05/10/2016 9:57AM

Fornatale: For Mother's Day, New York steaks and a ticket to the NHC

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In his time in the contest world, Dennis Dougherty has proven to be a horse-for-course at Delaware Park. He’s won its monthly contest seven times and owns a second-place finish in one of its bigger tournaments as well.

It’s appropriate Dougherty has done so well there – he’s been going to the place since he was a young kid courtesy of his father and uncle.

Dougherty, who is from Wilmington, Del., won outright on NHCQualify.com on Sunday, and he will attempt to transfer his form to the contest’s world’s biggest stage – the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

This will be the third NHC appearance for Dougherty, 46, an adapted physical education teacher who works with students with a wide range of neurological disabilities.

An important moment in Dougherty’s development as a horseplayer was the advent of cable TV in the early 1980s.

“That brought the old Philadelphia Park simulcast into our house,” he said. “I tried to open my own phone bet account at the ripe age of 14, but was denied a couple of times.”

After some time away from racing, a back injury in 2001 forced Dougherty to give up golf.

“I needed something to do with my time and money, so I again took up horse racing,” he said, adding that he soon discovered the series of contests at Delaware.

Dougherty is a self-described “sheet player” who as an interesting approach to optional races in tournament play.

“I like cheap claiming horses at long odds coming off layoffs that have shown ability when they appear healthy and show nice recent workouts,” he explained.

His approach in live-money tournaments is notable as well. While many players will increase their bet size when they like a favorite in live-bank play, he turns that idea on its head.

“When the odds on a horse I like balloon up, I increase the bet exponentially the higher the odds go,” he said.

Sunday’s contest was logistically tricky for Dougherty because it was Mother’s Day, but he didn’t let that deter him. He simply played the contest as if all picks had to be in before the first race – the format known as all-in in the DRF contests. Meanwhile he spent time with his family and got to work on dinner preparations.

The start of the contest looked pretty straightforward, he said.

“The first several races in the contest looked chalky,” he said. “Over the years in contest play I have learned to take what you can get and not be greedy. When it is just not there, it might pay off later.”

Through the first six races, he earned a few dollars, and the low prices meant he was still very much in the mix. Now he lust needed to find the right longshot. He found it in Belmont’s eighth race, in 16-1 Joking.

“The horse was very consistent over his last eight or so races, albeit a little bit slower than a few other horses,” he said. “The horse was getting weight relief and was inside. I think the trainer, Charlton Baker, is close to 30 percent third off the layoff, and the odds looked really good on the morning line. I am really happy I got the odds I was hoping for, plus a little more.”

After that race, Dougherty was in first place, and he decided to come clean to his wife and daughter about what he was up to. He played longer prices knowing he’d be set to win if the favorites obliged because of his lead.

“The New York strip steaks were going to be delayed about 30 minutes,” he said. “They cheered the chalk in the last two races with me.”

He is excited about what awaits in January.

“I am thrilled to be going back to the show.”