09/21/2016 1:08PM

Love for game spurs tournament play

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Matthew Thomas and Matthew Sturtzel have something in common besides their first names. They are both longtime racing fans who have had their love of the game re-ignited by handicapping contests. They also are both headed to the National Handicapping Championship in January after securing berths on DRF Tournaments.

Thomas is a 41-year old financial analyst specializing in derivatives. “I can’t remember not being a fan of racing,” said the Stamford, Conn., resident whose narrative of becoming a fan follows a familiar trope. “My grandfathers loved this Sport of Kings during its golden age. My father learned how to handicap from them and passed that down to me.”

The tradition appears likely to continue as Thomas married well. “My wife’s family also has members who like the sport,” he continued, “so whether it’s been going to the track, watching NYRA race recap shows, looking at the entries in the New York Post over pancakes with my father or the annual family Kentucky Derby party, horse racing has just always been part of my family’s culture and I’m looking forward to passing that love down to future generations.”

Despite success in cash play, Thomas realized early on that tournaments were a different animal. “It didn’t take long to figure out, mostly through failure, that I needed to put together a different and expanded set of handicapping skills to be competitive in tournaments,” he said.

He relished the challenge. “I’m in my third full year of playing the tour now and it’s my main hobby,” he explained. “I like that low-entry qualifiers can give you opportunities for bigger scores later on, but what’s most important to me is that I get to follow racing a lot more.”

He plays feeders during the week that keep him much more connected to the sport. “I get more practice in and am a better handicapper because of these contests,” he said. “Why should racing only be important on the weekends?”

And the additional work he’s done has paid dividends when it comes to his cash play as well. “My Pick 4, 5, and 6 skills and successes are all due to tournament preparation,” he said.

Another fun aspect of his first NHC appearance is that he’ll be competing alongside a friend, Daniel DePonte, another recent NHC qualifier. “I’m godfather to his son,” said Thomas of his friend who he visited in Florida back in April. “We spent the morning handicapping and set out looking for a big score. Our tournament picks didn’t pan out, but about four races into the pick 6 we noticed we were still alive.”

They hit it, but it ended up one of the lower Pick 6s you’ll ever see. “We only made about $50 but we laughed all the way home,” he said. “Hitting the pick 6 with your best friend...priceless!"

Matt Strutzel owes a debt of gratitude to current NHC Tour leader Joe Johnson. Johnson won the NHCQ event outright, but he was already double-qualified and playing for Tour points only. As a result, Strutzel, a 35-year-old from Wheaton, Ill., will be heading to the NHC for just the second time.

Strutzel is an investment advisor with Raymond James and a family man. He and his wife, Rachel, have six kids, so he has to squeeze in his contest play around various work and familial obligations. He was 16 when his uncles first took him to Arlington. “It was one of those 'see it once and get hooked' type of moments,” he explained. “They had always talked horses around the family, but it wasn't until I saw racing in person when I fell in love -- the intensity of horse racing didn't translate on TV -- you had to be there to appreciate the speed and thrill.”

He didn’t follow much in college where he was too busy playing hockey but he picked the sport up again four years ago. “I started watching TVG and was a big fan of Gino Buccola, who made watching fun and entertaining,” he said.

Eventually he got a chance to play against his handicapping hero. “I was once invited on Gino's featured segment, the TVG Cage Match, and was one of only two players to beat Gino in a head-to-head win/place contest,” Strutzel said proudly .

He was very nervous on Day 1 at the NHC back in 2015 but eventually found his footing. “At the end of Day 2 I hit a 30-1 shot on a grass race at Tampa and while I didn’t make the Final 50, the momentum from that carried over to the final day,” he explained. “On Day 3 in the consolation bracket I placed second and brought home a check.”

He scored $97.00 in the consolation tournament where the winner had $97.20. “That $0.20 difference cost me an additional $2,500 and a picture with one of those big checks!” he lamented.

Strutzel didn’t try for the NHC last year but is thrilled to be headed back to Vegas. “I'm very selective in the tournaments I participate in,” he said. “If I can identify beatable favorites in multiple races, I'll invest the time to watch replays and study PPs.”

When he does decide to play, he does so with his family on his side. “I'm very blessed to have their support, and on the occasion when I have a few hours to dedicate towards a tournament, I really appreciate that time,” he said.