03/03/2017 1:27PM

Racing bug took a big bite out of Scharnowske

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Five years ago, Ryan Scharnowske didn’t know a thing about horse racing. But he did like to gamble. He’d take trips from his home base in Noblesville, Ind., out to Las Vegas on a regular basis with friends. At one point, in their undying quest for action, they looked up at the TV in the sports book and saw horses racing.

“Knowing absolutely nothing. I decided to give it a try,” said the now 35-year-old, “so I bet 10 dollars on the three horse.”

That bet wasn’t a winner, but a seed was planted – a seed that would eventually grow into a $150,000 score at this year’s National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. How did Scharnowske go from betting blind numbers to winning six figures? It was a process.

Another one of his friends recruited him for a road trip to the Kentucky Derby. The friend was looking to scratch the item off his bucket list and needed a running buddy. Was it the allure of the twin spires and one of the best cards of the year that got racing’s hook stuck in Scharnowske? No.

“It was cold and rainy and I wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he said.

Still, something stuck with him about the experience, and he continued on a path to learning about the sport, reading everything he could online and in print. The problem was that there was too much information and he didn’t know how to process it all. At that point, when he’d look at a nine-horse race, he’d end up liking seven of the runners.

He had some success playing in cash games. One year on the Florida Derby undercard he hit a tri for $10,000. “After that, I thought, ‘Okay, I love horse racing,' ” he said.

But over the next few weeks he lost a chunk of that money back and realized he still had a lot to learn. He didn’t have anyone in his family or group of friends who was into racing so he decided to go an unusual route in looking for a mentor.

One of the books he had read was "The Winning Contest Player," which featured an interview with contest veteran Roger Cettina. Somewhat randomly, Scharnowske found him on a social media site and sent him a note.

“I’m sure he thought, ‘Who the hell is this kid trying to catfish me,’ ” Scharnowske joked, “but he’s such a nice guy he agreed to answer a bunch of my questions.”

Scharnowske’s main concern was how to narrow down all the available information into relevant bites that could be easily digested. Cettina’s advice was to start with the basics and branch out from there, incorporating new ideas that worked and ignoring the ones that didn’t. “He got me going on Formulator and started giving me a path to narrow down how to do my research, showed me what was important to look at, and how to use the various tools,” Scharnowske said.

A big part of Cettina’s advice was to get more involved in contest play. “He pointed out these low-money feeders that were available and told me they were a great way to learn, control costs, and get action. In tournaments you can play for a whole day and even if you don’t do well, your investment for the day might be $15 instead of $500,” he said.

Scharnowske took to contests like a duck to water. “I don’t know that there’s a weekend in the last three years that’s gone by without my playing in one,” he said. “They help to stay involved, and I get sucked into playing cash every weekend, too.”

The friendship between Scharnowske and Cettina continued to grow. Scharnowske has met many other contest players along his journey and he couldn’t be more impressed with them as a group. He’s gone from knowing no one to having many friends. “Everyone I’ve met has been awesome,” he said, “and the more people I meet, the more that keeps me involved and the more I learn.”

Scharnowske is a partner in Cettina’s Skyscraper racing group as well. “Owning even small shares in horses has added another dimension to handicapping,” he said. “Having some skin in the game you can see what’s happening in the past performances in a different light, and have a sense of what different trainer angles really mean.”

As for the future, it’s bright as can be. Scharnowske will be among the players competing next weekend at the Ultimate Betting Challenge, courtesy of a seat he won on DRF Tournaments. He hopes to win, among other things, a return trip to Las Vegas.

“I’m a lifer,” Schwarnoske said. “I plan to play until I can’t play anymore.”