08/12/2015 10:04AM

Fornatale: Conte still has fight in him


John Conte stands out in the contest crowd. He was one of the regulars on the “Horseplayers” TV show and is known for both his Brooklyn accent and thick head of hair. He's also known for winning contests.

There is no official list of the top career money earners in handicapping contests – at least not yet – but if there were, Conte's name surely would be on it. He estimates that he's won almost a million dollars in his contest career. He won $500,000 by winning the 2009 National Handicapping Championship, and just last year he raked in an additional $125,000 by running third in the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge.

He's the only player to cash for six figures in both of racing's biggest tournaments. He also finished in the money at last year's NHC and has won other smaller tournaments throughout the years, including one at the Meadowlands.

Conte, 75, hasn't played in many contests since the NHC this year, and he's struggled a bit when he has. At Belmont Park in June, he thought his name would be among the leaders after Day 1 only to discover that he'd accidentally made one bet too many. In another event, he didn't make his minimums and got disqualified. "I'm a little punchy lately," Conte said.

This week, Conte is looking to make another score – this time at the Saratoga tournament. "I take pride in my craft," Conte said. "To me, other than the NHC and the BCBC, this is one of the ones that's important. All the best players are here."

To combat the problems he's faced this year, Conte will be accompanied by his secret weapon, his wife, Arlene. "I'm the bookmaker, she's the bookkeeper," Conte joked. "She's going to keep everything straight, and I'll focus on picking winners."

Conte exaggerates about being a bookmaker himself, but that was his father's profession. Conte became a gambling prodigy in his teens. "I used to hang out with my father in the poolrooms of Brooklyn when he'd be looking at the ticker tape with the scores," he said. "Eventually, I got so good at reading the Racing Form I'd help him out by telling him which bets to lay off and which ones to keep."

Conte became involved in contest play initially through his job at the New York Post, where he wrote a column called "The Grass is Greener." He said, "I represented them in the first handicapping contest, at Penn National."

That's where he caught the contest bug, and several years later, after winning the NHC, he got more deeply involved in the industry. "I decided to get into ownership," he said. "I bought a horse named Colossal Gift who has won over $220,000. With the money I made from him, I bred two other racehorses, who are both with [Christophe] Clement."

As for strategy, Conte is a big believer in coming up with a target score and trying to hit it. "In most tournaments, I have a good idea of what the final score will be, whether they start fast or they start slow," he said.

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With that in mind, he's happy to try to hit winners, as long as they're at least 7-2 or so. "You don't want to be in a position late in the tournament where you have to hit limit horses because that's when everybody is trying to hit limit horses," he said. "Just like in a horse race, I want to get in a good position."

Despite the ups and downs he's experienced recently, Conte feels he can continue to improve his already-stellar résumé. "I feel like an old fighter who just took a standing eight count in the 14th round," he said. "There's still a round left, and I'm still dangerous."