04/28/2015 9:03AM

Fornatale: Flanders knows both good and bad luck

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Ryan Flanders is no stranger to doing the unexpected in the contest world. Two years ago, as a first-time player at the National Handicapping Championship, Flanders got all the way to the final table. Just one month ago, Jonathon Kinchen was way out in front on the NHC Tour and a clear favorite to win the $75,000 that goes with a tour victory. But in just a few weeks, the 41-year old Flanders, who works in the vitamin distribution business, has surprised the contest world by catching Kinchen on the tour.

Flanders, a native of San Diego, got into racing because his stepfather, Michael Fromme, trained racehorses at Agua Caliente. As he grew older, as much he enjoyed racing, he was frustrated in his attempts to make money at the windows.

“When I realized that I was probably the worst money manager at the track – ever – I got serious about tournament play,” Flanders said. “It’s great for me because there is a bottom line, and I’m not going to lose any more than I purchase. I would encourage any player that feels like they can handicap but has a hard time turning a profit to look to tournaments.”

Flanders’s tournament career was almost over just after it started. He was very frustrated by his experience at the NHC two years back.

“I had a first-timer at Tampa that, had he won, I’m convinced I would have won the NHC,” he said. “I’ll never forget it – his name was Imaginationrunwild. He broke so slow right out of the gate going 5 1/2, and I let out a loud expletive.”

The horse came charging to the lead but just got run down late. Had he won, Flanders would have gotten very close at the NHC. “It’s a cruel, intellectual, exciting, beautiful, and unforgiving game,” he said.

But the real issue Flanders had was that despite his accomplishment, there was so little financial reward. Flanders vowed that his NHC-chasing days were over – until the NTRA announced a new, more balanced purse structure. “Here I am again,” he said, “trying to get back to that table for a chance at a big payday.”

While an NHC Tour win seems within his sights, Flanders is surprisingly ambivalent about the tour. “I’m not dead set on the tour,” he said. “I’d like to win, sure. But the tour, fiscally speaking, is just not a good investment unless you win.”

More than most players, Flanders is well aware of the role that luck plays in tournaments. “I would tell anyone that goes to the track to get involved and play them,” he said. “On a given day, anyone can win. If I sat here and touted my skills as a horse player, I’d be a fool. I get it: This is a competitive game, and we all have egos, but tournaments can be decided by pure luck. It happens all the time.”

Part of that luck comes down to the decision of which horses to play based on where you are in a given tournament. For example, last weekend, the horse Flanders played in the last race isn’t one he would have played had he been closer to the lead going into the last race. Flanders cited Salsita’s win March 22 in a race that was part of an NHCQualify.com event.

“I could sit here and tell you why I liked Salsita, but the fact of the matter is had the tournament been a format where all the picks have to be in before the contest, there is no possible way I’d have taken Salsita, and anyone that’s honest with themselves would tell you the same,” he said. “But I was getting my face kicked in, so I took a shot on a first-time grass closer in a race with a ton of pace, and it won.”

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

Of course, luck cuts the other way as well. “On April 4, I needed an even-money shot that to me looked super solid for what would have been a live tournament win, something I really wanted,” he said. “But it got beat a head, and I ended up third.”

Over time, the best players tend to maximize good luck and persevere through bad luck. That’s why we see so many of the same players – including Flanders – atop leaderboards week in and week out. But Flanders isn’t sure that’s enough. “I guess my point is this,” he said. “The racing gods and pure chance will decide the tour. Too much luck is involved. And for that reason, I am not dead set on chasing the tour.”

Also, as a father of three, the youngest of whom is just seven months, Flanders is nervous about the time involved for an all-out tour grind. He said, “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win, and I’m going to press here for a little while and see what happens. But in the grand scheme, this is a game. That’s it. I want my kids to know me as the dad that took them to cheer and basketball practice, not a guy that once won the NHC Tour.”

More weekend results

Saturday Monmouth live-bankroll contest
1. Derek Deutsch, $1,345.20
2. Donald Fischer, $1,334
3. Ron Rios, $994
4. Bernard Reilly, $845.50
5. Anthony Kite, $800
Top two win seats to the National Handicapping Championship.

Darwin Labordo More than 1 year ago
I admire the candor and reality that Ryan brings. As a tournament player myself, I totally agree with the impact of luck on the game and the notion that at any given time, anyone can win. Let's back off from all this data crunching talk about trends and picturing horses as machines that can repeat performances in projected milliseconds. There is an art form and intuitiveness to this and luck revolves around that.
Ryan Flanders More than 1 year ago
Mr. Shurman, I appreciate your kind words. You are one of the best, truly. I guess what I am saying is - there are times when even the winners of tournaments win from positions that are just not really "in position." I cited the tournament on 3-22 because through 9 races - I had picked one winner on the ticket that I finished 3rd and that winner was 7-5. I was nowhere to be found. Had I been crushing the day's card and in the lead - I'd have been lapped by the field. So to me, doing well early in that tournament - not knowing the outcome of what was to come - it was pure chance. It was better for me on that day to be unsuccessful in the beginning - but who'd have known. Also in that same tournament, had I taken Salsita on my "A" ticket - I'd have won! Some would say unlucky - I still say I was lucky to get 3rd. It makes for great discussion. Actually, I tend to think the only way to really identify the best would be "an all optional pick and pray," and that format does not yet exist I don't believe.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tx for commenting Ryan. That is an interesting idea for a format for sure but to me, any format where real handicapping (ie, weighing/pricing up horses relative to the odds) is taken out of the equation is inferior, despite the purity of those as all-picking contests. Anyone who thinks the game is about picking winners and only picking winners is in for a rude awakening! Tx again for taking the time to post here and godspeed!
shurmanw More than 1 year ago
One of the most intellectually honest assessments I've ever heard from a horseplayer. There is a ton of luck involved - so much so that I've often said we are all just taking turns. I don't really believe that, as the better players tend to be in a position more frequently than others to take advantage of good luck when it strikes. However, Ryan's assessment is refreshing. I'd say he's right about the luck, but perhaps not giving himself credit for the skill he brings to the table as a tournament player. And of course, the best thing he said was his last two sentences. Congrats on your success so far, whatever the reasons may be.
Brent Sumja More than 1 year ago
Well said Bill. I agree that Ryan's assessments are spot on and it's really amazing that he can be that cool in the position he is in. While luck does have it's place, there are a lot more handicapping aspects that have Ryan constantly in the hunt, not only this year but the previous ones in which we were chasing. I always saw his name moving up the leaderboard. He is ultra consistent and seems to have the right demeanor and is my pick to hoist the hardware come January......it will be a great race and good luck to all who endure the ride......
alan More than 1 year ago
I think they forgot to make this a DRF plus story, after all that's the only thing available now.
Steven Mulhall More than 1 year ago
YES, A LOT OF JOURNALISM BEING WASTED FOR A SMALL % TO READ......ON THE SUBJECT--EVERY DOG HAS THEIR DAY....