05/12/2017 10:26AM

American Turf Stakes win twice as sweet for WCH qualifier Honaker


Last weekend, Eliot Honaker became one of the first five players to win a $5,000 entry for Daily Racing Form’s World Championship of Handicapping, the new $1 million, no-takeout handicapping contest. That’s the good news for him.

The better news is that he also was part of another Derby Day victory. Through Donegal Racing, Honaker owns part of Arklow, whose win in the American Turf Stakes was one of three races in which he collected points and helped to propel him to the WCH.

“I try to be objective in my contest selections,” Honaker said. “But as I kept looking at it, there was a voice in my head that said Arklow is a classic contest horse.”

Indeed, he was. Under the radar at 15-1, Arklow confirmed the promise he showed in his maiden win at Keeneland and held on to win by a length.

“All along, I was eager for him to get onto the turf, being by Arch,” Honaker said. “Brad Cox has done a great job with him, and I’m excited to see where we go from here.”

If there was one dark cloud for Honaker, it was that the Louisville, Ky., resident was watching from home instead of from under the twin spires.

“I felt a bit pathetic thinking, ‘Why didn’t we go again?’ ” he said, “but the weather looked terrible, and the plan was for us to go on Oaks Day, when we initially planned to have a different horse in. As it turned out, after they hit the wire, my wife had to tell me to quit screaming in the house.”

Honaker hadn’t initially planned on playing in the WCH qualifier. “I got a text from a friend reminding me about the contest,” he said. “I’d already done the handicapping, so I thought, ‘Why not also play my picks in the contest?’ ”

After hitting three winners in a row, including his own horse, he spent the last third of the contest playing defensively, protecting against longshots whom others might play to catch up to him. In the Derby, he faced a conundrum: He was alive to longshots in his own pick four but needed a shorter price to come in so he could hold his position in the qualifier.

“I didn’t know who to root for,” he said.

His eventual selection, Irap, didn’t do much, but Always Dreaming’s victory was good for contest purposes. There was movement on the leaderboard but not the seismic shake-up that might have occurred, and he was still in the safety zone to advance to the finals.

Then came the contest finale, the Fort Marcy Stakes at Belmont. Honaker had initially selected Jay Gatsby, but as the race approached, he realized that the right play was to switch his pick to a longer price, following the defensive strategy he’d used in the previous four races.

If Jay Gatsby didn’t do anything for his qualifying chances, a longer shot like Smooth Daddy might turn the leaderboard around and leave him outside looking in. But he didn’t get his pick changed in time and then watched Smooth Daddy win at 17-1.

“I was sure I’d lost,” he said, “but I kept hitting refresh, and when the final leaderboard came up, I had just held on for fifth.”

Honaker is no stranger to success on racing’s biggest days. Another of his Donegal investments is Keen Ice, who famously dealt American Pharoah a rare loss on Travers Day in 2015.

“That was my first partnership,” he said. “Owning horses has been a great experience and has really helped with my handicapping. It’s a chance to learn a lot about pedigrees, and I soak all that in.”

He’s very excited about being in the first class of qualifiers for the WCH. As a father of young children, the ability to play from home appeals to him. “I love traveling for contests when I can, but with this tournament, I can play from home, and that’s just easier on a family,” he said.

DRF Tournaments’s recent promotions also helped to get him into the game.

“I had taken advantage of DRF’s deposit bonus promotions in April, so I had enough money in my account to buy in for $580,” he said. “I definitely want to keep playing in feeders and qualifiers to see if I can get another seat or two, but it’s also great that the pressure is off and I know I have one seat already.”

If you want to join Honaker at the WCH, check out tournaments.drf.com for an assortment of options.