02/01/2016 3:09PM

Fornatale: Gutfreund goes from strength to strength

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What a weekend for contest veteran David Gutfreund. After day two of the three-day National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, he sat atop the standings. At the end of the day Saturday, he ended up day fifth netting $75,000. It was a good result but not all he’d hoped for. “I think I left a little money on the table,” he said, referencing a couple of late decisions that may have cost him a placing or two.

Undaunted, Gutfreund was back in action on Sunday at the First Chance contest at TI. He’d eschewed the sport coat he wore at the Final Table for his more familiar Charlestown Chiefs jersey, a reference to the movie "Slapshot."

“It was a tournament worth playing on its own,” he said, “It’s hard not to take seriously a $62,000 contest with 100 percent payback plus three seats added against competition which is withered after a long NHC grind.”

Gutfreund is no stranger to grinding. In his other career as a poker pro he’s earned $594,000 on the felt, with his biggest success being a $156,000 score on the Heartland Poker Tour at Soaring Eagle in November. His experience in poker – which has taught patience and better decsion-making -- helped him throughout the day Sunday, especially after his focus improved after hitting a cap horse with his first play.

Gutfreund won $31,000 and is now a 13-time NHC qualifier. Also earning seats for next year were Sally Goodall – who has now qualified an amazing 15 times – and Chris Skotz, who has two NHC semifinals appearances on his resume.

Bernier wins charity event

On Saturday, Daily Racing Form’s own Matt Bernier won the second annual NTRA NHC Charity Challenge, with a final mythical bankroll of $54.30, besting runner-up Tom LaMarra of Blood-horse, who checked in second with $47.60. Bernier picked three winners during the seven-race contest and scored in five of the seven contest races.

“It's always fun to play in contests, and at the very least this lets me know I can still get the job done,” said the 2014 Aqueduct Betting Challenge champion who also finished sixth at that year’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge while also playing for charity.

As the winner, Bernier will have $5,000 donated in his name to the Old Friends Barn Raising Project, created after the Thoroughbred retirement nonprofit with farms in Kentucky and upstate New York suffered a complete loss of its hospital/quarantine barn in a fire on Jan. 23, and another $5,000 to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), the organization he played for at the BCBC. “It's always great to be able to help aftercare organizations,” he said, “because without the horses -- we have nothing.”

Cettina sticks to his guns

After the Final Table there was a lot of talk about strategy both in the ballroom and via Twitter. A couple of people asked why Roger Cettina, approximately $10 behind Paul Matties with one race to go, played 27-1 longshot Soi Phet instead of a shorter-priced runner. The reasons were several. For one thing, going long assured he wouldn’t be blocked and meant that even just place points would have gotten the win. But moreover, Cettina did what good contest players do: he played the horse he liked. And given Soi Phet’s trip – he bobbled at the start and was wide – it shouldn’t be a hard decision for him to live with in any case.

Rookie plays big-time

Ernie Powers was an NHC Tour rookie this year. He arrived in Vegas with his son Frank and was intimidated upon arrival in the ballroom, seeing the scores of experienced contest players all around them. “Boy are we dead money,” he told his son, who countered by telling his dad, “You never know, you’re freerolling.”

The Powerses turned that freeroll into an eighth-place finish worth $54,000.