10/01/2014 2:56PM

Fornatale: New players thriving in contests


Damian Sasso, a 32-year-old client manager in the financial-services industry, has been an avid horseplayer for a while, playing regularly with his dad and wife. But in the last couple of years, he’s become interested in contests.

“Contest play is certainly a change of pace,” he said, “and I love the fact that you have to pick one horse per race. It’s a challenge that’s helped me hone my overall handicapping skills.”

Sasso got his National Handicapping Championship Tour card in February but hadn’t found much time to use it. That changed when he saw the all-rookies event that ran a few weeks back.

“The rookie contest really appealed to me because it was $25, very inexpensive,” he said. “I also liked the idea that I’d be going up against other players who were more inexperienced, just like I was.”

He ended up sixth in the rookie contest – good enough for a buy-in in the Sept. 27 NHCQualify.com event, where he ended up second overall, punching his ticket for Las Vegas and the NHC.

Sasso owes his win largely to excellent advice from his wife, a horseplayer herself.

“In the second race at Santa Anita, I liked Papa’s Paisley. He was Carava off the claim, and he looked like more of a dirt horse – his recent subpar efforts were on the Poly. I got nervous when the odds drifted up, but my wife encouraged me to stick to my guns. I’m glad I listened to her.”

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• Rich Cristiano came at the contest world from a different angle – he’s an industry insider who is the director of business development at Sovereign Stables.

He became aware of contests as the NHC, which debuted in 1999, began to gain steam over the years. Impressed with the tournament and aware of the chance to meet people in their core demographic, Cristiano and his business partner, Sovereign president Matt Gatsas, approached the NTRA about becoming a sponsor.

“We thought contests were a real area of growth in our business, and we were excited to get involved,” said Cristiano.

As a player, Cristiano’s own handicapping contest experience was limited to the famous “Huddie” pool, which is analogous to an NCAA tournament pool but for racing at Saratoga. After playing in that for many years, Cristiano decided it was time to test the waters of traditional contest play.

“I love playing in the Huddie pool,” he said, “but these weekly handicapping contests are like all that excitement of six weeks compressed into three hours.”

Of course, NHCQualify.com was off limits. “The downside to being a sponsor of the NHC was that neither Matt nor I could play in the NHC,” he said. “But starting last year, Matt and I took a couple of shots on BCQualify.com.”

Gatsas wasn’t around last Sunday, but Cristiano decided to jump into the BCQualify Round 1 qualifier anyway. He ended up 19th of 320, good enough for a spot in Saturday’s Round 2 contest.

“I felt like I caught every break I could possibly get – I made three last-minute changes that all worked out, and I won every photo but one,” Cristiano said. “Great Attack got me off to a flying start, and I was steady from there.”

Cristiano was clearly thrilled about the idea of playing in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge but hadn’t gotten as far as coming with up a strategy yet. “Don’t ask me what I’m going to do when I get there,” he said. “I’ll talk to my partner, and we’ll come up with a plan.”

• Christian Hendrickson is a 36-year-old professional handicapper who had never played in a contest before this year. He has an interesting story about becoming a horseplayer.

“Most of the time, you hear people talk about how their dad took them to the track when they were young,” he said. “In my family, anything remotely resembling gambling was highly frowned upon.”

Hendrickson grew up in Los Angeles, and L.A. car culture spurred him to become a fan.

“When I was a teenager, I’d go anywhere with my friend who had a car, and one day we ended up at Santa Anita because my friend got a tip on a horse from the friend of a guy who he worked with at a pizza place,” Hendrickson said. “The race was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. The tip did nothing, but I was hooked, hooked, hooked.”

Hendrickson typically avoids the spotlight. “I’m content to stay in the shadows,” he said. “I’m not looking to play carryovers or contests where I’ll be facing off against the best players in the world. I’d rather play against the average player on a Saturday afternoon.”

When Hendrickson saw the TV show “Horseplayers,” his curiosity was piqued. “Everything revolved around getting to Vegas,” he said, “and I started getting the bug. I wanted to see what it was all about.”

When the rookie contest came along, he saw an opportunity. “That was the one and only time I’ve ever played in an NHC qualifier,” he said.

Hendrickson made the most of his opportunity, running third and qualifying for Vegas.

"I'm very excited to have the opportunity to compete against the best handicappers in the world,” he said. “Along with all the skill, there is tons of luck involved, and we all have good days and bad days, and we'll just have to wait and see who's going to have the best weekend."