like it was a day at the races. I’m here to gamble. I was
running up to the windows gambling. I’d put down my $2 win-place (for the
contest) every now and then. I had to do it. Then all of a sudden, I’m in contention.
So I had to quit playing trifectas and Pick 4s and concentrate on what I was trying
to do. The first time I came out, I just didn’t want to embarrass myself. I
didn’t want to be last.”
this. In the two times he made it to the NHC, only three people have beaten him.
This year no one finished close to him. Francis Boustany, 72, the dentist and cancer
survivor from Lafayette, La., who led after each of the first two days of the
contest, was far back in second place, $32.30 behind Calia’s $362.50 from 53
In truth, the
final table of seven pre-determined, mandatory races for the top 10 players was
anticlimactic. Calia went in with a $42.40 lead that he started building
Saturday with “a couple of good long shots at Oaklawn.” That and Prairie
Meadows are the two tracks he plays the most.
admitted, however, that his current form has been diametrically opposite of how
his 2022 ended. Late in a year when he lost his mother and three cousins, he
said he abandoned racing and focused his betting on football.
“I was really
starting to lose faith, because I was getting tired of having to drive 200
miles one way to Prairie Meadows. Oaklawn is seven hours,” he said, explaining online
race betting is not permitted where he lives in Missouri, and there was a
sportsbook that had just opened across the river in Kansas. “I thought I’ll
just bet on the NFL. Why should I drive 200 miles to bet into a 25 percent
take? … I basically quit watching horse racing for about two or three months at
the end of the year.”
The main reason
Calia said he came back to racing was the fact he already had the two entries
into the NHC.
“I knew I was
coming here,” he said. “I started practicing. I started going over the racing
form and picking winners. I had the cross-country Pick 5 last week, and I
changed my bet. It cost me six grand, but I knew I was on.”
Little did he
know. Calia’s hot streak reappeared after he stood 187th and 299th with his two
entries after Friday’s first day of competition. Not only did he overtake Boustany,
he left the rest of the top finishers in his wake.
Gary Fenton, who
chairs the Thoroughbred Owners of California, finished a distant third with
$309.60. Calia scored $305.50 with his second entry that came in fourth. David
Browning, an insurance auditor from Kentucky, wound up fifth at $302.80.
finalists were assured of earning at least $65,000 each. The other 68
semifinalists were guaranteed at least $12,050.
with his big check plus the 2022 Eclipse Award for being the champion horseplayer,
Calia said he wants to visit Europe.
before the Derby, I was planning on going to Copenhagen or Switzerland,” he
said. “That’s what I’ve been looking at. I figured that’s a good week to take
off right before the Derby. That’s a good week to go and not even think about
So it is not a new car he will run out and buy for his drive back to Kansas
City. It is a plane ride this spring across the Atlantic.
into experiences than I am into things,” Calia said.
than the one he enjoyed Sunday.
Coverage of the National Horseplayers Championship was made possible in
part by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which provided hotel
accommodations to Horse Racing Nation.