04/29/2016 1:51PM

Fornatale: Latest NHC qualifier has 'Gansett roots

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Narragansett Park may be gone, but its spirit lives on in contest player Mike Coutu, who qualified for the National Handicapping Championship for the first time last weekend on NHCQualify.com.

He grew up a stone’s throw from the storied Rhode Island oval in its later years in the late 1970s, and that’s where he became a racing fan. For many years he stayed a follower of the big races — he was a Derby regular for many years and makes an annual pilgrimage to the Breeders’ Cup. Recently he’s become a year-round horseplayer, playing cash and contests.

“Each meet seems to set up strategy for the next,” he said, “so I follow throughout the year to keep watch for horses I expect could be at the Breeders’ Cup in November.”

Coutu, 56, is an executive with a global sales organization called Associated Luxury Hotels International. He plans to play more on NHCQ throughout the year. “My goal for the balance of the year is to get a second entry, in addition to getting more tournament experience,” he said.

As for his handicapping, Coutu uses a blend of the old and the new. “I am a Formulator guy to get history, video, and stats, but my forms are full of yellow highlighter and handwritten notes that come out of my race review, which takes a while,” he explained, adding that he handicaps through the lens of projected race shape and pace but works in lots of other factors like hot jockey-trainer combinations that he finds with the help of Formulator.

Saturday’s event was the first time he ever played two entries. “I targeted middle-priced horses with the first entry and bigger prices with my second entry,” he said, citing a common approach to playing multiple tickets.

After a rough start, his first entry got on the board with 5-2 Dear Elaine at Keeneland in the seventh contest event. From there, he knew he was going to need to start finding some prices. Boon Companion, 14-1 at Laurel, fit the bill. “He was cutting back in distance while switching over to turf,” he explained, “I figured if he took to the turf okay, he could be right there and he got it done.”

But the real key was Cody's Notes at Aqueduct in the penultimate contest event. “He had done some decent running on turf last year, but over the winter they had moved him to dirt for last three races,” he said. “His best Beyer was his last race on turf in November, and I was banking on him liking the switch back and being able to close against a group that had no real standouts.”

That logic proved impeccable, and as the anchor leg approached, Coutu was ahead by $2 and needed to stay in the top three for a seat.

He stuck with his original pick, 5-1 Phlash Phelps, instead of taking one of the three favorites. When his picked was nipped at the wire for second, he was concerned he would meet the same fate. But when only one player passed him, he was headed to NHC for the first time.

“I’m very happy with the result,” he said.