11/26/2014 11:15AM

Fornatale: Priola rides out storm, wins another NHC seat


South Buffalo resident Russell Priola is a devoted horseplayer who has been playing in contests for more than a decade. Last weekend, in the wake of his area being hit with seven feet of snow in places, Priola kept calm and won his way into the National Handicapping Championship for the fifth time. In truth, due to the vagaries of lake effect snow, his area in South Buffalo wasn’t terribly affected by the storm.

“I got lucky. I only got about 18 inches, which is nothing over here,” he explained. “But my brother got every inch of seven feet. But we’re all good. We’re used to it. We’re from Buffalo.”

Priola is a 52-year old painter (interiors and exteriors, not canvas) who runs his own business – always a good thing for a horseplayer. He’s a big fan of the mythical $2 win-place format so common online. “I don’t like live bankroll as much as some of these other guys because I’m not that kind of a gambler,” he explained. “To bet $1,000 to win on a horse is a lot to me.”

He grew up playing over in Canada at Fort Erie Racetrack. “I used to be able to walk across the Peace Bridge and go to the track,” he said. “They had good meets back then. But now they’re struggling to survive. Now my home track is Buffalo Raceway but I don’t play [Standardbreds].”

In terms of the NHC, Priola hasn’t always been thrilled with how he’s played. Last year in particular, he made a lot of last-minute changes that ended up hurting him. This year he’s going to stick with gut picks. “This year I’m going to mail in a lot of the mandatories,” he said – meaning he’ll make picks early on and not change them – “If I had done that last weekend at Aqueduct on the mandatories, I might have won the whole thing,” he continued. “But that’s a story everybody tells. The only difference between me and a lot of guys is, I’ll have something in my cash play on that horse I almost played in the contest.”

Many contest players eschew betting at the windows during a tournament, but Priola doesn’t buy that theory – at least not for the way he plays. “I feel like I can win playing live money,” he said. “And if I can cash for $10,000 that’s like finishing second or third in the contest.”

Part of his success betting cash during contests comes from his ability to compartmentalize. “I’m a pick three and pick four guy,” he explained. “I can put those in before the contest even starts and then I can just enjoy the contest. Just because I have the horse on the ticket doesn’t mean that I have to root for him or against him in the contest. It’s a totally separate thing.”

When players get to the contest room early for the NHC, take a look up the betting windows when they open. The guy standing there calling out the numbers will be Russell Priola.