05/29/2014 2:37PM

Mother and son share love of handicapping


The family that plays together, stays together. That’s how it was for Jacqueline Sukanick and her son Brent Sumja in last weekend’s NHCQualify.com contest. Sukanick finished first with a little assist from Sumja, the former trainer and 2013 National Handicapping Championship Tour champion, who finished 14th overall.

In past years, Sukanick has qualified twice for the NHC, but in both instances, it was Sumja who was doing the work. This year, she wanted to try something different.

“Following along with my son for 20-plus years at the track and on TV, I have always enjoyed picking horses for fun with him,” Sukanick said. “Listening to him talk about racing all these years, I have quietly learned a lot. I wanted to get more involved and take advantage of the fact that I have a great teacher.”

Saturday’s contest was the first time they really played together, in the sense that Sukanick was picking all of her own horses. Sumja was very comfortable with that.

“I did not want to mess with her ideas,” Sumja said. “Just because I have more experience doesn’t mean she can’t do better than me over a 12-race contest. She knows what she’s doing.”

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The day started off slowly for mother and son, but the prices were all pretty low and nobody else was running away with the tournament. Then Sumja offered his mom a piece of valuable advice. Around the sixth race of the contest, she really liked a horse at Monmouth named All Tied Up, but she was concerned because the price was very short. “I told her, ‘No one’s gotten away yet. There are seven races to go. You can use any price you want, just pick the winner.’ And when I told her that, it was almost like a light went off.”

Sukanick caught fire. All Tied Up won and paid $5.00, and then her next four selections also hit the wire first: Riposte ($7.20), Frost Jordan ($15.20), Nikki’s Sandcastle ($16.40), and Elusive Cowgirl ($11.00).

The choice to use Nikki’s Sandcastle was particularly interesting. Initially, the 7-year old chestnut gelding was the second choice for both Sukanick and Sumja. But Sumja had an idea.

“In online contests, it drives people crazy how often their alternate pick wins,” Sumja said. “In 35 years of playing horses, I’ve noticed that when I love, love, love a horse, I don’t think I do too well. But when I like a horse but am not overconfident, those come out a lot better. I had told her that earlier, and when she saw we both had Nikki’s Sandcastle as our second choice, she decided to play that one.”

Meanwhile, Sumja had a few of the early chalky winners, plus Riposte and Elusive Cowgirl. So now mother was in first place and son was in contention as well. “She was so excited,” Sumja said. “She took a picture of the leader board and sent it to her sister and my sister.”

For the last two races they coordinated their play. They still picked their own horses but they used the tote board to help decide which pick would go on which ticket. As Sumja explained, “I am 100 percent guiding the math of the contest. And at that point, I knew we had to separate. Because more than anything, I wanted to make sure we got one of those tickets in.”

They both missed the winner in the penultimate race, setting up a complicated scenario heading into the anchor leg. “It was one of the most intriguing mathematical last races I’ve ever been involved in because the people who were on the bubble were dead tied and the top two were pretty far ahead,” Sumja said. “So I went through and tried to figure out who everybody in front of me was going to play.”

Sumja really liked a horse in the last race, Fire With Fire. “It had a sheet pattern that I look for, and the pace in the last race made the number not so good,” Sumja said. “But I knew it was very strong.”

Initially Sumja was going to play Fire With Fire, whose 4-1 price wasn’t enough to challenge her position, and Sukanick was going to play a higher-odds horse, but as Fire With Fire’s odds drifted up to 7-1, Sumja strongly recommended that Sukanick play Fire With Fire, who was now a threat to her. He considered “being a greedy pig” and playing Fire With Fire on both tickets but after putting all the energy into to the tournament and seeing his mom’s excitement when things were going well, he decided to be conservative and to play her original horse on his ticket to make sure they had the best chance for one of them to qualify for Las Vegas.

Sukanick explained what happened next. “We sat in the living room cheering on Fire With Fire, who won the race in a very close, thrilling finish. Brent was jumping around the living room yelling, ‘You won, Mom! You actually won the whole contest!’
While I still feel as though it would not have happened without his guidance, I am really having fun understanding the handicapping process. Being able to share this as a family is very rewarding.”