02/03/2017 3:28PM

Kovalesky plays those mind games

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Dan Kovalesky knows it’s all in his head.

Kovalesky, a 33-year old sales rep for a restaurant supply company understands that a large component of his success – he’s finished fifth twice in three years at the National Handicapping Championship – has to do not with his handicapping prowess alone, but also with his ability to manage his emotions.

“I try not to get too high or too low,” said the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident who grew up in Minnesota. “I think that’s a big part of having success in a multi-day tournament. You’re making so many plays and if you get hung up on play 3 that’s going to affect play 13.”

A sports-betting friend of Kovalesky’s crystallized the importance of the mental side of the game for him. After a bad beat in college basketball the friend said to him, “I’ve got to stop letting my emotions get so high and low based on the performance of a bunch of 18-year-old kids.”

“I took that advice to racing,” Kovalesky explained. “All I’m doing is making educated guesses about how well these groups of animals will run; I don’t own them, I don’t train them, so there’s no reason to get up in arms or down in the dumps depending on what happens on the track. I’ll have more bullets to fire if they lose.”

For Kovalesky, having a good mental attitude is tied to two critical and interrelated areas: preparation and discipline.

“I think I’m more prepared than some,” he said, “and because of that I can withstand some of the bumps and bruises and keep firing away.”

Some NHC participants treat the weekend in Vegas as a reward in itself. Not so for Kovalesky.

“My first drink was Sunday after the last race,” he said. “My focus is there. It’s a business trip for me. I have as much fun as I can; I’ll go to dinner with friends and do a little gambling, but I know the fine line of when to call it a night and go back to my room and study.”

It’s an open question as to what a player can do to improve his or her mental state when it comes to contest play. Some people just aren’t wired for serious gambling. “I think a lot of it has to do with your personality,” Kovaelsky said. “If you’re a hotheaded person it’s going to be tough not to get upset when things don’t go your way.”

Things went his way just fine on the contest’s opening day. He scored over $100 on Friday. His target score was $90 each day. He had a little hiccup early on day 2 but he quickly self-corrected. “On my first race Saturday, I played a shorter price than I normally would,” he said.

“I was feeling complacent after my good day 1. That horse [from the first race] ran horribly and that made me realize that it was against what got me there to play conservatively. I adjusted my mindset, got a price shortly after that, and was feeling confident."

That confidence translated to scores of $41.80, $18.80, $64, $21.60, and $6.80. He stood at $220 Saturday night and was in second place overall, which was where he remained heading to the final table Sunday night.

“My attitude was to try to hit them in the mouth, to play some prices to see if it was my year,” he said. “There were a few prices that looked too good to pass up on.”

Halfway through the final table, the eventual first- and second-place finishers, Ray Arsenaullt and Steve Wolfson Jr., had pulled away and Kovalesky’s game plan changed. “I liked logicals in the last few races and I realized I was playing for third money,” he said.

He ended up fifth overall, sneaking an extra $25,000 by playing a favorite in the last leg. “At first I was disappointed because I was hoping for fourth or better,” he said, “but looking back at a 650-entry field of players who all had to qualify I felt good, like maybe I was one of the better players there.”

Between his win in the 2016 Last Chance tournament and the two fifths, Kovalesky has netted over $120,000 at Treasure Island alone over the last three years.

Kovalesky’s horse racing journey started 15 years ago. “My first day at the track was free hot dog day at Canterbury Park,” he said. “Then Thursdays in college were dollar beer nights, and my friends and I would go. I ended up getting really into it.”

He also credits Steve Byk’s "At The Races" radio show with deepening his love and understanding of racing. “I’m in the car a lot for work and I listen every day,” he said. “That got me more into racing in general, hearing about the big races and my interest in the sport and in contests snowballed from there.”

He looks forward to playing in future big-money contests. As he explains, “I feel like I learn something new every time I play.”