03/05/2015 3:20PM

Fornatale: Last chance to qualify for Santa Anita Handicapping Challenge

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This weekend is the final opportunity to win a $3,500 buy-in to the Santa Anita Handicapping Challenge, to be held March 14-15 at Santa Anita Park. The buy-in for qualifiers on DRFQualify.com costs just $80, and there will be contests Saturday and Sunday.

In recent years, Santa Anita has become an industry leader in terms of live-bankroll contests. “We started off with our first Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge at Santa Anita about five years ago and just saw the potential immediately,” said Santa Anita vice president of marketing Nate Newby. “It’s such great value for the players, it’s very exciting, and we just decided to go ahead and build it from there, and the contests grow every year.”

The Santa Anita live-bankroll contests have grown and changed over the years. They started out doing just one a season but have since developed a series of events. “We decided it was too good of an opportunity to only do one,” Newby said. This year, in addition to the March 14-15 event, Santa Anita will run a contest during Preakness weekend and another on closing weekend, June 27-28. A fourth contest is likely for the Santa Anita fall meeting as well.

There also have been tweaks to the prize structure as feedback has come in from contest players across the country. “The goal has always been to try to figure out what the players want,” Newby said. “It seems like, especially early in the year, a good mix of NHC spots, Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge spots, and cash is the winning formula. It changes a little bit as you get later in the year. We’ve tried ones that are just for Breeders’ Cup seats, just for the NHC, and just cash, and if you combine all three, you can get players from all angles wanting to participate.”

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One major asset for Santa Anita’s contest team is Tom Quigley, a tournament veteran himself who has deep connections among his fellow horseplayers. “When we sit down to come up with a format, we talk to Tom, and Tom reaches out to his friends who are contest players,” Newby said. “We try to get as much input as we can, whether it be about a specific rule or format or prizes. Once we finalize the details, Tom is as good as anybody at spreading the word.”

The specifics of the prize pool won’t be known until the field is finalized, but it seems likely that it will include more than $40,000 in cash, at least seven spots to the National Handicapping Championship, two full $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entries, and four partial $2,500 entries to the BCBC. With good weather and full fields expected, those numbers could increase.

Players can purchase directly into the tournament right up until noon Pacific on March 14, but for most players, winning in for $80 is the decidedly preferable option. With up to two entries per player allowed, some qualifiers are likely to purchase second entries as well. You can sign up to play in this weekend’s qualifying events at www.drfqualify.com/buy_advanced.aspx.

Two-stage qualifiers on tap

Also on Saturday, two-stage qualifying action returns to BCQualify.com. Round 1 events will be held this Saturday, March 14, and March 21. The top 10 percent of finishers from those three contests will reconvene to compete in a Round 2 event March 28, where up to eight full $10,000 BCBC spots will be awarded, plus travel allowances for the winners. This format rewards consistency and has proven very popular with players since its introduction. For many players, it allows them to play more of the horses they truly like, as opposed to having to reach for prices.

To sign up for Saturday’s Round 1 event, click here.

Here are the races for Saturday’s BCQualify.com and DRFQualify.com contests (all times Eastern):

4:23    Tampa 9 (G3 Florida Oaks)

4:30    Gulfstream 9 (G3 Palm Beach)

4:53    Tampa 10 (G3 Hillsborough)

5:00    Santa Anita 5

5:23    Tampa 11 (G2 Tampa Bay Derby)

5:30    Gulfstream 11

5:38    Oaklawn 8 (G3 Honeybee)

6:00    Santa Anita 7 (G2 San Felipe)

6:09    Oaklawn 9

6:30    Santa Anita 8

7:00    Santa Anita 9 (G2 San Carlos)

7:30    Santa Anita 10 (G1 Kilroe)

It’s a fantastic slate of races, including three 3-year-old preps, five turf races, full fields, and generally good spacing between the races.

Appropriately enough, given that this is the second-to-last qualifier for the Santa Anita Handicapping Challenge, five of the races are from the Great Race Place.

There will be coverage of all of the graded stakes on DRF.com, and you can find free past performances for the contest card at www.drfqualify.com/DRFQPPS.PDF.