02/24/2015 1:45PM

Fornatale: 'The Undertaker' doubles down in Saturday contests


Stephen Thompson’s fellow tournament players refer to him as “The Undertaker.” He doesn’t bare much resemblance to the WWE wrestler Mark Callaway, but he is just as respected and feared in the contest room as his namesake is in the locker room. Thompson doesn’t mind his nickname. “I have been an undertaker for 30 years,” he explains, “or as we say today outside the tournament world, a funeral director.”

Thompson, who won two tournaments this past Saturday, owns and operates Thompson Funeral Home in Lebanon, Pa., with his dad, John. His great-great-grandfather started the business in 1890, making him the fourth generation of his family in the business. His love of horse racing is also a family affair. The 51-year-old credits his parents and brother Tom for creating his immense passion for horse racing. His biggest score at the track came on a ticket he split with his brother. “Tom picked a 45-1 shot and asked with a minute to post if I liked him,” he said. “I took his word and picked a 30-1 to hook him with, and I took the whole pool with a $29,847.38 trifecta,and had the exacta paying $980 several times.”

In tournaments, Thompson seems poised to win a big one. He had a couple of notable second-place finishes last year. He was the runner up at the Players’ Challenge in Sioux Falls, S.D., and ran second to Daily Racing Form’s own Matt Bernier in the Fall Betting Challenge at Aqueduct. Bernier got up in the last contest race. “I got caught at the wire,” Thompson said, “but most importantly, I played a perfect tournament over two days with no mistakes. That’s hard to do.”

Perhaps Thompson’s most impressive accomplishment in a tournament happened in 2011 at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge at Churchill Downs. “I started day two with $32 and needed to make five $900 bets,” he said.  “I built my bank to $300, then hit Amazombie to win and rolled it into a $17,000 bankroll by day’s end.”

His run on Saturday was impressive. He dusted the field on NHCQualify.com and also finished first with a significantly lower total on DRFQualify.com . Thompson went into the day looking to play speed. “I planned it out that all may picks needed to be in the front pack of every race,” he said. “Fair Grouds, Gulfstream, Santa Anita are usually speed favoring on dirt and turf.”

His first big winner was Ekati’s Phaeton in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream. “I thought she was simply the fastest out of the gate and should clear,” he said. “She was training very sharp, had never run a bad race except on turf, was never worse than three lengths behind at any finish, was challenged and game last time, had three wins in four starts at [Gulfstream], and at 26-1, she was overlooked.”

In Fair Grounds’s Grade 3 Mineshaft, he backed Street Babe, who paid $42.80 to win. “He was a monster if you watch his maiden win: broke bad, was so far behind, and in a blink he circled the field in his first start,” he explained. “Next out in a short field he was on the lead. He obviously wasn’t getting the lead in here, but I thought he would sit behind the pace and get a good trip and it was only his third start. I liked the confidence his trainer showed in shipping from New York and jumping him in class.”

His third big price was $26.20 winner Chocolate Ride in the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap. “He has a great turf pedigree, and ran well in his last two starts at Fair Grounds,” Thompson said. “He won under wraps last time, and I thought he’d be forward placed or on lead. He was razor sharp and the trainer showed confidence moving up in class. He also had a better post Saturday after breaking from posts 10 and 11. Best of all, he was great value at 13-1.”

Thompson’s philosophy when multi-tabling contests – playing more than one at once – is simple. “It is hard playing two contests at same time,” he said, “but I like to use a lot of my strongest picks on each ticket and to split them in races where I’m weak so I have two shots. I will always take the stronger, longer selection in the tournament with the best prize.” 

The win on Saturday means that Thompson will be attending the National Handicapping Championship for the seventh time. He has a way to go to catch up with the other Undertaker’s streak of 21 straight Wrestlemania wins, but the smart money isn’t betting against him.