01/26/2009 1:00AM

New Yorker wins NHC with 22-1 shot

Harold Roth/Horsephotos
John Conte finished with a score of $228, based on making 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day of the two-day tournament.

LAS VEGAS - John Conte, 68, of Oceanside, N.Y., won the $500,000 first-place prize and title of Handicapper of the Year in the 10th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at the Red Rock Resort, which concluded Saturday.

Conte, whose Grass is Greener tout sheet is available at New York tracks and OTBs, was sitting in 11th place going into the final race of the two-day contest - the 11th at Santa Anita - and used Raiding Party, who paid $46.60 to win (capped at $42 for scoring purposes) and $13 to place. No one ahead of him used the horse, and Conte finished with a score of $228, based on making 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day of the two-day tournament, with eight races being mandatory and the other seven being player's choice.

Dennis Decauwer, 59, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the leader going into the final race, finished second with $221.50 to win $150,000. Paul Shurman, 54, of Dix Hills, N.Y., also used Raiding Party to leapfrog up to third place with a score of $219 and win $100,000.

Gwyn Houston, 57, of Fallston, Md., held the lead late Saturday afternoon and held on for fourth place with a score of $213.80 to earn $45,000. Another handicapper who held the lead during the final day, Louis Licata, 49, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, finished fifth at $210.40 to win $30,000. Prizes were paid through 30th place.

Santa Anita's 11th race, which was moved from the turf to the main track and had four scratches, was also the final mandatory race of the tournament, so everyone had to play it. Players had an idea of what their nearest competitors' scores were, even though a few races had been run since the last update.

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 looked at Raiding Party and decided to go for it," he said. "I've been an 'all-in' guy my whole life.

"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."

A field of 302 handicappers competed over the two-day tournament, the culmination of a year-long series of qualifying tournaments at racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites.

Conte will also 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."