10/12/2016 11:25AM

O'Connor a natural for contest play


It didn’t take long for Thomas O’Connor, who became a National Handicap Championship qualifier for the third time last weekend on DRF Tournaments, to become a racing fan. “I have always loved horses and horse racing,” he said. “I was hooked from the start.”

O’Connor, a Queens, N.Y., native, started going to the track with his father, a New York City fireman, and his two brothers. “We traveled every summer up and down the East Coast, and would always stop at the Spa if we were lucky enough to be upstate,” he said.

These days, the 52-year Atlanta-based attorney has two children of his own, Jay and Alaina. He credits his wife, Maryanne, with getting him deeper into racing back in 2004. “We went to Smarty Jones’s Derby and Maryanne hit the straight trifecta,” he said. “That’s when the handicapping angle took hold.”

Husband and wife both love horses, but have very different physical reactions to them. “Maryanne grew up riding horses, mainly dressage, and she has a keen eye for conformation,” he said. “Horses love her.”

Ironically, O’Connor is allergic to horses. “I can only be in the barn for a few minutes before I need to leave,” he said, “but, man, I love being at the track. There’s nothing like it.”

O’Connor’s favorite tracks are Keeneland, Santa Anita, Saratoga, and Belmont.  He’s also traveled to tracks all over the world, however, including Hong Kong, France, and Chile. Several years ago he got involved on the ownership side of racing. “I have been pretty fortunate in the racing world,” he said. “We bought into several horses with Sovereign Stables, which was an unbelievable ride. Our first filly was Shining Image, who won a few overnight stakes and placed in the Indiana Oaks. We then bought a good portion of Negligee, who won the Alcibiades and went on to the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies.”

The final piece of O’Connor’s racing fandom fell into place when he discovered contest play four years ago. In particular, he’s a fan of the NHC. “It’s an unbelievable weekend,” he said of the contest world’s premier event, “Sixteen hours a day for three days doing nothing but handicapping with the best players in the world.  I have met some great players and even better people at that event. I have progressed each year, so I’m hoping the third time is the charm.”

As for his contest strategy, he tries to look at the card as a whole rather than just focusing on the hunt for cap horses. “I recognize that you need a few nice scores to even have a chance so I look for two or three races that have vulnerable favorites and longer shots worth taking a flyer on, particularly in maiden races,” he said.

Once he identifies those spots where he’s comfortable fishing for prices, he can be comfortable taking lower prices on horses he views as locks. “Even a 7-2 horse that I like will add about $13 to the total,” he explained. “I figure you need to win five or six races and place in another three to have a realistic chance of winning.”  

That 75 percent rate is the mark he aims for, “but you have to be comfortable taking some lower prices and even some chalk to make it work,” he added.

Contest play provides a unique thrill, even to a guy like O’Connor who knows what it’s like to win a Grade 1. “It is far different than traditional handicapping at the windows, and a completely different world than ownership, or even being a fan,” he said, “but it’s competition at the highest level in this game – both against myself and the best players around.  That rush is hard to beat.”