07/29/2015 12:10PM

Fornatale: Low-roller contest always good for a cheap thrill

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It felt good to get back on the horse, so to speak.

On Monday, I played in my first contest in quite a while in the Saratoga low-roller. This year, the program has expanded. Saratoga is now running $40 buy-in contests on Sundays and Mondays. Of that $40, $10 funds the prize pool, and the other $30 is a bankroll. That bankroll must be bet as $2 across-the-board bets in five of the Saratoga races.

These types of contests are a great training ground for players. Years ago, I became a semi-regular in the equivalent contests at Santa Anita. Whenever I journeyed west, once or twice a year, I made sure to play in Santa Anita’s weekend contests, which ran every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for a time.

One of the players I met was a young handicapper from Bell Gardens, Calif., who usually was outfitted in some type of University of Southern California merchandise and often was up there on the leaderboard. His name was Jose Arias. A few years later, he won more than $750,000 at the National Handicapping Championship. To think, it all started outside the Horse Wizard in the Santa Anita grandstand.

On a more attainable level, the low-roller event can help people get what contests are all about – the excitement of seeing yourself on the leaderboard, the fun of meeting like-minded players, and the opportunity to compete at a reduced takeout. I can easily see someone having fun on a Sunday or Monday at Saratoga and then deciding to try to qualify for the NHC or the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. From there, the path is clear: get yourself qualified (preferably through NHCQualify.com, BCQualify.com, or DRFQualify.com), hit the tournament of your choice, and make a score.

When I was researching my book “The Winning Contest Player,” I played in a lot of contests, but not so much anymore. As a Daily Racing Form employee, I am not eligible for the NHC, so I’m not getting full value in any contest that offers seats as part of the prize pool. Also, the more I cover the contest world, the odder it feels to compete against the players I write about. I’ve settled into a situation where I follow tournaments out of professional interest but don’t feel obligated to compete myself.

The Saratoga low-roller feels different to me. It’s Saratoga. The prizes are just cash. You’re not going to make a life-changing score, but with $800 or so added to the winning bankroll, it’s not nothing either. And the competition is strong. With the number of talented horseplayers who pass through these parts, if you finish atop the leaderboard, you’ve accomplished something. In particular, the four contests surrounding the Battle of Saratoga tournament held Aug. 12-13 are expected to attract salty fields.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

You can take two entries in the low-roller, and I usually would, but on Monday I just played one. I signed up next to one of the most recognizable figures in the contest world, Kevin “the Brooklyn Cowboy” Cox. One wag approached us as we handed over our money and said, “You two have no shot.” We took it as a compliment.

I sat back and pretty much watched the first half of the card, and with only one price horse coming in, I figured I still had a good shot. I connected with my second bullet, Devilish Grin ($11.20 to win) to get on the board. I had a gross beat in the Lucky Coin when Sharp Sensation hit the front only to be overtaken late by the chalk, but hey, I still got points.

In the eighth race, I outsmarted myself a bit. Earlier in the day, I told myself that if I needed a price, I’d play Loon River, but after connecting in two races, I found myself in 19th place, just $20 out of first. I decided that I didn’t need a price and just tried to pick the winner. My selection, B Rockett, was a no-fire, and Loon River ended up second, worth $22 for place and show combined. Granted, had I played Loon River, I still would have felt ill because he looked like a winner at one point.

Going into the last race, I was in 30th place, about $35 out of first. I felt that I still had a good shot. For one thing, I figured a lot of the players ahead of me likely had already used all their plays. And the money paid down to fifth, and that player had just $53. Also, the way the tournament scoring works, those top players were liable to lose $6 on their scores if they were to fire and miss.

I wanted to play a horse around 9-1 and ended up between Massolimo and Holy Week. I went with Massolimo, and when Holy Week ranged up into contention, I was kicking myself, but it didn’t matter in the end. Holy Week finished fourth and had been bet down (without my realizing it) to where he would have been too short a price to get me to my goal. Massolimo was seventh but beaten only two lengths at nearly 11-1.

Sure, I might have been blocked – someone ahead of me might have had him as well – but there’s a small chance I was drawing live to win the whole thing, and I almost certainly was drawing live to hit the board. That’s an acceptable situation to be in for the last race. I got to keep my $27 bankroll, meaning I’d only spent $13 on a fun afternoon of action where I had a shot for $800 at the end. I’ve got to call that great value.

All in all, it was an okay effort. No one is going to confuse me with Mark Streiff, who recently ran second at Santa Anita and won Del Mar outright after some time away from the game, but I’ll take it. I figure to be dangerous on Sunday the second time off the pine.