12/26/2013 2:58PM

Contest newbie earns trip to Las Vegas

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I had a chance this week to speak with first-time National Handicapping Championship qualifier Anthony Acierno, of Staten Island, N.Y. Acierno won last Sunday’s contest at NHCQualify.com. Remember that Saturday marks the final NHCQualify.com contest for 2013.

When did you start playing horses?

It all started when I was 8 years old, and I used to go to the racetrack with my father. Aqueduct was the first racetrack I ever went to. I loved it from a very early age. I was drawn to the action.

For me, as a New York-area guy, the thing that really took my interest in racing to the next level was going to Saratoga. Was it the same thing for you?

I had a streak of 33 years in a row where I never missed Saratoga, and many of those times I was there with Peter Rotondo and his son.

I know those guys a little bit. They look like they’re a lot of fun to go to the races with.

Those guys are definitely a lot of fun. In Saratoga, many times we stay in the back by the Big Red Spring and watch the races on the big television. And if Peter is in contention, he goes into the whip drive, with the Racing Form rolled up, and he’ll start hitting his hand and yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” One of my greatest memories with him was the 1987 Travers with Java Gold. It was pouring rain, and when he started in doing the whip drive, people actually stopped watching the race and just looked at him!

How did you meet the Rotondos?

Peter Rotondo Sr. used to be my boss when I was a foreign-currency broker, and I’ve known Peter Jr. since he was a baby. And I’m also friends with Lee Davis. They’re all on this TV show, “Horseplayers,” on the Esquire Network.

So, you’ve played the horses for decades, but this is your first year playing in contests. Tell me about that.

The only reason I joined the NHC was because of Peter Sr. and Lee, because they’re in the show, and they told me there are a lot of these free handicapping tournaments [on the NTRA website], but you have to be a member to join, and it costs $50. So, I joined for the first time this year, and I was playing in the free tournaments. This is only the second tournament that I’ve ever paid for.

How did you feel after your big win?

It was bittersweet for me. Peter Sr. had two entries, and he did pretty well on both of them. But because I had the 9 horse in the last race, I knocked him out of the trip to Vegas. Peter has been trying to qualify all year, and here I am coming in and knocking my friend out.

What about the specifics of the contest Sunday?

I called Lee an hour before the tournament started and told him, “I am winning this tournament today, and I may break a record for the amount of money for the top finisher.” And I didn’t do that, but P.S.: I won.

Was it all smooth sailing?

I made a blunder in a race at Tampa Bay. There were two horses I liked. They were both about the same price, the 2 and the 3, and I put the 2 in the day before. But as the race got closer, I thought maybe I should change to the 3, but I didn’t. I was worried it might be bad karma, so I left it, and the 3 won. At that point, I would have been the leader.

Did you have trouble getting over that? A lot of guys go into woulda-coulda-shoulda mode after a beat like that.

I don’t let it get to me. From years and years of playing the horses, I’ve learned to control my emotions a little bit. You’ve got to focus. That’s the bottom line.

Tell me about the last race in the contest.

When the last contest race at Hollywood was over, I had no idea if anybody in front of me had also picked the winner. I didn’t look through the leaderboard to see what anybody else had played. And Peter called me and said, “Nobody in front of you had the winner!” And that’s how I found out I was going to Vegas.

What do you think your chances are when it’s time to play for the $750,000 in Vegas?

If I’m hot, there are not too many people who could beat me. If I’m not, there’s an old expression, “If you’re winning, you can’t lose, and when you’re losing, you can’t win.” I think I was in the winning-and-can’t-lose category during the tournament last weekend, and I hope that’s where I’ll be in Vegas, too.