08/19/2014 3:52PM

Fornatale: Barnett dominates NHC contest

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Jamaal Barnett, a transit engineer from Toronto, strafed the field in the free Sovereign Stables-sponsored National Handicapping Championship contest last Saturday, finishing first among 1,900 entrants and qualifying for the NHC for the fourth time.

Barnett, who had qualified years before in a free online event, was initially more focused on the BCQualify.com tournament that was happening simultaneously. Said Barnett, “I knew I was going to be home playing the BCBC qualifier, so I figured I might as well play in the free NHC qualifier as well.”

Barnett ended up with four winners in the 10-race sequence, all prices: 37-1, 10-1, 15-1, and 11-1. He had one second with a horse over 10-1 as well. In the end, his bankroll of $195.80 won the day by almost $40. His day didn’t start off the way he wanted it to. “In the first race of the free contest, I lost a nasty head bob,” he said. “And since I was thinking more about the BCBC contest, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go have a pizza before that starts.’ ”

Before he went to grab a bite, Barnett punched the number of Fuzzy Muzzle in Momouth’s seventh race, a horse he liked on the trainer switch to Jason Servis.

“When I got back with the pizza, the race had already run, but I didn’t know the result, so I watched the replay on my computer,” he said. “My horse came from the back of the pack and won and was 37-1. I couldn’t believe it. I ate that pizza so fast, wiped off my hands, and said, ‘Now it’s time to get to work.’ ”

Barnett got so wrapped up in the free qualifier at that point that he forgot to put in a pick in the first leg of the BCQualify.com contest. He didn’t end up doing too well in that one.

Barnett explained his approach to the free contest: “You have to be really aggressive because if you’re not, you’ll be in the mix with hundreds of people.”

This is a natural outgrowth of his general attitude in contest play, borne out of his experience in the first contest he ever played in. “In my first contest, I had some winners, but they were 2-1s, 5-2s. I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Then in the last race of the tournament, I picked a 30-1 shot at Fort Erie and went from nowhere to maybe 50th place. That made me realize the power of a bomb. I realized if I’d played more aggressively the whole tournament, I would have done a lot better than I did languishing in the middle.”

That was back in 2003 at Woodbine. At first, Barnett wasn’t sure what to think. “I remember walking into the tent and seeing a sea of people,” he recalled. “I was so intimidated I didn’t even know where to sit. I ended up next to a guy named Tony Calabrese. He and his wife made room so I could sit beside them, and they were so nice to me. We’ve stayed friends. As soon as I qualified, I called him right away.”

That camaraderie among contest players remains important to Barnett. In addition to frequent online play, he travels across the country to various brick-and-mortar tournaments, “I travel maybe half a dozen times a year to play in tournaments,” he said. “I like to do the three New York ones. I try to do the Keeneland-Turfway weekend. And I like to play at the Orleans contests in Las Vegas.”

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Barnett said he looks for “out-of-the-box” horses at prices who will help him win contests. “The main things for me are that I watch a lot of race replays and make notes on them, and trainer angles,” he said. “I do a lot of trainer queries on Formulator.”

He also relies on Formulator for maiden races. “When it comes to maiden races, I look at breeding. I love this new feature on DRF where you can look at the past performances of the sire and the dam and the siblings.”

Although he has been playing contests for more than a decade, Barnett is still one of the younger players on the circuit at 32. Like many players, he has a family connection to playing the horses.

“My dad took me to the track when I was younger,” he said. “It was free babysitting. I liked hanging out with him and his West Indian friends. I was like a sponge, taking it all in. The moment they would go to make a bet and leave their Racing Form on the table, I’d jump on it. Unfortunately, my dad isn’t here anymore, but he and his friends showed me the ropes.”