01/22/2014 3:22PM

NHC Tour winner Sumja cool despite bonus pressure


Former trainer Brent Sumja has taken the contest world by storm. He dominated the NHC Tour this year, winning five tournaments and having competitive finishes in many more, both online and in person.

“It’s been said many times, ‘You don’t choose the tour, the tour chooses you,’ ” Sumja said, “And you don’t really understand those words until it happens to you.”

How did the tour choose him?

“One day early in the year, I was having a fundraiser in my backyard for a friend of mine who has leukemia. Horsetourneys was having a pick-and-pray contest,” Sumja said. “I thought, ‘This is perfect. I can play in the contest, get back to raising money for my friend, and then later I’ll go and see how I did.’ I ended up winning, and my friend, Mark Maguire, encouraged me to give the tour a shot.”

Sumja, who primarily trained horses in Northern California from 1992 to 2004, amassed more tham $13 million in purse earnings. He learned the art of handicapping and betting  as a trainer and eventually gave up the training to focus on the handicapping full time.

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Sumja, 49, had a great run at the Surfside Race Place contests in July before taking the month of August off.

“I took my mom to Paris for her 75th birthday,” he said. “And I decided that when I came back in September, I’d take four months and give it everything I had.”

Success came earlier than anyone could have expected. In the span of a week, Sumja won a Derby Wars tournament online and won two more contests at Surfside.

“I accomplished my goal for four months in five days,” he said. “And at that point, I knew I had a pretty good chance to win the whole thing. I knew the competition was capable, so I kept on playing, even though I would have had a good chance even if I’d stopped then. It’s just not my personality to sit still.”

As a result of his efforts, Sumja won not only $90,000 on the tour itself but is playing for a $2 million bonus should he win the NHC.

“It sounds kind of funny, but I think the best thing I can do is just forget about it,” Sumja said. “When you’re doing your everyday wagering, playing the pick six or whatever, you always know there’s a chance you’re going to end up playing for big money. But you shouldn’t be thinking about the pressure of that when you’re sitting there doing your work. The money isn’t yours unless you win, so there’s no reason to worry about it.”

But with that much money at stake, surely there has to be some psychological ramifications.

“The $750,000 first prize is a lot of money anyway, no matter how you look at it,” Sumja said. “So, that added 1-in-250 chance I might make $2 million isn’t putting any added pressure on me at all going in. Now, if I get down to the final table, that might be a different story.”

Sumja has played in the NHC a few times, and he knows how to prepare himself for a tournament.

“I’ve been training myself for the past four months,” he said. “The first year I played in the NHC, I learned how important it is to not get tired, to not overstudy. It’s more important to be sitting there very fresh and able to make good, quick decisions than to have actually done a lot of extra work beforehand.”

The NHC has a new format this year, and Sumja will need to get one of his entries into the top 50 to have a shot at the bonus. He will not, however, change the way he plays in the hope of getting one of his entries into the finals.

“If I have a strategy to make it into the top 50, I’m not going to win,” he said. “I think the strategy from Day 1 has to be focused entirely on winning, and that would be the same even without the bonus. I would be happier at the end of two days to have zero than I would be to have $90 because at least I’ll know I was going for it.”

The prices Sumja is willing to play depend on the type of contest race.

“In the mandatories, you’ve got to come up big,” he said. “I believe you can just bet the horse you think is going to win. If you think a 5-2 is a cinch, you should probably play it.”

Sumja, more than most successful contest players, is willing to tolerate some amount of chalk.

“Normally, I’m willing to take a 4-1 shot if I think it’s worthwhile,” he said. “But that’s probably not going to work in the optional races at the NHC. If I like anything at all about a capper, I’m playing it at any point. That’s something I’ve learned.”

Sumja already has an idea of what his game plan will be.

“I know I’m going to need around $200 after the 30 races on the first two days,” he said. “How will I get there? I’m going to wait to play my optionals until later in the day, and then how I’ve done in the mandatories will inform what I can play in the optionals.”

Like a lot of good players, Sumja understands that the last races in any contest are different, and he plays them accordingly.

“You could actually put in all your picks on Day 1 and go to your room and start preparing for Day 2 if you wanted,” he said. “The leaderboard on Day 1 doesn’t mean anything. But once you get down to the end, obviously you have to make adjustments.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean he spends more time on those races.

“I always look at the last races of the contest, but I try not to look at them too much. I don’t want to get married to one opinion because I don’t know what I’ll need at that point. And it’s not so much just the last race, but the last 15 percent of the tournament.”

Sumja, like former NHC champ Michael Beychok, is a big believer in equine causes, and he donated $5,000 of his NHC Tour winnings to the Second Chance Ranch.

“I want to use this stage to promote the aftercare of Thoroughbreds,” he said. “They don’t have a retirement fund, like many of us do. I know some of the breeders, owners, and trainers are great people who look out for them. But I believe that as bettors, we have a responsibility. They give us so much joy. We should give something back.”