07/15/2015 11:49AM

Fornatale: Jessee using his powers to win tourneys


Like superheroes, every horse player has his or her own origin story. Blake Jessee is a young man of 33, but his horseplayer "creation myth" has a decidedly old-school ring to it.

"I was 12 years old when my mother and father got divorced and I was spending the summer with my father," he said, "and on our last day together he told me, 'We're going somewhere.' It was River Downs in Cincinnati. I grew up in Indiana and we didn't have any racetracks in Indiana at the time."

Jessee's dad made a straight $2 exacta bet for him on each race and on the very the first one he hit. "That's when I caught the bug," he said.

By the time Jessee was 18, Hoosier Park had opened, and he was going to the track every day. "That's really how I cut my teeth," he said. "It didn't matter if it was Portland Meadows on a Monday with $2,500 claimers or it was the first Saturday in May. I was there to absorb all the knowledge and bad beats that I could."

His theory of how to improve was to surround himself with other, better players to learn from. "I had a few mentors along the way," he said. "One gentleman, Brad Dunlap, took me under his wing. He's an excellent handicapper."

Jessee understands that learning the game is an ongoing process. "You're not going to learn it overnight or even in a year or anything like that," he said. "You have to stay at it and you have to be disciplined and pick and choose your spots. I used to want to bet every race but you can't do that and win. It comes back to the old adage, 'You can beat a race, but you can't beat the races.' "

Handicapping for Jessee is a multi-step procedure. "I live and die by the Racing Form. The first time through, I'm not looking in the Form necessarily to find the winner," he said, "I'm looking to size up the race. On the day of the races, I always like to get a sense of what might be going on with the weather, with the track bias. I feel like I'm strong in terms of being able to gauge how the track as playing and applying that to my analysis."

By the time Jessee was in his 30s, he was making a living through gambling, but it was not an easy living. "I was able to keep myself alive, but I wanted more really," he said. "I decided to reach out and see what opportunities might be available to me."

Ron Paolucci of Loooch Racing had a position available. Jessee started off by proving himself doing administrative work and eventually became Paolucci's racing manager. "We have 100 racehorses with five or six different trainers scattered across the country," he explained. "Anything that doesn't involve making claims or making entries I handle."

Earlier this year, Paolucci approached Jessee with an idea -- what about trying to qualify for the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge? He was intrigued. "I told him it looked like it was a growing thing that was only going to get better and better," Jessee said.

He played in the Churchill contest on Stephen Foster night but busted out when he went all-in on Hoppertunity. Two weeks later he had several close calls at the Santa Anita Gold Cup contest -- there he needed Hoppertunity out of the way of his Hard Aces-Catch a Flight exacta. "As horseplayers, we all know that feeling -- 'this guy, again?!' " Jesse joked. Things went a lot better for him last weekend at Arlington, where he finished first overall and won a coveted BCBC spot.

As an experienced gambler and relative outsider, Jessee has an interesting perspective on the type of play he sees at live-bankroll events. "I don't understand why so many people don't push their bankrolls in at the end if they're not in an in-the-money position," he said. "I don't know why people are worried about going home with their money if they came to play in a tournament. I don't understand that part and I hope those people keep playing."

Understandably, given his background, Jessee is more a fan of live-bankroll events than mythical -money contests. "The mythical win-place format is real handicapping but you end up having to pick horses that you normally wouldn't pick because you need those cap horses a lot of the time," he said, "It's a lot easier to pick a longshot when you know you can only pick a longshot."

Jessee will be playing in at least a couple of other live-bankroll tournaments before the BCBC. Given his combination of fearlessness and knowledge, he is a player to watch in any contest he plays in.


Rank Name Score
1 Christopher Podratz $87.00
2 Mike Ray $85.49
3 Joe Jarvie $84.20
4 Craig Kaufman $76.00

Top three won NHC seats


Rank Name Amount
1 Lee Geraghty $2,107.50
2 Duke Matties $1,269.20
3 Terry Jerge $1,121.55
4 Craig Kaufman $936.75

Top three won NHC seats