11/01/2017 10:20AM

Horse owner Bengson finds cheap path into WCH

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Horse owner Rick Bengson loves racing and has a new hobby he’s excited about: playing in handicapping contests.

Bengson, 55, who owns a software company and lives in San Diego, is enjoying a nice little stretch. He recently won his way into the World Championship of Handicapping via DRF Tournaments, and on Saturday, his 2-year-old colt Smokem, trained by Gary Sherlock, is the morning-line favorite for the Golden State Juvenile at Del Mar.

Bengson wasn’t always into racing. “I used to be a casual fan who’d go a couple of times a year,” he said, “but I’ve always been an avid sports fan, and at some point, my wife and I talked about getting involved on the ownership side, and one day we pulled the trigger.”

His wife, Dena, had a connection to racing, making the sales pitch to her an easy one. Her father, John Bates, was a jockey in Ohio when she was little. “She’s up for a gamble, too,” he said.

Once they decided to get involved, Bengson did what any self-respecting San Diegan looking to buy a horse would do: He asked his bartender for advice. Soon afterward, he got in touch with Doug O’Neill, and they hit it off. Over the past few years, he’s owned something like 60 horses in partnership. The best part is his nom de course: Bada Beng Racing.

Bengson likes gambling and had played in several poker tournaments, so as he got more involved in racing, horse-racing contests seemed like the next logical step. “I don’t like to get involved in new activities unless I study a lot,” he said, pointing out that he read all he could on poker and blackjack before competing in those games and decided to do the same for racing.

“I read all of Andy Beyer’s books and other books on racing and breeding to learn all I could about the game,” he said, “and when I decided to get involved in contests, I read ‘The Winning Contest Player.’ ”

Then, a couple of weeks ago, he decided to play in a $95 first-round contest for the WCH. “I was bored, and it was an [all-in contest], so that gave me a chance to walk around for a while,” he said.

He clicked with four bombs in a row and easily advanced to the Grade 1 WCH qualifier. He regretted not betting his winners with cash and decided he wouldn’t make that mistake again. On the day he qualified, he also backed his winners with real money. “I’m in for $95, and now I have a chance to win $250,000,” he said.

The money is only part of the appeal. “I enjoy watching the leaderboard,” he said, “watching my name go up it, and in the live contests the strategy is fun, though you can drive yourself nuts.”

Bengson points out that in his normal play, he’s reticent to change his picks or strategy, but in tournaments, that’s something you have to do frequently. He was shocked to see some players in the $580 Grade 1 WCH qualifier playing inefficiently at the end. “They were playing horses that gave them no possible way of winning,” he said. “You’ve got bets in; you’ve got to give yourself a chance.”

But at the same time, he realizes that inefficient play by others gives him an edge. Another part of his edge comes from the fact that contest play suits his natural style. “I’ve heard other players talk about how you have to adjust when it comes to contests,” he said, “how you have to play longer prices. But I’m always a guy who tries to convince myself to go for a price; if there isn’t one, I’ll go ahead and play chalk. Sometimes you can’t make a case for anything that isn’t obvious.”

He was asked to compare the thrill of winning a big contest to that of winning as an owner. “There’s nothing like being in the winner’s circle, that’s a buzz,” he said. “It’s also a buzz winning a tournament. I hope you can ask me that question again after the finals of the World Handicapping Championship.”