01/30/2015 4:18PM

Fornatale: Second-place finisher Jordan calls NHC 'a great experience'

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Not too many people ever have won as much money in a handicapping contest as Ken Jordan did last Sunday, when he finished second at the 16th annual National Handicapping Championship, netting $250,000 in the process. Jordan’s a fascinating character who shared his insights in this one-on-one interview with me just days after his NHC score.

Peter Thomas Fornatale: In the aftermath of the NHC, with all the headlines for John O’Neil and Jonathon Kinchen, are you feeling overlooked at all?

Ken Jordan: No, not at all.  There were so many people who I hadn’t known before who offered congratulations. It was a great experience.

PTF: Even though you’ve been playing in contests for a while, you’ve seemingly stepped up your game in the last few years.

KJ: My wife and I have six kids. When we got the last couple off to college, it opened up some more time for me to play. The contests really fill the void for the challenge of going to the racetrack. I love the idea of taking tomorrow’s PPs and sitting down and going through them, so it was a perfect fit for me.

PTF: What was your previous history in the NHC?

KJ: The first year we went to the NHC, I qualified, and my wife qualified – 2010 at Red Rocks. We played as a team, and we played well, and my wife finished fifth. We probably could have finished second, but back then, with the way the payouts were, we felt obligated to try to win the whole tournament instead of just playing the horse we liked. So the horse we liked won, and our bet finished up the track.

PTF: Any regrets afterward?

KJ: The farther away we got from it, the more regret I felt, but it seemed like the right decision at the time.

PTF: You were in kind of a similar situation this year at the end of the final table. Talk me through your strategy.

KJ: The first race at the final table, I was torn between the two horses that ran first and third. Looking at the other races coming up, I just didn’t see any big prices, so I felt I should take the longer price in that first race. I was in first, and I thought that was the time to put a little bit of distance between myself and Mr. O’Neil and the rest of the field. I was hoping to get a winner ahead, and then, while you can’t run out the clock, I thought just by wisely managing the tote board I could stay ahead.

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PTF: Of course, after the shorter-price won and O’Neil had it, you were on the chase a bit, especially since he stayed and kept picking winners. By the last race, he was nearly a cap horse ahead. Did you give any thought to trying to catch him, or at that point, were you content protecting your $250,000?

KJ: When I got to the last race, that was a $125,000 question for me. I wasn’t going to have a repeat of 2010. The horse I played was the one I liked the whole day, and I couldn’t believe it when the wagering opened and the horse was 14-1. This is a horse I would have played in that situation at 6-1, and here I was getting 14-1, which was potentially enough to get me to first if I won and O’Neil’s horse ran off the board.

PTF: Of course the horse ending up getting hammered.

KJ: There was never a thought of going to change the bet when he got hammered. I said, “I fought a good fight, and this is a horse that could hurt me, that the guys in third and fourth could pass me with,” and that’s a chance I didn’t want to take.

PTF: Tell me more about your history as a contest player.

KJ: I’ve played in five NHCs. Now that we have grandkids, my wife is off the tour. I’ve had some good luck at the Orleans contests. Last year, I finished seventh and ninth. I was a victim of terminal “split-ticket-itus.”

PTF: What happened there?

KJ: Most of the contest, I was playing just unconscious. And then, what’s the one thing that could really foul up a horseplayer? I started to apply some logic. I outsmarted myself and hesitated, and I wanted to save a bet for some of the later Fair Grounds races, and I didn’t include [the longshot winner] Bug Juice. I put him on one and not on the other because I ended up saving plays for the end. It was a bad call on my part. One of the things you always hear in contests is: “Save your bullets for the end.” And I’d amend that to say: Not if you’re letting good winners go by because at that point, you’ll want a bullet to turn on yourself.

PTF: I have to ask what you thought about Jonathon Kinchen’s performance. Were you amazed that a rookie was able to get two tickets in the top 10 at the NHC?

KJ: It’s a fantastic achievement. I just got to speak to him briefly up at the final table. He was sure of himself, and he didn’t second guess any of his picks, and fantastic – more power to him.

PTF: Earlier this week, I wrote about the Kinchen table and how his friends helped him. You were at a pretty interesting-looking table, too.

KJ: I have a good bunch of guys that go to the contests with me. My friend, Artie Guglielmo, was a first-time NHC player. I’ve been going to the track with him for 30-plus years. Al Gold and Tom Luicci helped, too. You can get as much keeping focused from your friends as you can getting under the hood on the handicapping. They helped me keep squared up on what my goals were for each day. Louie Filoso is a longtime contest player. You could learn a lot about the history of contests by talking to him. I met John Perotta for the first time. What a super-sharp guy. Richie Eng, a handicapper out in Vegas, was a good guy to have on my side. And Jerry “Mikey” Barash, who always comments on your blog, he’s the handicapping champion of the Borscht Belt. He goes way back with contests, and he’s a valued member of the team.

PTF: What’s your general approach to handicapping?

KJ: I use a combination of the Racing Form, with Formulator, Colt’s Neck Data speed figures, and Racing Flow [pace and bias figures]. I highly endorse the Racing Flow concept, which is a way of reading in between the lines. I mean that literally – reading in between the lines of the past performances – because how a horse earned a number is every bit as important as the speed number, and the flow numbers give you a new perspective on that. They can be uploaded right into Formulator.

PTF: What’s your opinion of live-bankroll contests?

KJ: I started out playing in them and doing OK, but over time, I feel like I’ve gotten worse. All these names that I saw out at Vegas are the same guys that, let’s say, beat me like a rented mule during the Monmouth contests.

PTF: What are you going to do to right the ship in those contests?

KJ: I’m going to keep playing, and maybe I’ll attribute it to just a short-term deviation. Maybe I’ll continue to try to play one ticket bold – in other words I’m trying to hit it out of the park early on the horse I like – and on the other, I’ll play more conservatively. I played in the Breeders’ Cup contest this year. I basically protected my money by the end of the day, and it was a good experience. 

PTF: Which contest format is the best indicator of handicapping talent?

KJ: That argument still hasn’t been settled for me. I can see the holes in the $2 win-place format.  But when you look at what these guys bet at the end of the day in the Breeders’ Cup contest, that’s not the secret to long-term handicapping success either. Nobody goes all in on the last race and expects to do this week in and week out. I don’t know that the true objective should be to find out what the ultimate test is, but just as long as there are different types of tests, then you can gravitate toward what you have success in.