02/26/2016 2:18PM

Fornatale: Computer geek Sebes mines data for winners


Competition runs deep in Jim Sebes’s family. He has two younger cousins who competed at the national level in sports. Nick Sebes played football at Stanford University, where he still holds some sprinting records, and Doug Sebes is a competitive natural bodybuilder who has won some major events. These days, Jim Sebes is doing his competing on the National Handicapping Championship Tour, where he is in 16th place.

Sebes, who won last weekend’s NHCQualify.com contest, started going to the races when he was a kid. Like so many horseplayers, an early taste of success fueled his fandom.

“I had a friend who used to go to Liberty Bell with his uncle,” Sebes said. “I followed the races in the paper and gave him two bucks to bet on a horse named Vinegar, who won. You know the rest of that story.”

Sebes later became a computer consultant who manages clinical trials. He developed a fun weekly tradition when he was working at the World Trade Center in New York City in the late 1980s.

“I would collect five bucks from several of my colleagues every Thursday and would make a run to OTB at lunchtime to place a bet,” he said. “If we won, then we took a long lunch on Friday with the winnings at Luna in Little Italy. If it was a big score, then we’d follow it up at Jeremy’s under the Brooklyn Bridge after work.”

His racing activities weren’t limited to the city. By the 1990s, he was heading to the Jersey Shore for weekends.

“Monmouth Park was our stop on any cold, cloudy, or rainy Saturday,” he said.

Even then, he didn’t get serious about handicapping until Smarty Jones’s nearly historic run in 2004. One key to his success was reading the work of pace expert and early computer handicapper Tom Brohammer. “I read [‘Modern Pace Handicapping’], which laid things out in a language I understand well,” he said.

“I use several different software tools and keep a statistical model of different attributes and look for trends on price horses,” he added, “but when there are none, I will also fall back on classic strategies such as looking for a change that may move a price horse forward along with jockeys that may move a horse up based upon the horse’s style of running and the expected pace of the race.”

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

Contests entered the picture three years ago, and he’s qualified for the NHC in each of the three years he’s been a tour member. His biggest success in a tournament was his 11th-place finish at the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. He’s also not averse to backing up his contest opinions with his wallet. He cashed for more than $10,000 in Fair Grounds’s pick three that was also part of the NHCQualify.com sequence.

He believes his multipronged handicapping approach is essential for him to be the best contest player he can be.

“In contest play, you must be flexible looking for price horses,” he said. “If you employ a single strategy, everything needs to break your way during a contest to be competitive.”

He’s also constantly boning up on strategy. “I reread parts of ‘The Winning Contest Player’ on my way to different events,” he said.

When Sebes played in the 2015 NHC, he thought back to his competitive cousins. “Following them was inspiring and really got my competitive juices flowing again,” he said. “Contest play on this level is an amazing outlet.”

Two contests on Sunday

On Sunday, players will have an opportunity to win a spot at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge on BCQualify.com. The buy-in is $190, and up to four $10,000 BCBC spots will be available. With many participants having already qualified for Sunday’s event via feeders, it’s a good idea to secure your spot sooner rather than later.

Opportunities are dwindling to qualify for the Ultimate Betting Challenge, a live-bankroll contest held at Gulfstream and Santa Anita on March 19-20. But you can gain entry via DRFQualify.com on Sunday for a $110 buy-in. Winning packages will include the $4,500 to play in the UBC as well as a $500 travel voucher. One package will be awarded for every 53 entries.

Here are the races for Sunday’s contests (all times Eastern):

3:35  Gulfstream 7
3:50  Aqueduct 6
3:55  Tampa Bay 8
4:19  Oaklawn 5
4:25  Tampa Bay 9
4:46  Oaklawn 6
5:00  Santa Anita 4
5:05  Gulfstream 10
5:20  Aqueduct 9
5:35  Gulfstream 11
5:42  Oaklawn 8
6:00  Santa Anita 6

There are five tracks, giving ample opportunity to players from all over the country. It’s standard Sunday racing, with a good mix of claiming and allowance races, seven of which have more than 10 runners. There are five turf races in the mix.

To win your way to the Breeders’ Cup, go to www.bcqualify.com/buy_advanced.aspx.

To play in the UBC qualifier, go to www.drfqualify.com/buy_advanced.aspx.