11/09/2015 1:31PM

Fornatale: The Undertaker buries 'em


Coming into the weekend, Stephen “The Undertaker” Thompson sat in 26th place on the National Handicapping Championship Tour. He’d already earned the maximum of two qualifications for the NHC, with its expected $2.5 million purse. But Thompson had his sights set on finishing in the top 20 on the tour, which would be a spot in the money and make him eligible to compete in the contest within a contest at the NHC that offers an additional $25,000 in prize money.

Thompson, who has been a funeral director for more than 30 years, has finished in the top 20 on the tour three years running, but this is the first year that there is an additional prize for doing so.

Things started as slowly as possible for Thompson on Saturday on NHCQualify.com, as he missed in the first five contest events. But like his WWE namesake, he came roaring on the comeback, hitting consecutive cap horses in Churchill’s ninth race and Del Mar’s fourth race.

“I’d been waiting on Christie’s Ready ($69.20) since her last race,” he said of the first capper. “She never had a chance to run in her last race, and she was going to get a perfect setup in this race. She was sitting on go in here at a monster price.”

As for Professor Berns ($86.60), who won Del Mar’s fourth, Thompson described himself as “lucky” to have him, but he did have solid reasons for backing the horse.

“He was turning back from a mile and a quarter and was way too close to the pace last time,” he said. “His best race was when he was off the pace. He had two big works on the dirt since and seemed race-sharp on the turnback, and it was only his fourth start of the year.”

Brice Blanc rode Professor Berns to perfection, and in just two races, Thompson went from tied for last to the top of the leaderboard.

Going into the last race, Thompson used game theory to make his selection. Because everyone playing in the contest could see that he was double qualified, he figured other players wouldn’t bother gunning for him. Meanwhile, he really needed to finish first because of the 25 percent tour points bonus that winners receive.

“I figured the second-place guy would take the 3-2 shot, who looked the best, to hold his spot,” he said. “I was only ahead by $8 and change, and if he takes the chalk and I don’t, he wins, and I miss my goal.”

Thompson played the favorite, knowing that even place points likely would be enough to keep him in the top spot even if someone in the chasing pack hit a 4-1 winner. As it turned out, the favorite won, and Thompson widened his lead, finishing with $136.40.

“I made the right move, and it’s nice getting rewarded for two cap horses,” he said. “I stayed aggressive with four races to go after I hit both caps, and even though I didn’t cash, it let the people behind me know that I’m not trying to chalk out and that they don’t know what odds I’ll go for.”

Three players won seats to the NHC behind Thompson on Saturday: Jim Covello ($119.90), David Wilganowski  ($113.60), and Mark Danbom ($110.60). Covello had Christie’s Ready and three other winners: Little Nick V. ($17.80), I Spooked Out ($3.80), and Spelling Again ($8.60). Wilganowski’s path was similar as he added a different short price (Pancake, $4) to Little Nick V., Professor Berns, and Spelling Again.

Danbom’s contest wasn’t looking too good halfway through, as he’d only managed place points on Molly’s Honor ($9.80) in Christie’s Ready’s race. But he caught Professor Berns, Li’l Meatball ($13.80), and Spelling Again for four crucial points collections in a row. He needed points in the last race and went with Journey On ($4.60), who finished second. With that pick, he blocked unlucky fifth-place finisher Doug Draper, who missed qualifying by a mere $1.40.

Also last weekend, two players won their way into next weekend’s Del Mar live-bankroll contest. On Saturday, former NHC Tour winner Mark Streiff topped a field of 70 players with $112.90, good for a $4,000 Del Mar entry and $500 in travel. Streiff is quietly having a fantastic year on the tour, with a second at Santa Anita and a first at Del Mar. On Sunday, Brooks Schuler won the same prize with a score of $117.40 against 56 rivals.

Over on BCQualify.com on Sunday, Derek Lapikas won $1,000 in site credit to fund his upcoming contest play. Lapikas picked four winners, including cap horse Eagle Rock in the anchor leg, Del Mar’s fifth. Ronald Richardson was second in the credit builder, good for $500 in site credit.

For the full leaderboards, go to NHCQualify.com, DRFQualify.com, and BCQualify.com.