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Rolling Stone goes inside horse racing's 'Hunger Games'

Rolling Stone goes inside horse racing's 'Hunger Games'If you step off the elevator on the wrong floor in a Las Vegas casino only to see a man holding a lucky rodent skull, three women in cleavage-baring horse-jockey outfits and hundreds of frothing men screaming themselves hoarse, end times might seem nigh. But if you handicap horse races – the art of figuring out which horse is likely to run the fastest in a given race – this is Shangri-La. Welcome to the National Handicapping Championship, billed as "the richest, most important and most prestigious tournament for horseplayers in the world."
Every year since 2000, a motley band of character actors, backroom politicians, ballerinas, coastal-elite corporate execs (including the former president of Vince McMahon's failed football league, the XFL), opera-house employees and run-of-the-mill railbird gamblers (at least that's who I met) descend upon Las Vegas to compete in the annual event. In late January, I traveled to Sin City to experience the adrenaline rush of being in a ballroom with hundreds of horseplayers gunning for an $800,000 first-place prize, and to try and learn the tricks of the handicapping trade and make a little money while gorging myself on the complimentary cold cuts.
The NHC goes down at Treasure Island, a pirate-themed resort in the shadow of the gold-encrusted Trump Hotel on the northern end of the Strip. The competitors gather in two ballrooms on the hotel's second floor. Eighteen massive screens adorn the larger ballroom's walls and broadcast live horse races from across the country. Players place fictional bets in real races in a row of machines that resemble voting machines in a polling place. The races that the players bet on take place at eight tracks, from Gulfstream Park in Florida's Broward County to Golden Gate Fields near Berkeley. And there's a cash bar to fuel the action.


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