01/26/2009 12:00AM

Champion horseplayer had a clue


John Conte, aka Inspector Clouseau, celebrates his NHC victory.P

By Dave Tuley

LAS VEGAS - His foiled opponents called him Inspector Clouseau.

John Conte didn't mind because he won $500,000 and the Handicapper of the Year title by topping a field of 302 in the 10th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at the Red Rock Resort last weekend.

The 68-year-old Oceanside, N.Y., resident is open to jokes about the huge magnifying glass he uses to read the fine print in the Form. At the awards ceremony Saturday night, emcee Eric Wing said it was the size of everyone's dinner plate, and Conte played along, proudly showing off what he uses to search for clues in the fine print of the past performances.

But even though Conte hit a 22-1 longshot in the final race of the two-day tournament to leapfrog 10 other contestants, don't say he took a shot in the dark. He thought the horse had a legitimate shot to win.

In the final race of most contests, you'll see a lot of people playing the longest shot on the board in a desperate attempt to make up ground. It's to be expected. Meanwhile, the leaders are usually trying to maintain or improve their position. And that's what happened in NHC X. A scoring update had been posted an hour earlier, so even though a race at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate had been run since, the contenders had a good idea of where everyone stood.

Conte, a public handicapper whose "Grass is Greener" tip sheet has been available at New York tracks and OTBs the past two decades, and who had previously made picks in the New York Post and DRF , was playing in his third NHC. He was sitting in 11th place heading into the final race of the tournament, the 11th at Santa Anita, a $52,000 allowance race at a mile that had been taken off the turf.

Veteran tournament players dominated the leaderboard. Dennis Decauwer, 59, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., was in the lead, followed by Gwyn Houston, 57, of Fallston, Md., and Louis Licata, 49, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Conte considered going the safe route and trying to just improve his position but then figured others might play the same logical horse and stay ahead of him anyway.

"I've been an 'all-in' guy my whole life," Conte said. "All my life I've been paid weekly, very weakly. This was my chance at a big payday."

Conte said his resolve was strengthened when he peered through his looking glass and was able to make a logical case for one of the longshots in the race. He didn't like the No. 1 horse, Picassa, who was 50-1 and probably the one most NHC also-rans played, but settled on No. 10, Raiding Party.

"I looked at Raiding Party and decided to go for it," he said. "She ran on Polytrack at a cheap track in Britain and showed speed, and won two of her three starts. I don't know if everyone overlooked the horse or they didn't have the guts to play it.

"She probably didn't have a chance on turf, but the racing gods took it off the turf."

Raiding Party took to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride, breaking fifth from the gate but grabbing a 1 1/2-length lead after the opening quarter-mile. The favorite, Onebadkitty, tracked the pacesetter the whole way around the track but was never able to pass her - and Raiding Party won by that 1 1/2-length margin, paying $46.60 to win and $13 to place.

For contest purposes, wins payoffs are capped at $42, but the $55 in total points was enough to put Conte on top with $228 from his 30 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers over the two days.

Decauwer would have won if Onebadkitty had gotten past the winner, but he settled for the $150,000 second-place prize with a score of $224.50.

"I rarely play favorites but there were enough people close behind me that I felt I had to play it that way," said Decauwer, who is the managing partner of Black Diamond Racing. "If I was in his position, I would have played the 10, too."

Paul Shurman, 54, of Dix Hills, N.Y. was in 15th place going into the final race and used Raiding Party to finish third with a score of $219 to earn $100,000.

"I was surprised more people ahead of us didn't use that horse, so I was happy to finish third," he said.

Houston, who held the lead late Saturday afternoon after the penultimate mandatory race, held on for fourth place with a score of $213.80 to earn $45,000.

Licata, another handicapper who held the lead during the final day, finished fifth at $210.40 to win $30,000. Prizes were paid through 30th place.

The NHC is the culmination of a year-long series of qualifying tournaments at racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites in which contestants have to finish high enough to earn their way to the finals. As defending champion, Conte earns an automatic exemption to NHC XI, which will be held at the Red Rock on Jan. 29-30, 2010.

Also punching their tickets to NHC XI are the top five finishers on the 2008 NHC Tour: Sam Brooks, Ross Gallo, William A. Shurman (Paul's brother), James M. Henry, and Ricky Zimmer.

In addition, the Red Rock Shootout was held Sunday with Gary Johnson, 51, of Cleveland, and William Haliziw, 64, of Chicago finishing first and second to earn NHC XI berths.

Conte will be honored for his Handicapper of the Year title at the Eclipse Awards next January in Beverly Hills, Calif.

"My whole life has been a series of wouldas, couldas, shouldas," said Conte, who has been married 21 years to his wife, Arlene, and has six children and 10 grandchildren. "I finally made it to the winner's circle.

"If I win five more of these contests, I might be even."