03/16/2016 12:02PM

Fornatale: Two relative newcomers make splash


Ken Kasowicz had one of the best contest performances of 2016 on NHCQualify.com last weekend, besting a field of 277 players with a massive score. Kasowicz, 44, is a technology project manager at Accenture, a large management consulting services company.

His fandom started early, as he grew up with horses. “My parents owned Standardbred horses when we were growing up and we would spend most of the summer weekends driving to different county fairs and Chicago-area racetracks to watch them race,” he explained.

This is where Kasowicz learned all about the basics of racing, and also got a look behind the scenes, getting to see horses up close before and after training sessions, even doing some hotwalking. “It was a blast and I was hooked,” he said.

Kasowicz is a recent convert to contest play. Last year he played with Bill Rubenstein when he qualified for the National Handicapping Championship at an Arlington Park event. He just missed adding an entry in his own name in a couple of different ways in 2015. He was fifth in the August free contest which sent four to Vegas and barely missed qualifying on points by finishing in the top 150 of the NHC Tour. In the end, he fell around 150 points short.

There was no danger of his getting nosed out again on Saturday. Kasowicz's score of $196.30 meant he was clear of the cut line by more than $75. He made collections in eight races and went 3 for 3 in the Santa Anita turf races. “I approached Saturday’s event as I normally would any other event of this type, trying to find winners with an emphasis on prices where it made sense,” he said. “I also put all my picks in early and try not to change anything until the math says you have to.”

It makes sense that a player who adheres to fundamentally sound contest strategy would also emphasize fundamentals on the handicapping side. “I do not use anything I would deem real fancy or advanced when handicapping,” he said. “For the most part I just use a blend of the typical factors like speed, class, pace, and form.”

As great as his Saturday was, it was nearly even better. In the fourth event, he switched off the ultimate winner, Street Surrender, at the last moment. “After that I just shook my head at myself,” he said.

One of his basic operating principles is: first thought, best thought. “I try to abide by that but it isn’t always easy,” he said. “Luckily this time I was able to overcome that mistake for once!"

Michael Tomatz, 37, ran third in the same event. He is a supervisor in charge of a group of five franchised quick service restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. You’ll recognize his horseplayer origin story, though in his case, the older relative who helped indoctrinate him was his grandmother.

“When I was about 10 years old, she took me to what was Canterbury Downs at the time and she let make one $10 bet,” Tomatz said. Even then, he was a bit of a wiseguy. “I found a favorite who I thought couldn't win but I bet him to place and sure enough he finished second. I thought that I did pretty well with that.”

For most of the next two decades he was a once- or twice-a-year track visitor until last summer, when he decided to step up his game. Tomatz typically spends at least a few hours a week analyzing as many races as he can with the goal of getting better. “I decided that I was going to get seriously into handicapping races and since then I have been reading, watching, handicapping cards, playing tournaments, and soaking up everything I can like a sponge,” he explained.

Of the various tools he’s used to help him in pursuit, one stands out. “I am analytical in nature, so I am a big fan of DRF Formulator and I pull key facts from PPs like speed figures, fractional times, pace, recent form, trainer and jockey stats into Microsoft Excel and I color code the information,” he said.

His latest project within Formulator is to get more familiar with the “Notes” feature. “It’s a great tool for saving that information and having it there at a glance,” he said.

Despite his analytical nature, he doesn’t dismiss the importance of a good, old-fashioned gut check from time to time. “Even with all of the data, sometimes it's a feeling that pushes me one way or another,” he said.

The appeal for him is simple: There is simply no better challenge than the handicapping game, particularly in the context of contest play. “I am a problem solver by nature and I love the puzzle that handicapping races provides me,” he said. His early success has fed his interest. “I think when once in awhile when I get a race right, it hooks me in to work harder.”

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of an NHCQualify.com contest winner. It is Ken Kasowicz, not Ken Kasowich.