09/11/2015 12:23PM

Fornatale: It pays to know the game from the inside

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It has become a trend: more and more horsemen are playing in handicapping contests. Out west, bloodstock agent Gary Young has had a ton of success, especially in live-bankroll events. In Kentucky, Churchill Downs's head clocker John Nichols is currently in the top 10 on the National Handicapping Championship Tour. Racing manager Blake Jessee recently won the Arlington Park contest, and John Perotta, who has held just about every job in racing (if you don't believe it, check out his book "Racetracker"), also is an avid tournament player.

Enter John Panagot, 30, the  racing manager for Robert LaPenta. A few years ago he started playing in the famous "Huddie" handicapping contest, which spans all of the Saratoga meet and has grown from being more of an "office pool" to an official contest, complete with an over $14,000 prize to the winner. Panagot had a consistent season in Huddie but found himself $150 back with four picks left in the $2 win-place-show format. "I think it was a no-pressure thing," he said, "I was happy with my picks but I never thought I'd win at that point. After Fusaichi Red grabbed a piece of the Prioress, I knew something pretty cool was brewing."

On either side of Fusaichi Red's place points, Panagot backed both the runners who blew up the Pick Six, Maggiesfreuddnslip (27-1) and Outtacypresshills (20-1).

"Maggiesfreuddnslip was third start off the layoff with a good pattern and was likely to be out front, with a rider that is not afraid to be on the lead," said Panagot, giving a shout out to Manny Franco. "She was coming from Laurel but returning to statebred company and speed was so dangerous this meet, it didn't take me long to land on her."

He described Outtacypresshills as his "Mariano Rivera." He almost didn't play her because she was 12-1 on the morning line, and that might not be enough.  "She was sitting on seven weeks and stretching out," he said. "She'd run well enough going long, particularly three back on the front end at Belmont. It was another really good Franco ride, he let the front-runners wing-ding it and had the jump on the rest of them."

The monster day nearly wasn't enough. Other players still had picks left and one day of racing remained. Panagot got his start in racing working for the newspaper The Saratoga Special, and he watched the last day with his former colleagues Sean Clancy and (former Huddie champ) Brian Nadeau. "Those guys rooted with me until the end," he said. "The guy behind me had Doug O'Neil's Ralis in the Hopeful. After that, I thought I'd be lucky to hold second, as it brought him to within less than $4 of me and he had a play left. He needed Barclay Tagg's Pure of Spirit to hit the board in the last and he'd have won. Luckily for me he had the wrong half of the uncoupled Tagg entry. Irad Oritz rode his pick, when Irad took his stick out at the quarter pole, we were high-fiving!"

Panagot worked with The Special for a year, after which he started working for Graham Motion. "I walked hots and soon traveled for him," he said. "After a short while, we remodeled my role with him. I had just started making my own speed figures, where I represented each start a horse was sitting on based off their prior few races, determined from a few variables. Soon after, I became his stable agent and started picking out races for his horses to run."

During that stretch of time Motion won nine Grade 1s with nine different horses, highlighted by Animal Kingdom's Kentucky Derby. Thereafter, Panagot went to work for Robert LaPenta. "I've been with him for three-and-a-half years," he said. "We were represented by Far Right in the Kentucky Derby this year."

What does a racing manager do anyway? "I'm responsible for daily communication and decision-making with trainers at the racetrack and the farm," said Panagot. "At the sales, we have a recruiting team, trainers, agents, and myself. I manage the horses throughout their careers, who will train them, what races they'll run in, etc. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by gifted horseman and trainers. That makes everything easier."

Panagot definitely sees a benefit to horsemen who play in contests. "I watched 90 percent of the races run during this meet live despite having no skin in," he said. "Playing a contest can keep you sharp and most importantly help you learn more. Naturally, when you're invested, you're more cognizant of what's going on. The Saratoga meet is infamous [for] wearing you out. The contest was like an espresso shot."

Sunday contest action

Free contest action returns to NHCQualify.com on Sunday. All NHC Tour members are eligible to play and whether you're chasing Tour points or looking to win one of the four seats on offer directly, the contest is a must-play. Here are the 10 races:

3:32    Woodbine 6

3:40    Belmont 6

3:47    Churchill 7

4:13    Belmont 7

4:46    Belmont 8

4:49    Churchill 9

5:12    Woodbine 9

5:18    Churchill 10

5:19    Belmont 9

5:45    Woodbine 10

To sign up now, go to https://www.nhcqualify.com/buy_advanced.aspx.

The 12-race sequence is slightly different over on DRFQualify.com, where players have a chance to buy-in for $90 and win their way into the Santa Anita Autumn Championship on Oct. 17-18:

3:32    Woodbine 6

3:40    Belmont 6

3:47    Churchill 7

4:05    Woodbine 7

4:13    Belmont 7

4:18    Churchill 8

4:46    Belmont 8

4:49    Churchill 9

5:12    Woodbine 9

5:18    Churchill 10

5:19    Belmont 9

5:45    Woodbine 10

To play, check out https://www.drfqualify.com/buy_advanced.aspx . As always, free DRF past-performances will be available on the contest sites.