11/09/2012 4:01PM

Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge leaves repeat runner-up still "thrilled"

Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned (right) beats Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Christian Hellmers was leading the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge going into the final race of the $10,000 buy-in handicapping tournament, but Patrick McGoey put $7,000 on the nose of the Classic winner to win more than a quarter-million dollars.

No, you haven’t stumbled on a recap of the 2011 betting challenge held at Churchill Downs. The exact same thing happened last weekend at the 2012 competition at Santa Anita, with McGoey going all-in and hitting the final race to top Hellmers, who held on for second each year.

Yes, Virginia, lightning does sometimes strike twice.

A few things were different. The betting challenge, which comes with an entry fee of $10,000 – $2,500 of which goes to the prize pool with the remaining $7,500 used as a live-betting bankroll – had a field of 138 players this year, up from 115 last year, with much of that coming from the increase from 25 to 43 in the number of players who earned their spots through satellite tournaments for as little as $100. That’s how McGoey, a 41-year-old commercial litigation lawyer from Matairie, La., got in last year, but this year he had to put up the $10,000 himself. He stayed, however, with the same game plan to play conservatively early and fire all-in late.

The horseplayers were the same, but the horses were different. It was Drosselmeyer who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year to put McGoey in the winner’s circle, while it was Fort Larned who won the Classic last weekend.

“On my flight out here, I told some other people from Louisiana that Fort Larned was my horse,” McGoey said. “When I got to the tourney, I told people I was going all-in on the final race again, but I didn’t tell them which horse I liked.

“I bet Fort Larned two races back in the Whitney [Aug. 4, at Saratoga] and was impressed with how he won. In his last race [the Woodward on Sept. 29, at Belmont], he was way out wide when the rail was where you wanted to be, so I knew I could forgive that loss. At 9-1, I thought I was getting great value, and it looked like that would be enough to get the tournament win, too.”

But the big difference is that McGoey almost wasn’t in position to pull off his miraculous feat.

Unlike last year, when he cashed more tickets early and dwindled down to around $7,000, he was at only $3,300 Saturday with two races to go. He decided to put $3,000 to win on Wise Dan, the 9-5 favorite in the BC Mile.

“I saved the other $300 in case Wise Dan lost and I needed to place some desperation trifectas,” McGoey said. “Fortunately, he won and I was able to go back to Plan A. If Wise Dan doesn’t win, you would be interviewing someone else this year.”

But Wise Dan did win, returning $8,400 to McGoey to put his bankroll at $8,700. He went with his patent-pending (I made that up, but he is a lawyer, so you never know) $7,000 win bet and also played some exactas and tris, including a $200 cold exacta with Fort Larned over Mucho Macho Man.

“When Fort Larned was leading early, I was yelling ‘Stop the race,’ ” McGoey said. “I was afraid Mike Smith [the jockey on Mucho Macho Man] was going to get up to beat me just like he got up to win for me last year.”

But Fort Larned held on and McGoey’s win bet grossed $72,800, while the exacta paid back $12,540 to give McGoey the winning bankroll at $85,341. Hellmers finished with $74,525, so it technically was Smith crossing the wire with Mucho Macho Man that clinched it for McGoey. The $170,000 first-place prize brought the two-time champ’s total haul to $255,341 (compared with last year, when he walked away with $270,600).

But this story is just as much about repeat runner-up Hellmers.

In his own words, he is a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Del Mar, Calif. He is the former director of U.S. business development for Betfair, the British online bet matchmaking company, and headed its $50 million purchase of TVG in 2009. He now has his own different kind of matchmaking website, thefirst10minutes.com (a dating site), and you’ll likely hear more about him as a reality-TV crew was following him all weekend for a proposed show on the G4 cable network.

Hellmers is very much into spirituality and also a vegan.

“While other guys were drinking beer, I was doing shots of blue-green algae to help keep the brain sharp,” he said.

There’s an old saying that “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” and if that’s true, He couldn’t have picked anyone better than Hellmers in dealing back-to-back defeats. Many men would be crushed by such trials and tribulations, but Hellmers was philosophical (in his own way).

“I feel like Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness. I ran two great races but just got caught by someone better on those particular days,” he said. “I’m thrilled to have been part of this great event the past two years, and I hope it grows.

“These tournaments remind me of my engineering finals at UCLA, trying to analyze everything that is going on. I bet $2,000 to win on Fort Larned, but it didn’t end up being enough. Anyone can say they would have done something different in hindsight, but when you’re holding tens of thousands of dollars that’s a lot harder to do. This contest is a game within a game within a game.”

Hellmers had three big winners – Hightail at 15-1 in the BC Juvenile Sprint, Zagora at 9-1 in the BC Filly and Mare Turf, and Little Mike at 17-1 in the BC Turf – to again give him the big lead going into the final race. With the $80,000 second-place prize, Hellmers cashed out for $154,525.

In addition, Hellmers’ girlfriend, Alicia Teresi, 27, of Solana Beach, Calif., finished in sixth place with total earnings of $51,655 from her $10,000 entry. The top six finishers also earned berths into the Daily Racing Form /National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship finals to be held Jan. 25-26 at the Treasure Island Resort-Casino in Las Vegas. Dustin Moore of Washington, Utah, was third; Duke Matties of Laguna Beach, Calif., was fourth; Wendy Long of Surrey, Canada, was fifth. Because Matties had already qualified, the sixth national championship spot goes to Alan Hoffman of San Gabriel, Calif.

They will all have their own tales to tell, and they can all say they were there when history repeated itself.