03/17/2015 1:08PM

Fornatale: Where horseplayers reap the perks


I spend a lot of time talking with horseplayers about the benefits of playing in handicapping contests. Typically, I cite the camaraderie, the action, and the value that tournaments offer as the prime reasons to play in them. My recent trips to Gulfstream Park for the Raise Your Game contest and to the Great Race Place for the Santa Anita Betting Challenge have shown me another reason why you should have handicapping contests on your radar if you like to play the horses – they offer fans a VIP player experience without having to regularly put five figures through the windows.

At both Gulfstream and Santa Anita, the player accommodations were first rate. Last weekend at Santa Anita, players had the opportunity to sit in several areas that fans aren’t always able to access. As a reporter covering the event, I got to check out all of them. Several contestants got tables right on the window on the finish line in the FrontRunner restaurant, a prime spot with easy up-and-down access to the paddock area. There was time to leave the table with 15 minutes to post, get down to see the horses walk by, make a bet, and be back at the table with time to spare. Best of all, lunch and drinks were complimentary for players in the tournament.

The Eddie Logan Suite is my favorite spot of all at Santa Anita as it provides the best of both worlds. The room is partially inside, where you can enjoy the air conditioning, and there’s also a deck if you’re more into the fresh air. There are many comfortable places to sit, couches, chairs, and tables. There are snacks. There’s a bar and friendly cocktail service as well. It’s located on the first turn, so for the two-turn races, you can watch them come by for the first time, then turn your attention to one of the high-definition televisions for the backstretch and the finish.

As great as the views are from wherever you are when facing the track at Santa Anita, the view from the Logan suite is the best – an open-air view staring out across the track and up into the San Gabriel Mountains. The suite is normally reserved for high rollers but is free to use if you’re playing in the contest.

The Gallop Out, where the cocktail party was held for contestants Saturday night, is fantastic as well. Some of the contest players were hanging out up there during the day as well. It’s not as fancy as the Logan suite, but it’s a great spot for a larger party. It’s open air, on the first turn, with a fantastic view and a cool bar. The party Saturday featured good food and, most important of all, my two favorite words in the language: open bar.

The buy-in for the Santa Anita contest isn’t insignificant – the March contest cost $3,500, and the May tournament, held over Preakness weekend, will run $4,000. But there are two things to consider. One is that while $1,000 of that total goes to the prize pool, the remaining portion is live bankroll, meaning you get to keep whatever is left at the end of the tournament. Several players below the money line still made money this weekend on their bankrolls alone.

The other important concept to remember is that you can play without buying in if you qualify. Steven Wells won his way into the Santa Anita contest for $80 on DRFQualify.com. By Sunday night, he had won a $25,000 purse, a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat, a National Handicapping Championship seat, and left with a bankroll of more than $17,000. Qualifying contests for the May Santa Anita contest will be starting soon.

You know the track has hosted a great event when you hear multiple players who ended on zero talking about what a great time they had. That was the case last weekend. As important as owners, trainers, breeders, and jockeys are as well, that point remains that betting generates the money that fuels the game. Despite this, it’s rare that most players get to experience racing the way that many get treated in a place like Las Vegas, with comps and perks that show how much appreciation the host venues have for their business. Handicapping contests like the one last weekend give horseplayers the opportunity to be treated the way they deserve – like the VIPs that they are.