02/02/2016 12:42PM

Fornatale: 60-year-old Tour rookie finds NHC nothing like pulling teeth


Just call him The Dentist.

National Handicapping Championship Tour rookie Ernie Powers made the most of a great opportunity at last weekend’s NHC, parlaying an online entry on NHCQualify.com into $54,000 at the world’s richest tournament.

Powers, 60, grew up in Revere, Mass., where he still practices dentistry, a stone’s throw from Suffolk Downs. He first started attending Suffolk Downs in high school by sneaking under the fence near the barn area.

“I got a little sad flying home,” he said, “because that’s where it all started for me and now it’s dying. I saw Riva Ridge win the Mass Cap there.”

In a reverse of the usual trope, it was Powers who dragged his dad, Ernest Frank Powers, along to see the Thoroughbreds. His father was a fan of dog racing and spent plenty of times with Ernie at Wonderland.

“He always had to bet the favorite,” Ernie said, “One time he hit every exacta one night and still lost money.”

Contests have provided a great outlet for Powers, who now plays in them with his son, 31-year-old Ernest Frank Powers III, who goes by Frank.

“I would never give anyone that name but my dad was such a great guy we named him after him,” Powers said.

Powers was a little old for a rookie. He learned about contests from Daily Racing Form. “I saw the coverage and said, ‘Wow, this looks like fun,” he said.

Powers bought a copy of "The Winning Contest Player" and was on his way. In a funny bit of trivia, three of the players featured in the book were sitting around Powers and his son at the table and ended up finishing in the top five: Roger Cettina, Duke Matties, and Dave Gutfreund.

“The book was very helpful,” he said. "One of the guys said it was important to get out to Vegas early for the NHC and I did that. We played dice and watched the Patriots and did the Vegas stuff, because then I knew I had to lock myself in a room for two days to handicap.”

Powers relies on the Thoro-Graph Sheets and Formulator for his handicapping.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said, “but you can’t always just trust the numbers or you’ll always end up on the favorite. Formulator helps find horses that people are missing. It’s invaluable and easy.

Even though he was properly prepared for the NHC, it was still an intimidating environment, at least at first.

“When we walked into that room at the NHC I said to Frank, ‘Boy are we dead money,’ and he said to me, ‘You never know and, besides, you’re freerolling.'”

Contest aficionados have heard stories about the right tablemates making a big difference, and that was definitely the case for the Powers boys, who shared a table with Emily “Mayhemily” Gullikson (also featured in "The Winning Contest Player"), Eric Pineiro (another NHCQualify player), Jon “Who Dat” Hurd, and Christian “The Guru” Hellmers of Horseplayers fame.

“They were all top-notch handicappers and we ended up being friends,” he said. “That’s the best thing about this whole thing. The money gets absorbed in your bank account but we’ll all remain friends. We’ve got plans to meet up at the Saratoga Challenge in August.”

He was also struck in a good way by the ages of his table crew.

“It’s different at a place like Saratoga, of course, but when I used go to a track like Suffolk Downs I was one of the younger guys,” he said. "But tournaments attract a younger crowd  they’re a lifeline for horse racing. It’s a way to get the fantasy sports crowd into racing from a different angle. I used to look at racing like something that was dying, but this could help save it.”

Powers went for a sports analogy to describe what his NHC performance meant to him.

“I’m a golfer but I’m never gonna play in the Masters,” he said. “This is like the Masters for horseplayers.”