12/09/2013 1:39PM

NHCQualify tournament: Covello earns NHC seat with strong finish


Most online contests allow players to change picks until right up near post time. But there is an alternate format, known in some circles as pick-and-pray, where all selections must be made ahead of time. Of course, making all or even just some of your picks well ahead of post time is always an option when you play on a website like NHCQualify.com. For Jim Covello, that’s a very good thing.

I asked Covello about Saturday’s NHCQualify contest, where he punched his ticket for Las Vegas.

“For whatever reason, I always do better in the better races,” Covello said. “So I had a good feeling about this past weekend because of all the stakes races, albeit some of them Claiming Crown stakes races. But it was better-quality racing.”

Things started slowly for Covello. Halfway through the contest, he was nowhere and he headed to church with his wife and kids. He put in his last three picks on the way out the door.

“I had no idea that I’d actually qualified for the NHC until I got home much later and saw that I’d hit all three of the last three races. I’d gotten very lucky, which is usually the case when you do well in these things.”

So not only did Covello take a pick-and-pray approach to the last three races, he did so quite literally.

“If I’d known I was going to qualify, I’d have put in a little more money in the basket,” he joked.

Covello is no stranger to racing. He’s been a fan for 15 years, ever since a fateful day at Saratoga with his wife.

“Going to your first horse race at Saratoga is like watching your first baseball game at Yankee Stadium,” Covello said. “I immediately fell in love with it.”

This is the fourth year Covello has qualified for the NHC via NHCQualify, which he likes for both the simplicity of the format and for how the contests fit into his busy life. How does he approach them?

“In the early races, I play as I go. I try very hard to avoid favorites. Early on, I’m looking for mid-priced horses and then I take it from there. If I’m ahead, I won’t try to reach as much; if I’m behind, I’ll take bigger stabs.”

I noticed he had picked Streaming in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet Stakes, a nice contest horse at 10-1.

“That was a little bit of a stab,” he said. “When I laid out my original picks, Nevada Kid [who won Gulfstream’s Claiming Crown Jewel at 5-1] and Big Medicine Man [who was second in a Hollywood Park maiden race at 4-1] were both among my top picks. I changed to Streaming in the Starlet because I knew at that point if I had any chance I was going to need a price horse.”

What did Covello like about her?

“In addition to using Daily Racing Form, I also use Thorograph, and Thorograph gave her a good chance,” he said. “But to be honest, at that point, I didn’t think it was going to matter too much.”

Covello pays careful attention to the 2-year-old filly division because he’s not just a horseplayer, he’s an owner. One of his horses, the excellent filly Testa Rossi, is one of Streaming’s peers. She won the Miss Grillo on Oct. 6 at Belmont and then ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. So it makes sense he has aptitude when it comes to 2-year-old fillies who run on turf and/or synthetic.

“I try to pay attention to them all,” Covello said. “I think that the more you know what’s going on at the different tracks, the better of a handicapper you are. With some luck, Testa Rossi could be running against any of those fillies at some point next year in a race like the Ashland or any of the big turf stakes for 3-year-olds.”

I asked him about his experiences as an owner. How did he become involved?

“It’s all my wife’s fault,” he said. “I didn’t follow horses when I was growing up. I played a lot of sports – badly. But after I got out of school, I was anxious to keep doing something competitive. And after that trip to Saratoga with her, I wanted to be a part of racing. I originally got involved with some of the partnership groups, including West Point Thoroughbreds. I still own a horse in partnership with them. And then I took it from there. Along the way, I learned all about all the things that can go wrong when you own a horse, and I still loved it, so I decided to get more involved.”

Is he happy with the experience?

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate on the ownership side,” he said. “I try to keep a really tight stable of eight to 10 horses at any given time. We try to focus on higher quality. Last year, on the second day of the NHC, one of our horses, Swift Warrior, won the stakes that night at Sam Houston. It was pretty great watching that from the Wynn sports book. I’ve also had Falling Sky, who won the Sam Davis this year and then ran in the [Kentucky] Derby. Much like with tournaments, plenty can go wrong, but the highs are very high.”