07/13/2015 11:55AM

Fornatale: Jessee puts it all on the line to win Arlington contest


Arlington Park awarded five seats to major tournaments on Sunday in their no-fee, live-bankroll handicapping contest. Blake Jessee landed on top of the field of 118 players and earned his full $10,000 entry to the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge in the process.

It was a rocky day at the outset for Jessee, 33, who works as a racing manager for Looch Racing. His starting $2,000 bankroll had dwindled down to $730 before he hit a couple of plays to get up to $4,000. From there, he lost another $1,000 before making the critical decision about three-quarters of the way through the contest.

"I put it all to win on Wesley Ward's Royal Asset at Belmont and the rest was history," Jessee said. Royal Asset paid $9.20 netting him nearly $14,000. Some players are hesitant to make such big moves before the end of live bankroll contests but Jessee has a different approach. "I loved him early in the day and I had an opportunity to take control of the tournament," he said, "You gotta either look at the target or be the target and I think it's better to better to be the target."

The tourament was unusual in that no entry fee was required and players only needed to make four $100 bets at Arlington to be eligible for the prize pool, which consisted of the one BCBC seat and four seats to the National Handicapping Championship. "It was the most positive-expectation tournament I've ever been a part of," said Jessee.

On a percentage basis, Garett Skiba's record in live-bankroll, on-site contests this year is second to none: He is now two for three after winning Hawthorne earlier in the year and getting third this weekend. Skiba, who is featured in The Winning Contest Player, finished third in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge, netting $100,000.

His first big hit on Sunday came by crushing a double at Belmont to get his balance up to $4,600. But that wasn't going to be enough. Skiba knew he had to take another shot later in the tournament and he found an interesting race at Gulfstream.

"It was a big, full field at Gulfstream," he said. "It had been a weird day there and it seemed like a good place to take a shot."

Skiba settled on a $200 win bet on  Simferopol, a 25 -1 shot and the kind of horse that many people likely would have had in a mythical money tournament, but because this was real money, Skiba was able to move up alone when the chestnut colt rallied five wide to win. "It was a chance to take a shot and not blow too much," he explained. "The risk-reward seemed right. After the race no one else was cheering."

Skiba could be a potential player on the NHC Tour, given his win at Hawthorne earlier in the year. But with a four-month old and 2 1/2-year-old at home, he's not sure he'll be able to find the time to make a serious run.

"I don't do as well in the $2 win-place online contests as I do in the live-bankroll events for whatever reason," he said. "I like the ability to pick the race and the type of bet, which makes it more like a regular day at the track."

Another one of the big storylines of the weekend came from well-known contest player David Gutfreund. Gutfreund, a founding partner at Derby Wars, qualified for the NHC for an impressive 12th time.

Gutfreund initially planned on gunning for first place and the BCBC seat, but Jessee's big score changed his game plan. "Whatever hopes I had of the BCBC were dashed real quick unless I wanted to do some sick gambling," he said.

He was already in a strong position at that point, having hit a $200 double earlier in the Belmont card, singling the longer half of Tom Albertrani's uncoupled  entry, You Lie, in the fourth race. "She had one bad turf race with trouble and she looked like she'd make the lead," said Gutfreund. "She never looked like losing." When Lady Kreesa won the next, Gutfreund collected a $55 double and got his bankroll up over $7,000. 

"From there, I made my four mandatory bets as show bets and nervously watched the leaderboard," he said, "I never felt the need to make another play."

Another interesting element to the Arlington contest was the inclusion of doubles -- something many players would like to see more of in live-bankroll events. "It's just another opton to have," said Gutfreund.

"It's another two-horse play. It's not lke adding a pick five or pick six because it doesn't change things as radically. It fits my stlyle because I like picking winners. But like I always say, just tell me the rules and I'll make them work for me."

Despite the qualification, it was a bittersweet day for Gutfreund, who has also had a lot of success playing tournament poker. "I wish I wasn't there yesterday," he explained. "I was supposed to be playing in the World Series of Poker main event but I got knocked out. This was a Plan B."

Arlington Results

Rank Name Score
1 Blake Jessee $12,510.50
2 William Rubenstein $9,015.00
3 Garett Skiba $7,740.00
4 David Gutfreund $7,180.00
5 Nick Kochankski $6,986.50

Jesee wins a full Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge seat; the other four win seats to the National Handicapping Championship