10/27/2016 12:38PM

Cettina the master of optional races

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When it comes to picking optional races, Roger Cettina has had as much success as anyone. Cettina has finished second twice at the National Handicapping Championship, and on each occasion, optional cap horses were a big part of his overall strategy.

This past weekend, he put this same skill set to use, earning a second NHC qualification for 2017 in a contest that used all optional races. Cettina, despite his obvious handicapping talent, generally only participates on the weekend.

“I’m a weekend warrior because I have no time during the week,” Cettina said, talking from his mobile phone from Grand Central Terminal on his way to work. “On Saturday, I’ll get up at 4:30 a.m., just like I do every day, crank up Formulator, and get to it.”

More than most tournament players, Cettina lets the races decide if he’s going to play. “If I see a cap horse I like, I’ll play,” he explained. “If I don’t see anything I like, I’ll skip it.”

The process of finding the right optionals to play begins with a thorough examination. “I go through every race and the first thing I’m looking for is big fields because big fields breed the possibility of a longshot,” he said.

Field size is only one component, of course. Next he goes through the past performances using Formulator, Racing Flow information -- which uploads into Formulator -- and sheet figures. “I go through everything, and if the races look competitive I’ll spend a lot more time.”

He identifies the favorite and then starts a series of queries relating to the chalk. “Is he really faster than the others? What kind of setups has he gotten? How does his running style fit today’s race?”

If a favorite looks too tough, that usually means he’ll pass. If he sees a field with a favorite to oppose, or even just a race with five or six different contenders, his interest is piqued. “The more contenders there are, the more chance a longshot will win,” he said.

The idea is that at least one of those contenders will typically end up going off at overlaid odds. “I’m looking for cappers, that’s what I do,” he said. “On Sunday I found three cappers out of 20 races. I hope day one at the NHC can be that good.”

There are times he will play a race even with a favorite he deems live, especially if he can find a big longshot he thinks might run second. “It’s not always about winning, sometimes you just want to find the best payoff,” he said. “I’ll take $20 to place rather than the $11 win-place combined.”

Last year at the NHC, his friend Frank Sorensen thought something was wrong with Cettina after he made his first optional play. He backed a 2-1 shot at Oaklawn who won. “You bet what?” Sorensen asked, “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“I thought the horse laid over the field,” Cettina said, “and it was important to me to get off to a good start. We had 11 optional plays to make that day. I had four or five races where I thought there would be cap opportunities, but I didn’t have 11.”

Cettina is known as a hard worker, even by the high standards of successful tournament players. For Sunday’s contest he handicapped 12 races thoroughly and that took about four hours. At the NHC, he gets in early and holes up in his room. “It’s a long three days. I throw out Golden Gate so I’m looking to narrow 60 races down to 25. I’ll look at those for hours and hours. I have food brought to my room and I’ll drink a little Scotch to get me to sleep.”

As a result, he ends up fully prepared. “I’ve always been a studier. I can’t function if I come in cold, that just doesn’t work for me,” he said. “Once the races start, I can’t track 60 races, so I make a list a short list and a bigger list and you cross them off as they happen.”

Cettina embodies many of the qualities that make for a successful tournament player. He’s creative, he works hard, and he sacrifices nothing in preparation. It would be no surprise at all to see him finish high on the leaderboard again in 2017.