08/05/2014 11:46AM

Fornatale: Ex-NHC champ Rippey turns $29 into $132K


Ron Rippey has an extensive history as a live-event tournament player. The 2006 NHC champion has also won contests including the Aqueduct Betting Challenge, as well as contests at the Meadowlands and Freehold. He qualified for the NHC by finishing second in an Autotote contest in New Haven in 2005.

But for the last several years, the former champ has been keeping a lower profile, his play limited largely to online contests because of a serious health issue. Rippey had open heart surgery in 1965, and one of the blood infusions he received contained Hepatitis C. Just in the last year alone, Rippey was hospitalized four times. But a medical breakthrough in the form of a new medication has Rippey feeling better than he has in years and got him playing in live tournaments again.

In an online contest for a $29 buy-in, Rippey won the $2,000 entry fee required to play in the big contest at the Wynn last weekend. Rippey has been handicapping since 1963 and a public handicapper for the Star-Ledger since 1978. He talked about the difference in approach that’s required for contest play. His handicapping stays the same, but his betting changes. “In a tournament, you have to bet completely different,” he said. “You have to create a volume of prices, not necessarily a volume of winners. That means I’ll often be relying more on my second or third choice than the horse I have on top.”

Rippey, a self-described “statistical guru,” has rules for himself in tournaments, “I throw out anything that’s less than 5-1 unless I’m really close to the lead at the end of the tournament. And in a contest where there’s a double bet, like the Wynn or the NYRA contests, I will try not to bet anything under 10-1.”

Rippey also decided to alter his approach a bit ahead of the Wynn contest, “I went back to my old handicapping standby. I was always more of a trip player, but in recent years I’ve focused more on breeding, especially in grass races, slop races, and baby races. On Friday, I really tried to project what horse was going to get the best trip, looking at pace and track bias.”

Rippey rode this methodology to a remarkable $183 Day 1 score. He had as a good a day as a handicapper can have. Of the fifteen required win-place bets, he had five winners and five additional place horses.

“I put a lot of thought into handicapping all the races as a whole, before the tournament starts, rather than focusing on them individually,” Rippey explained. “I was helped by the fact that Del Mar was off the turf. I immediately threw out the Del Mar off-the-grass races. I wanted to avoid any field with six horses or fewer. And I avoided races with big favorites. That allowed me to really focus on the races I wanted to bet.”

Only one price came in the whole day on Friday: Comanche Ruler in the fourth race at Del Mar. Rippey had him, but only barely. “I did not want to play that horse. I wanted to play the 10 horse, a first-time starter named Matty’s Tribal, by Tribal Rule. He was 8-1 on the morning line and I thought he should have been 8-5. I saved my double bet for him. But he ended up taking way too much money, he was 2-1 – and I didn’t want to use my double bet on a horse under 10-1 – so I went off him. Comanche Ruler was the other horse for me. He was also by Tribal Rule; Desormeaux, who’s been red hot, was up. He also had a workout pattern I like to see. A fast workout at Santa Anita, followed by slower maintenance works on the Poly at Del Mar.”

Comanche Ruler won wire-to-wire and paid $30.40 and $13.60 giving Rippey a $60 lead. But Rippey wasn’t comfortable. “I always tell people, the worst place to be is on the lead, because it’s very easy to forget how to play.”

Indeed, the second day was a different story for the former champ. He did something that he’s told other players not to do many times. Instead of continuing to play horses he liked, he got defensive and started playing cap horses exclusively. There’s a logic to this – cap horses are the ones who could hurt him – but Rippey went into this mode too soon and ended up passing on horses he liked who could have put the contest on ice.

After a 7-1 shot he would have played won, Rippey realized it was time for a change. “I realized that no bombs had hit and I better put some money in my account. I asked myself, ‘What horse is going to win the race?’ and I played those.”

Rippey hit the last two place horses and it ended up being just enough – he held on to win by just over $2. Rippey ended the tournament feeling exhausted and fortunate that he violated one of his own rules and got away with it.

In the end, Rippey turned that $29 online buy-in into $132,765 and a second entry at this year’s NHC. It also put the man back where he belongs: at the center of the contest universe.