10/11/2007 11:00PM

Bertolucci brothers avoid disaster from 60-1 bomb hit

EmailPlayers on the horse racing tournament circuit almost didn't have the Bertolucci brothers to kick around any more.

Robert Bertolucci, 43, of San Mateo, Calif., along with his 35-year-old brother, Mark, won the $107,360 first-place prize last weekend at the Championship at the Orleans here in Las Vegas. But it wasn't easy. And after Smokey Route, a 60-1 longshot, won the 10th race at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet, the last race in the contest, Mark was incensed, screaming for all within earshot to hear: "If we lose this tournament because of that [expletive deleted], I'm never playing another one of these things again."

But let's set the scene.

The Championship at the Orleans drew a field of 671 entries at $500 apiece for its three-day tourney last Thursday through Saturday. Contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day from a list of contest tracks. Full-track payoffs are earned on the first $20 with the remaining $80 capped at 20-1.

The Bertoluccis bolted from the gate with the top score of 6,606 points on Thursday to earn $3,500 in daily prize money. But then, in a clear example of their all-or-nothing handicapping style with an emphasis on longshots, their entry went 0 for 12 on Friday, but was still in fourth place overall. In further proof of the all-of-nothing strategy, two other of the family's entries went 0 for 36 for the tournament.

Two longshot winners on Saturday, both in the 2,300-point range, put the Bertoluccis back in control and they started cheering for short prices to come in the rest of the day to keep anyone from catching them. Things went pretty well according to plan, until the final race, a $25,000 maiden claimer.

I approached Robert Bertolucci as the horses were loading in the gate and asked where he thought he stood.

"We have to be in the lead," Bertolucci said. "We just need one of the favorites here to win. Just no bombs."

Bertolucci went on to explain that he and Mark had played the No. 1 horse, the 60-1 Rhonda Lee, on their ticket just in case anyone chasing them used that longshot. He said he didn't think anyone would use the two horses that were more than 100-1, and they went with Rhonda Lee over the other 60-1 shot, Smokey Route, feeling that other handicappers would opt for jockey Joseph Talamo over Joel Rosario.

As Rebecca's Baby and Forever Irish, at 8-1 and 6-1, set the early fractions in the six-furlong race, Robert said, "Neither of those can hurt us."

But as the horses went heading down the stretch, and the feed from Santa Anita dropped the saddle cloth numbers from the screen, Robert yelled, "Mark, who's that on the outside?" As the horses neared the wire and it was clear it was the No. 4. Mark said: "I can't believe it. It's that other 60-1. We're dead."

Adding to the Bertoluccis' pessimism was the fact a group of guys on the right side of the Mardi Gras Ballroom were high-fiving.

Mark Bertolucci started muttering some stuff in Italian that I didn't dare ask him to interpret. And that's when he threatened to give up tournaments if they didn't win.

Curiosity got the better of Robert Bertolucci and he went to the group of guys and was relieved they were too far back to win. But then word spread from other contestants that Greg Matties, playing in the overflow room across the hall, had the longshot and might have enough points to win.

Smokey Route returned $124.40 for a $2 win bet, so that was worth 2,924 contest points (because of the cap). All that was left was for the Orleans staff to tabulate the results.

When the Bertoluccis were told they had won, Mark fell to the floor. And it was closer than he may have realized. The Bertoluccis had finished with 10,538 points while Matties had 10,498, a difference of just $40 in parimutuel payoffs. If Smokey Route had paid just $4 more, they would have tied. Anything more and Matties would have passed them.

"Usually, in a tournament like this, you always make mistakes," Robert Bertolucci said. "But we really played a perfect tournament. There weren't any horses we left off our main ticket that won, and we made all the right decisions. But it's never easy for us. We should have coasted to the win, but what are the odds that the last race of the tournament that a 60-1 shot wins with a trainer and jockey who haven't won in years?"

Matties, a trainer, won $53,680 for finishing second, plus an additional $3,500 for Saturday's top score. John Conte finished third with a score of 10,288 to earn $26,840 to nose out William Gregorka, father of former Orleans race and sports director Robert Gregorka. William Gregorka finished at 10,230 to earn $16,775.

In all, the top 80 finishers cashed with the top 50 earning berths (worth $1,000 apiece) into the Horseplayer World Series on Jan. 24-26 at the Orleans.

* The chances for those trying to qualify for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Jan. 25-26 at the Red Rock Casino are coming down to the wire. There are no on-site signups for the NHC as only qualifiers at NTRA-sanctioned tourneys are allowed to play for the expected purse of between $900,000 and $1omillion. A full list of qualifying tournaments all over the country the rest of the year can be found at drf.com/nhc/2007/nhc.html. The monthly tournaments held at nhcqualify.com are undergoing a change. This month is the last to play in a $100 buy-in each Saturday, with the winners to play in an Oct. 27 tourney for NHC berths. Sixty percent of entry fees at nhcqualify.com go directly to the NHC purse. After this month, plans call for one-day tourneys at nhcqualify.com with higher entry fees. Details will be posted soon at the site.