01/06/2015 11:16AM

Fornatale: Suarez getting hot at right time


Jose Suarez believes that working at the track makes him a better handicapper – but not for the reasons you might think.

“I never pay attention to what other people bet,” he said. “They bet like they have a money tree somewhere, even if they have very little knowledge.”

Suarez is a bartender at Mardi Gras Casino, formerly known as the Hollywood Dog Track, in Hallandale, Fla. Over the past two weekends, he has qualified for the National Handicapping Championship, the nation’s premier handicapping contest with a purse of over $2 million, and become the first player to secure two entries to the DRF/Gulfstream Park Raise Your Game Handicapping Challenge – a home game for him essentially since he lives in nearby Hollywood, Fla.

Understanding that there really is no such thing as “smart” money gives Suarez the confidence to play his longshots. “If some of these guys around the track hear that an owner likes his horse, everybody goes and lines up,” he explained. “Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they always get overbet.”

More than anything else, Suarez considers himself a value player. “I always try to think about the long run,” he said. “You’re going to lose a lot more than you win. If you’re going to win in the long run the odds have to be on your side.”

Suarez has been playing in contests for three years and made the NHC in 2014, qualifying in one of the free NTRA tournaments. After a rough first day, he made it up to 28th place, earning a place in the Final 50. He ended up 42nd overall – in the money – and was buoyed by the result. “For me, just getting to the NHC was an accomplishment in and of itself,” he said.

Despite that encouraging finish, 2014 was a year of frustration for Suarez, at least in terms of qualifying for the NHC, “I played in about 10 contests, but didn’t make it,” he said, “I almost qualified on Belmont day, but I needed Medal Count to finish second instead of third.”

But 2015 started off great: In the first of the three Last Chance qualifiers happening this month, Suarez got the job done, playing two cap horses in both the NHCQualify.com contest and the DRFQualify.com contest. Suarez explained his approach, “I had two horses who were not so obvious and I figured if they won, I’d be in contention, so I played the same horses on both tickets.

The first horse was Noble Prince, who Suarez had played before, on a day when speed wasn’t holding up at Gulfstream. “I look for what I call pace relief,” said Suarez, “A lot of times handicappers talk about class relief, but I find these days sometimes that can be hard to find with all these multiple condition races. So I look for horses that I think can clear the field and that’s what Noble Prince did.”

The other cap horse was Athens at Santa Anita. The angle here was a simple one – value. “A lot of people think that a jockey or trainer is going to get you the prize, but it’s the horse,” explained Suarez, “Had he been ridden by Bejarano and trained by John Sadler, I think he would have been 5 or 6 to 1.”

Instead, Athens was 30-1, and when he crossed the wire first, Suarez was going back to Vegas. He feels more prepared for this year. “I know what to expect now,” he said, “The way I play tournaments now is that I know that I need a certain score and that’s what I’m going to aim for. I’ll try to triple my bankroll at the NHC. I’m not going to worry about where I am on the leaderboard.”

He’ll also look to stick to his guns, “It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” he said, “I’m going to keep it simple and play the horses on my list. I’m not going to second guess myself. If I blank out, I blank out – I’ll try again next year. But if I’m right, I get the gold.”