02/18/2015 3:07PM

Fornatale: Cettina aims for the sky on NHC Tour


Roger Cettina is a vice-president at a construction company who has helped build some of the tallest buildings in New York City. He has been a racing fan since the late 1980s, and recently turned his attention more fully to handicapping contests. He wants to win the National Handicapping Championship Tour, a year-long event where he has twice finished in the top 20. “I’m really determined to go for it this year,” he said.

The 48-year old has gotten off to a great start so far in 2015 – he was the Tour leader heading into last weekend. In the first three weeks of Tour action, Cettina has two top 20 finishes. And on Saturday he was one horse away from a third. “We got to the last race at Santa Anita and I liked two horses, one a capper,” he said, “I decided to go for the cap to really go for the win, and the other horse won – 1800 Tour points would have been nice too. If it was later in the year I never would have done that.”

Cettina ended up 29th overall in the 318-runner event without picking a single winner. He had five nice-priced place horses, a reflection of how unwilling he is to play favorites at any point during a contest. “I just can’t get myself to do it,” he said, “and if one of my place horses had won, it would have been a different story.”

Cettina owns one of the tougher beats in National Handicapping Championship history. In 2013, he lost out on $550,000 – the difference between first and second money – by a mere $1.40. Cettina was in first going in to the last race.

“I looked at the board and saw that Jim Benes was close behind me,” he said, “And there were people in third, fourth, and fifth who were about $20 back. I decided to protect myself the best I could. Being a longshot player, I bet a longshot who didn’t run at all.”

A 9-1 shot won and Cettina thought, “This could be trouble.” He and his pals Frank Sorensen and Joe Scanio looked around the room but didn’t see any celebrations among his competition at the top of the leaderboard. Maybe, Cettina thought, he was somehow going to be okay.

He was not. His closest pursuer, Benes, had picked up points in the race – he had the place horse. “I never thought in a million years that the guy behind me would bet the favorite,” he said. “It never even occurred to me. The favorite got second. When they put up the result it was a little disheartening to say the least.”

But Cettina wasn’t discouraged for long. “I still had $200,000 more when I left Vegas than I had when I arrived,” he joked. And he’s qualified for the NHC in both years since.

“For some reason the last two years at the NHC I couldn’t keep away from betting cash and I had bad showings,” he said, “When I try to play tournaments and bet cash, it never works. Coming home this year I said, ‘This year when I’m playing tournaments I’m going to stay away from the cash.’ ”

About 15 years ago, Cettina became a regular at the Delaware Park live-bankroll events that Bill Moore used to run. “That’s really where I got started,” he said. “They had some wild contests. Four or five hundred entries. Some days the winner would end up with $5,000 or $6,000 from a starting bankroll off of $200.”

Cettina’s approach to handicapping relies on a combination of Formulator, the Thoro-Graph sheets, and pace and bias information from Racing Flow which he uploads directly into Formulator. In addition to the bias figures available from Racing Flow, Cettina makes his own notes about track biases.

“I go through Formulator and just watch a million replays to get an idea of what the track looked like,” he said. “And then under card notes I’ll write what I see and then every time a race from that day comes up I’ll see what I thought of the track. It takes a lot of time but it works.”

Not all players who try to evaluate track biases go at it the same way. The Racing Flow numbers attempt to quantify biases as either speed friendly, closer friendly, or neutral. Other handicappers insist that the key computation isn’t speed versus closers, but inside paths versus outside paths.

“I believe in both of them,” Cettina said. “If you watch the replays from Laurel on Monday, every winner was in the four or five path. Just go watch the replays and it’s so obvious. Some days there’s nothing, but other days it’s a pronounced bias.”

Despite his hot start, Cettina knows that his toughest work lies ahead of him. “The whole problem with this game is consistency because it always goes in streaks.” Still, between his new focus and record of consistency in NHC events, Cettina definitely has to be counted as one of the players to beat on the 2015 NHC Tour.