11/06/2003 12:00AM

Smash hit debuts in Dover

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An exciting new contest made its debut on Breeders' Cup day with top tournament players from all over the country making their way to Dover Downs in Delaware for the first Ultimate Handicappers' Invitational. The inaugural event, created and hosted by longtime tournament player Ross Gallo, cost a hefty $2,000 to enter and involved real money wagering which resulted loads of excitement for players and loads of handle for Dover Downs.

The new tournament concept, which attracted 36 players from 13 states as far afield as California, Texas, and South Dakota, involved both straight and exotic wagering and replaced more traditional mythical money betting with real money betting to the tune of $136,000 in handle during the course of the eight-race contest.

The event was also a true invitational. Gallo worked from a list of about 200 major tournament winners and past qualifiers to the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship finals for his list of invitees. Despite Dover Downs' out-of-the-way location nearly 75 miles from the nearest major airport, the field of 36 tournament enthusiasts who accepted the invitation were enough to make the inaugural event a success.

Participants paid a $1,000 entry fee up front which all went towards prize money, and then began the contest with a $1,000 live bankroll that had to be bet on their choice of six of the eight Breeders' Cup races. The catch was that players had to bet at least half of their current existing bankrolls on each race they played. Every player began the contest with a $500 wager for their first play of the day, and then made subsequent bets according to how much money was in their bankrolls. Since exotic wagers (with the exception of multi-race bets like pick 3s for example) are included in the contest, no one is ever out of the running no matter how far back they might be in the standings.

"I wanted to create a new kind of contest and invite the best players from around to country to play, and hold it on racing's biggest day. My idea was for a tournament like no other with real money, a leaderboard, and big dollars," said Gallo. "We approached Dover Downs because they use United Tote, which was the only tote company that was able to write a program for our betting format. We sold them on the idea because we were able to promise them huge handle."

The contest's winner was Paul "Paulie Man" Messell of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who took home total earnings of over $31,000 including first prize of $21,600 and his contest-winning bankroll of $9,528. Messell, 55, hosts "At The Post," a Thoroughbred racing radio show that airs weekends on South Florida's WAXY 790 AM. Messell built his total with small exactas and trifectas involving Breeders' Cup winners Adoration, Six Perfections, and Islington among others.

"I spread around my bets, mostly keying with two horses in trifectas and exactas. It was a wild strategy for me, and I won it without ever hitting a race cold with my key horses," said Messell. It doesn't hurt to get off to a good start in this tournament, but one thing about this format is you're never safe because a guy who's dead with $12 left could hit a superfecta and still win it."

Messell did get off to a fast start by spreading around his bets and hitting a $4 exacta that yielded $953.60, and a $2 trifecta that banked $2,034.80 in the Distaff when Adoration topped Elloluv and Got Koko at 40-1 odds. Those tickets gave Messell a $3,188.40 total after the Distaff and gave him a huge advantage over the field, many of whom had lost $500 when heavy favorite Sightseek finished out of the money. Messell passed the Juvenile Fillies and upped his total to around $5,000 thanks to small exotic plays on Six Perfections in the Mile. After passing the Sprint and temporarily getting passed in first-place by Fred Cipriano of Boca Raton, Fla., Messell boosted his bankroll to $10,800 and took the lead back permanently after Islington keyed a $212.40 one-dollar exacta and a $1,589.50 one-dollar trifecta in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Messell finished with $9,528 which was more than enough to hold off Cipriano, who settled for second with a $8,161 bankroll. Including prize money of $7,200, Cipriano took home a total of more than $15,300 in earnings for his runner-up effort.

The tournament paid out to the top five spots, with third-place going to Brandon Cooney of Tampa, Fla. Cooney finished with $4,080 and earned $3,600 more in prize money. Kevin Baghdoian of Boca Raton rounded out an all-Floridian top-four with a $2,687 total which was good for prize money of $2,160. Texan Mike Mayo finished fifth with $1,615 which earned him $1,440 in prize money.

Gallo, who allowed himself to play in his own contest, finished in sixth-place with $761. "You didn't think I was going to miss this, did you?" Said Gallo.

Gallo, a three-time National Handicapping Championship qualifier who resides in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is the second member of his family to create a handicapping tournament. His older brother, J. Randy Gallo, annually hosts the popular Bettor Racing OTB Midwest Classic in South Dakota.

In all, Gallo's contest brought an estimated $200,000 in handle to Dover Downs throughout the weekend, including $136,000 in the main tournament, $26,000 in a warm-up tournament on Friday, and side pari-mutuel betting and other casino play by contest entrants and their guests. If Sightseek hadn't finished out of the money in the Distaff, scores and handle in the tournament surely would have been even higher.

Gallo also brought in a television production company to tape the contest and create a one-hour show similar to The Travel Channel's World Poker Tour to pitch cable networks.

"I believe we had the best group of people ever assembled for a tournament, no matter what the size, and I see UHI becoming larger and more popular as the years go on. Hopefully, we'll be a fixture on television as well," said Gallo.

In future editions, Gallo plans to expand his list of invitations and keep the contest growing each year. "One thing is sure," said Gallo. "The inaugural players that I'm dubbing 'The Original 36' will have invitations for life."