07/02/2014 11:28AM

Fornatale: Scanio scores twice with same horse

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Joe Scanio qualified for the National Handicapping Championship finals for the 11th time Saturday via NHCQualify.com. Scanio, an actor starring in an off-Broadway show called “My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” has been a fixture on the contest scene for many years. He almost missed Saturday’s NHCQualify.com contest entirely.

“I am going to Arlington to play in their live-bankroll contest on July 13, and another online site had a qualifier for that,” he said. “But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get onto that site, so I went over to NHCQualify.com to play there instead. God forbid I should spend a Sunday with the family.”

Scanio’s day started well. He had the first three winners: On Lockdown in Churchill’s sixth race ($16.60), Bet Seattle in Arlington’s fourth ($3.60), and Bitty Kitty in Churchill’s seventh ($11.40). From there, he got a couple of place horses and was in the top 20 among 242 entries at the contest’s halfway point.

After he whiffed in Monmouth’s 10th race, which was won by a $20 horse, he started to slip back significantly – the board can shift very quickly in a contest with so many players, especially when a longshot comes in. Scanio had a decision to make for Churchill’s 10th race.

“I was torn between a horse named More Than Less and the 4 horse, Kashami,” he said. “I was originally on Kashami, and I noticed that the jockey-trainer winning percentage was something ridiculous, like 48 percent. I started to think it was a sucker bet – that people would see that and just bet the horse because of that, and he’d end up overbet. Meanwhile, More Than Less was trained by [Steve] Asmussen, was bred to go the distance, and was 19-1. And he was a first-time starter going long who I didn’t think many people would use.”

Scanio switched his bet, and he was glad he did when More Than Less won and paid $41.40, vaulting him to the top of the standings once again with three races left to play. But there was more drama to come.

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In Monmouth’s 11th race, Scanio almost outsmarted himself out of an NHC seat. He originally liked Cherokee Artist, but he started to second-guess himself.

“Brad Thomas is the best racing analyst at Monmouth, and he was singing the praises of Cherokee Artist, who was 9-1 at the time,” Scanio said. “I became convinced that everybody listening would agree, and the horse would end up going off more like 9-2 than 9-1. I figured at 9-2, he wouldn’t hurt me, so I switched to Evolution Rocks.”

As you might have guessed, Cherokee Artist won, and he wasn’t bet down all that much; he paid $17.40, and Scanio figured his place in the contest was in jeopardy. Fortunately for him, the board didn’t change much after that result, and he still had pole position for an NHC seat.

The penultimate race was Arlington’s ninth. Scanio had it down to two horses: Mec Dancer and Shoot the Loop. Before the race, Scanio got a call from a friend, an Arlington regular. After hearing the circumstances, his friend declined to comment, telling Scanio, “I don’t want you cursing me out after the race if I talk you off the winner.” But as they talked more, the Arlington expert told Scanio to check out the replay of Mec Dancer’s last race. Scanio described what he saw: “He got a brutal trip. He got left a little bit, he got shuffled, and he had a lot of pace in the lane, enough to show that he was sound. I thought maybe with a better break, he’d be a lot closer, so I decided to play him.”

It played out just as Scanio had hoped. Mec Dancer, with a perfect stalking trip, won and paid $10.20. Scanio was in great shape at this point, but he knew a longshot in the anchor leg, Santa Anita’s sixth, could still cost him his spot. Scanio described his thought process: “When you’re in a qualifying spot going into the last race, you’re playing more defensively. You watch the odds closely, trying to see which horses might threaten your position. I knew I had the protection of the favorite, so I didn’t have to worry about her. I decided to play Mom Nana Petrie, who figured and was 7-1 when I bet, the exact number that could beat me. I thought I’d have a problem if anything longer won. Without my noticing until too late, Mom Nana Petrie got bet down to where she couldn’t hurt me. I tried to switch to the next logical contender who could beat me, Mangita, but it was too late.”

Mangita ended up winning and paying $15, but luckily for Scanio, none of the other players in the top 10 going into the last race had her. Scanio was going to Las Vegas thanks to Mec Dancer. Shortly after the race, Scanio got a phone call from another friend, current NHC Tour leader Ken Seeman.

Seeman reminded Scanio that Mec Dancer was the horse whom Scanio bet in the 2013 Saratoga Betting Challenge to secure a second-place finish and a trip to the 2014 NHC. Scanio was flabbergasted by Seeman’s amazing memory. “I asked him, ‘What the hell is going on in your brain that you remember that I – not you – bet that horse two years ago?’ ”

Scanio still will be attending the Arlington contest July 13. He plans on bringing a special package with him. “I have to bring at least a dozen carrots and some sugar cubes for Mec Dancer, the horse that sent me to the NHC twice!”

• There is a lot of contest action via DRF Tournaments this weekend: a special low-roller event for newer players on NHCQualify.com on Saturday and a one-day Saturday event on BCQualify.com. Los Alamitos also is hosting an in-person, $300 live-bankroll tournament Saturday.