02/22/2016 12:00PM

Fornatale: Qualifiers just loved Venus Valentine


One horse was the key in Saturday’s NHCQualify.com contest, which sent four players to next year's National Handicapping Championship: Venus Valentine. The Tom Amoss trained filly upset the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds at 74-1. Though her price was limited to 20-1 for the purposes of the contest, she was still a clear difference maker as three of four players to advance from NHCQ all played her.

This was not a situation where players were simply reaching for a price horse because it was late in the contest and playing a big number was the only way they could win. The Rachel Alexandra was just the sixth race of 12, meaning that to play Venus Valentine you actually had to like her.

What was there to like about this 74-1 shot? The reasons were several. Probably the first thing to note is that the 74-1 odds were inflated by the presence of an odds-on favorite in Stageplay. Without that seeming standout in the race, Venus's odds would have been substantially lower, and keep in mind that most contest players eschew odds-on shots for this exact reason -- when they blow up all hell can break loose.

Overall NHCQ winner Jim Sebes, who uses a statistical model to assist in his handicapping, thought there were several positive angles. "I thought she'd come running late and my model showed that type of style would fit this scenario," said Sebes, the 11th-place finisher in last year's Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge who has now qualified for the NHC three years in a row. He also noted that he thought she'd improve going from turf to dirt and that Tom Amoss and Corey Lanerie have had some success together.

Second-place finisher Alan Denkenson was playing in partnership with Emily "Mayhemily" Gullikson, and it was Gullikson who liked Venus Valentine. After the filly's last race she'd made a note in Formulator, "awkward start, good close against the flow, flipped leads late, should improve." That was more than enough for the team to take a shot at a big number.

Current NHC Tour leader Pete Dresens, who is one of only two players with two qualifications to next year's NHC, liked her for a different reason: He heard her trainer touting her on Steve Byk's "At the Races" radio show. "Tom Amoss was like a snake in the grass alluding to a 'look-out' performance by $150 winner Venus Valentine," he explained, adding that Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersh and Jay Privman also appeared on the Byk show, discussing the merits of Risen Star winner Gun Runner, who also helped him advance.

Dresens, who grabbed the fourth NHC spot, also put the lie to the idea that contest players don't bet real money. On advice from Hersh  he singled Chocolate Ride in the Fair Grounds Handicap, collecting more than $9,000 on a Pick Four he had twice.

Third-place finisher Rocky Hardy had a great day, managing to qualify without the benefit of Venus Valentine. He had four winners and a place horse, the longest of which was Go Vo ($32.60) in Oaklawn's seventh.

On DRFQualify.com on Saturday, Venus Valentine was the common denominator. Kevin Jones, Sarah Wiener, and Dana Reiss all won their $4,500 buy-ins plus $500 in travel to the Ultimate Betting Challenge. The UBC is a live-bankroll contest held at Gulfstream and Santa Anita on March 19-20. On Sunday, three additional players won in to the UBC: John Nichols, fourth on last year's NHC Tour, was the overall winner, ahead of Michael Mulvihill, and Michael Caposio.

BCQualify.com ran $21 feeder contests both weekend days that were very popular with racing fans. On Saturday, 476 players participated and the top 49 all earn entries into next Sunday's BCQualify.com contest. On Sunday, 400 people played and another 40 punched their tickets for next Sunday's event, where up to four full $10,000 seats will be awarded.

Five players won free entry into the feeder via a twitter giveaway run through @DRFTournaments. People interested in contest play should follow @DRFTournaments for all the latest news and information, as well as future seat giveaways.