09/24/2010 3:58PM

Shared names and passion for NHC

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The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship has a $500,000 first-place prize, so the money is a huge incentive, but it’s also a chance for horseplayers to make a name for themselves.

But what happens when someone shares your name?

New Yorker John Conte won NHC X in January 2009 at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. Even before he left town that weekend, the phone started ringing off the hook at the home of Las Vegas resident John Conte.

“Some were calling to congratulate me, while others were asking for money,” said the latter Conte, who is originally from Bayside, N.Y., which added to the confusion since the NHC champ lives in Oceanside, N.Y. “I had one guy berate me because he wanted to borrow $10,000 and couldn’t understand why I would turn him down since he thought I just won half a million.”

He said that wasn’t the first time he had been mistaken for the champ. He said he used to train 30-40 standardbred horses and race them at Yonkers, Roosevelt, and Meadowlands during the 1980s and 1990s before moving to Vegas in 1996.

“When the other John Conte was writing his ‘Grass is Greener’ column in the New York Post, I had people all the time that assumed it was me, even though he was writing about Thoroughbreds,” he said.

But the confusion has been mutual, and I unwittingly contributed to one instance. In the spring of 2009, I was doing an article on the South Point race book here in Vegas for Horseplayer Magazine. I was in the office of race book manager Mary Jungers and she gave me a list of players that had qualified for their South Point Open contest that April. I saw John Conte’s name on the list, assumed it was the NHC champ, and mistakenly wrote that in my article. New York Conte called me shortly after the magazine was published.

“I wanted to find out what this tournament was all about that I qualified for,” he said. “I thought maybe the NHC champ got an exemption like they do in golf. I’m glad I called before booking a flight!”

Las Vegas Conte said he didn’t play many tournaments prior to his namesake winning the NHC, but he decided to get in the game after the mistaken identity.

“I kind of made it my goal last year to try and qualify for the NHC and win it so it would be back-to-back John Contes,” he said.
He didn’t make it last year, but this past April 24 he won the Station Casinos’ monthly finale at Sunset Station to earn a seat to NHC XII on Jan. 28-29, 2011, at the Red Rock. That caused some problems for those following the NHC as well as back East.

“I have been playing in tournaments since then and telling people I need to qualify this year, and they think I’m pulling their leg because they’ve seen my name on the list,” New York Conte said.

And then there’s the case of Shawn Turner of Middletown, Md., and Shawn Turner of San Diego, Calif.
Maryland Turner finished in the top five of the NHC Tour in 2009 and earned an exemption into the upcoming NHC, but he had familiar company on the leaderboard.

“Last year, I knew I was doing well on the Tour and went to check the standings to see if I should be entering more contests to improve my position,” California Turner said. “I was stunned to see my name in seventh place, but unfortunately it was the other Shawn Turner.”

The two also have been confused when playing in online tournaments. The NTRA tried to clear up matters by going with a middle initial, but they’re both Shawn P. Turner. So, instead they listed them by state.

“People saw the MD and asked if I was a doctor,” Maryland Turner said.

“That confuses me, too,” California Turner said, “since I cut my racing teeth at Pimlico so I still think of myself as being from Maryland.”

California Turner headed west as a young man and is a stock broker who owns part of 18 horses, with his best runner to date being Global Hunter. He met his namesake at last year’s NHC and will be joining him again this January as he won the Firecracker Handicapping Challenge on July 3-4. He didn’t even know of his victory until two days later because Global Hunter won the Grade 2, $150,000 American Handicap late on the July 4 card but took a misstep after the wire, injuring his front right ankle. Turner put in his last plays and left to be with co-owner Monte Pyle and trainer A.C. Avila to try and save their horse. That tourney had a $2,000 live bankroll and a $5,000 first-place prize. But that wasn’t his biggest score, and the $500,000 first-place prize at the NHC wouldn’t be either. On Jan. 2, 2009, he had the sole winning pick-six ticket at Santa Anita for $511,000.

“Believe me,” said Maryland Turner, “when he hit that pick six as well as another, I had people asking me for money. Fortunately, most people who know me know I don’t play those types of wagers. I bet dime supers. I stick to one race at a time, so I was able to dispel those rumors quickly.”

One situation that took a little more time to sort out was after a TwinSpires.com contest in 2008 when Maryland Turner won some money and it was deposited in California Turner’s account by mistake.

One last thing that the Contes and Turners have in common is a passion for the NHC, so any misunderstandings are tolerated.

“I hope the NHC continues to grow and there are a bunch of other Shawn Turners that get involved in the game and our great sport,” California Turner said. “I can live with that.”