04/14/2014 3:18PM

Fornatale: Wrestling executive scores pin with Danza

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Before he won Saturday’s NHCQualify.com contest, lifelong racing fan Basil DeVito had never managed to compete as an individual in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship – this despite having played in the event and having qualified for the first time last year. How is that possible?

DeVito explained: “Last year, I had business commitments, and I couldn’t attend. Back in the day, I used to go every year and hang around, and one time, Jerry O’Connell and George Karl and I were all on a celebrity team, when they used to have those. But next year will be my first time playing in it in the traditional sense.”

DeVito has worked in racing in the past, but his main job since 1985 has been working with Vince McMahon’s WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), where he holds the position of senior adviser of new business development.

“On a sabbatical from WWE, I was full time at the NTRA at the start for around a year,” DeVito said. “When racing was starting a league office, it was something I just had to be a part of; I couldn’t just watch.”

DeVito credits the “Horseplayers” television show with helping him refine his approach to contest play.

“I amended my style of play based on the show – nothing specific really, more of a mindset,” he said. His approach accounts for the way things can change as a contest goes along.

“I’ll look at a race and get it down to maybe three horses, and then I look at the odds and make a final decision,” DeVito said. “And after the first few races on Saturday, a couple of longshots had won, so that dictated that I go to the longest price of the horses I’d picked out in advance.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, given his recent success, DeVito is a real fan of “Horseplayers.”

“I think those producers did an excellent job,” DeVito said. This is no small compliment given DeVito’s background in television with the WWE.

“One of the reasons many of us fell in love with the racetrack was that our fathers took us when we were kids, and we were hooked on the experience,” DeVito said. “And ‘Horseplayers’ did a good job of conveying that excitement of being at the track, that camaraderie.”

Like any good wrestling feud, every story needs a bad guy. DeVito thinks Christian Hellmers played that role perfectly.

“Christian was the guy you loved to hate – doing the crystal thing, smelling his eucalyptus, always talking about karma,” DeVito said. “I’d have friends call me after watching the show and say, ‘What’s up with this guy with the tail?’ ”

Peter Rotondo Jr., also of the “Horseplayers” show, worked with DeVito years ago at the NTRA, and they’ve remained close friends. DeVito credits Rotondo with inspiring his win Saturday.

“Peter’s grandfather passed away last week at the age of 89,” DeVito said. “The last episode of ‘Horseplayers’ was dedicated to his memory. Saturday morning, I sent Peter an e-mail, ‘In honor of Whitey Rotondo, and in tribute to all the April birthdays in both our families’ – Peter’s father, Peter, my father, myself, my aunt, who just turned 100, we all had birthdays this week – ‘I’m going to show Christian some Italian karma. I’m going to win today.’ ”

And to make sure that prediction came through in style, DeVito tabbed a horse named after another April-born Italian – Tony Danza – to win the Arkansas Derby and secure the victory. “We really had the karma going, and we didn’t even have any eucalyptus!” DeVito said.

WWE is famous for its progressive approach to business, especially when it comes to technology. “Vince is an amazing guy,” DeVito said. “He’s always looking forward. Whether it was cable television in the early ’80s or pay-per-view in the mid-’80s, or the Internet in the ’90s, or the WWE Network now, every step of the way, the WWE has been at the head of the curve when it comes to the distribution of our intellectual property. That’s Vince’s leadership.”

Armed with his real-world experience and a master’s degree in sports management, DeVito sees lessons that racing can learn from the world of sports entertainment.

“In our case at the WWE, the clear lesson to me is that we have the luxury of coordination and control, and it’s safe to say that the racing industry would benefit greatly if there was more control and coordination toward a common goal,” he said.

DeVito sees a world in which such coordination could exist.

“You can’t tackle it all,” DeVito said. “But if the powers that be took the effort to be more collaborative at the very top, the sport’s presentation to the world could be a lot more organized in the manner in which content is distributed, both on television and online. If the people in the highest positions in the best corners of the industry did a better job coordinating racing’s content, everybody would stand to gain.”