11/16/2005 12:00AM

Body language proves invaluable

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Playing patiently and nailing her $40 best bet on the last race of the contest, Stephanie Davis, a 27-year-old office manager from Brooklyn, N.Y., dramatically defeated a room full of seasoned tournament players in the $82,000 Aqueduct Handicapping Challenge last Sunday.

Davis earned the tournament's $35,000 grand prize and will play in the $500,000 Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas on Jan. 27-28. She will join her cousin and mentor, Joe Scanio, who in April qualified for the NHC with a contest win at Arlington Park.

"It was surreal to say the least. It was like an out-of-body experience," Davis said of the Aqueduct win. "I came into the tournament just to have fun because I thought I would never win Aqueduct, it is just too tough. These are the best players in the country and this is the toughest competition. To win it is beyond my wildest dreams."

Scoring in the two-day tournament was based on nine mythical $20 win, place, or show wagers and one $40 "best bet" each day on races from Aqueduct, Calder, and Churchill Downs. Davis, a devout user of the Ragozin Sheets, built a bankroll of $1,314 to top the field of 205.

Davis rose into contention on Saturday by hitting three Aqueduct winners: Mister Hennessy ($17) in the fifth race, Fishy Advice ($8.80) in the sixth, and Cool Days ($7.80) in the ninth. She ended the day in fifth position.

On Sunday, Davis kept pace with the leaders, selecting Cavan Success ($9.80) in Aqueduct's fifth. She delivered the knockout blow in the final race of the tournament, the 10th at Churchill. With her $40 bet saved, she decided she would choose among three horses in the maiden claimer for 2-year-olds. Two of the horses had run before, and one was a first-time starter, Mark of Success, trained by Dallas Stewart. After watching Mark of Success warm up well on the track, she knew which horse to bet. Mark of Success paid $19.40. The $388 return vaulted her to the top of the leader board.

Davis's bankroll was good enough to beat out Cary Fotias, who led until the last race of the 61-race contest and finished with $1,246. Fotias, a member of the NTRA Players' Panel and author of the handicapping book "Blinkers Off," earned $10,000 for his second-place finish and also qualified for the DRF/NTRA Championship. Fotias, president of the Equiform data company, had not played in a handicapping tournament in six years.

Ken Kingsbury of Flushing, N.Y., a retired New York Police Department lieutenant, finished third with $1,058, just $1 better than fourth-place finisher Kenneth Greenvald. Kingsbury earned $8,500 and qualified for his second trip to the national finals. He finished 84th in 2002.

The Aqueduct tournament cost $400 to enter and drew horseplayers from 11 states. Prize money was returned to the top 20 players, with four-time NHC qualifiers Mike Labriola (seventh, $976) and Dave "The Maven" Gutfreund (13th, $832) earning checks but failing to qualify for a fifth shot at the title.

Maryland Jockey Club

William Wirth of Silver Spring, Md., qualified for his second trip to the DRF/NTRA Championship by beating 183 players in the Maryland Jockey Club Fall Champions Tournament at Laurel last Saturday.

Wirth turned his starting $200 real-money bankroll into $1,586.20 and took home the top prize of $6,700. He also got to keep his parimutuel winnings.

The one-day contest cost $100 to enter, and players had to make win, place, or show bets on at least 10 races.

Frank Sorenson of the Bronx, N.Y., finished a close second with $1,543 and earned $2,680 in prize money. Jody Bloomquist, from Bristow, Va., finished third with $1,333 and earned $1,340. Both Sorenson and Bloomquist will join Wirth on the second Maryland Jockey Club team at Bally's Las Vegas in January.

Publichandicapper.com

Robert Robitaille, from Norwood, Mass., prevailed on the last day of the six-month PublicHandicap-per.com contest with the help of 30-1 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Pleasant Home.

Robitaille earned a berth into the DRF/NTRA Championship and also won a trip to the 2006 Breeders' Cup. The runner-up, Ren Lohmiller of Mt. Laurel, N.J., and third-place finisher James Smith of Gainesboro, Tenn., also earned trips to the NHC.

Robitaille chose 14 winners from 105 selections in the tournament, which began with the Kentucky Oaks on May 6. His profit totaled $254.50 based on $2 win bets on all 105 of his picks in the stakes races designated by contest administrators. He hit several longshots during the year, including Taste of Paradise (26-1) in the Vosburgh and Riskaverse (35-1) in the Flower Bowl, both at Belmont.