08/04/2015 10:45AM

Fornatale: For Smith, good and bad luck even out

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Earlier this year at the Horse Player World Series in Las Vegas, McKay Smith caught a bad beat in the last race. He seemed poised to finish second to Jim Meeks before a 60-1 shot won at Fair Grounds, enabling Paul Shurman to pass him and costing Smith $50,000. This past weekend at the Wynn, the roles were reversed. Smith used his double bet in the last contest race to pass Bill Shurman, Paul’s brother, and win an extra $80,000.

Smith usually relies on Ken Massa’s HTR software to aid in his handicapping. “I have never considered myself a great traditional handicapper,” Smith said, “and I subscribe very strictly to a value-based approach to playing in contests when large numbers of races are involved. Ken's odds line is sensational, and it once again did a tremendous job of finding overlays throughout the entire two days. I stuck to my game plan, and my horses just kept coming up live, especially on Day 2.”

With the contest on the line, however, Smith turned to Daily Racing Form.

“Going into the last at Del Mar, I knew I was behind Bill, but I did not know by how much,” Smith said. The Wynn is the only major contest that still doesn’t post a leaderboard.

“The software didn't yield much for that race, so I had to break out the Form and traditional methods,” Smith added. “I settled on Peter Eurton's horse Second Summer, which I thought was a bit of an overlay with a really good chance to at least place.”

The colt got up for second, and the double place price ended up being just enough to put Smith over the top. Smith has now won more than $190,000 in contest play this year, just in two events. “There are few contests I'd be happier to win than this one,” he said.

The runner-up finish continued an amazing year for the Shurman brothers, who have collectively won more than $250,000 in contest play in 2015. They’ve had a ton of success throughout the years – Paul has qualified for the National Handicapping Championship 14 years in a row; Bill, 13 in a row – but this year represents a new level of excellence, even for them.

It could be coincidental, but back in March they changed the way they play together. They’ve always talked about the races and had percentages of each other’s tickets. “We still play our own tickets, but now we usually split our winnings equally, especially if we’re together at a big tournament,” Bill Shurman said.

It’s significant that this high finish came on Bill’s ticket because now, for the second year in a row, he will finish in the top five for the first half of the NHC Tour and win a $10,000 bonus. In both instances, Bill was down to his last opportunity for points and got the job done. Last year, it was a fourth at Del Mar; this year, a second at the Wynn. Bill was humble when asked about his last-minute successes under pressure. “It’s luck,” he said. “Last weekend, I played at Del Mar and didn’t do anything.”

Another major difference between this year and last is that in 2014, Shurman was actively chasing the NHC Tour lead, playing in online tour events almost every weekend. “This year, I’ve played in many fewer NHC Tour events, and I’ve gotten scores in four of them. Last year was a grind; this is a lot more fun.”

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Over the years, he’s learned a lot from his brother. “He’s a better handicapper than me,” Bill said. “He’s very focused on changes and how they affect the way a horse runs, especially ones who might not look competitive on the raw information. I’ve had better results since I’ve started giving a little more weight to this angle that Paul has had so much success with.”

That said, Bill sticking to his guns is the reason his ticket finished as well as it did last weekend. At one critical point on Day 2, he was torn between two runners, and Paul preferred the lower of the two prices. Bill asked himself a question: “Which one am I going to be more upset with myself if I leave it out and it wins?”

“That’s the one I have to play,” Bill said. “In this case, I liked the shorter price slightly better, but at that point, I felt like I had to play the longer-odds horse, and he ended up winning.”

As well as he’s done in contests this year, none of them have been the sporting highlight of Bill’s year. “I love the Golden State Warriors,” he said. “My wife and I went to nearly every playoff game. That was even better than this.”