01/23/2006 12:00AM

Strategy shift takes World Series


Last year, Michael Ray of Las Vegas won the inaugural Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans with 3,278.60 in contest points, so this year that was the total that most participants were shooting for.

The format for the World Series has each contestant making 11 mythical $20 win and place wagers each day, with the first $2 credited at track odds and the remaining $18 capped at 19-1 to win and 9-1 to place.

After the first two days of this year's tournament and heading into the final day last Saturday, the leader, Ronnie Hopkins of Nicholasville, Ky., was right on pace with 2,116 points.

So, when Mark Clement, who had been in sixth place with 1,758 points entering Saturday, finished with a total of 2,691, he went to his room figuring he had no shot at the top prize.

A few hours later, however, he got a call from Randi Muniz, the race book manager at the Orleans, asking for more information because he was the champion and the winner of the $367,500 first prize after outlasting a field of 735.

"I told her she had to be joking," Clement said. "I figured there had to be a mistake. I just couldn't believe that low of a score would win it."

But it was true, and it started to sink in Sunday morning when Clement, a 64-year-old retired highway foreman from Williamsville, N.Y., was posing for pictures and being interviewed by reporters and on HorseRacing TV.

Clement is a regular tournament player who previously won the Ontario Championship at Fort Erie and was 29th in the Fall Classic at the Orleans in October to earn his free entry into the $1,000-fee World Series.

"I had to change my style of play from October, when I played all longshots," Clement said. Since the October tournament had a win-bet-only format and the World Series had win and place, Clement said he consulted the tournament's coordinator, Debbie Flagg, who, he said, told him, " 'It's a different animal.'

"You have to play more medium-size horses because with only 10 percent being full track odds" - as opposed to 20 percent in the October tourney - "you get penalized more for longshots," he said.

Clement changed his strategy, and 20 of his 33 contest plays finished first or second. His big winner on Saturday was Tropical Snow, who paid $26.80 to place in the sixth race at Gulfstream, and Sitcom, who paid $17.80 to win in the eighth at Gulfstream.

But when it came down to it, the horse who gave him the championship was Mananan McLir, the 5-2 favorite in the ninth and final race at Santa Anita. Mananan McLir finished second, paying $5.20 to place, or 52 contest points. But that was huge for Clement, as John Menegon of Montreal, Quebec, finished second with 2,681.60 points, just 9.40 behind Clement. Menegon collected $73,500 for second. Todd Faro of West Covina, Calif., was third with 2,383 points to earn $58,800, while Hopkins held on for fourth with 2,376 to collect $44,100.

Clement said he has been playing the horses since he was 16 (which he stressed was legal at the time) after going to Fort Erie for the first time and being awed by the beauty and grandeur of the sport.

"The great thing is you become a participant instead of just a spectator," he said.

He attended Canisius High School and Canisius College. While in college, he started working for the Amherst Highway Department and retired after 34 years at the age of 51.

"The Jesuit training helps in my handicapping. They teach you to question everything, so I attribute a lot of my analyzations to the Jesuits," he said, before joking that he might need to make a contribution to the school.

Clement said some of the money would also go to help rebuild a condo that was lost to Hurricane Ivan in September 2004.

But Clement said the main thing he is taking from his victory has nothing to do with the money.

"I beat a lot of good handicappers this week," he said. "The biggest thing is the recognition of your peers."

* Bob Lester of Reno, Nev., had Saturday's high score of 1,218.40 to win the Last Chance Get Even Pool and $7,350. The top 15 finishers - including Clement - earned at least $1,470 in the one-day mini-contest.

* On Sunday, the Orleans held a Beat the Champions contest, in which anyone could pay a $20 entry fee and take on the World Series participants. Using the first three races at Santa Anita, the ninth race at Aqueduct, and the 10th race at Gulfstream, George Smith of Boston compiled a bankroll of $114.50, to win the first prize of $9,540. In fact, the top three finishers were users of Ken Massa's HTR computer handicapping program, which put them on Whilstone, the 30-1 winner of Aqueduct's ninth race.

Two more qualify for national finals

After the conclusion of the World Series, many tournament players migrated to Bally's Las Vegas on Sunday for the next-to-last chance to qualify for this upcoming Friday and Saturday's Daily Racing Form/ National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship.

The Smart Money tournament required a $250 entry fee and $750 to purchase 15 $50 vouchers to be bet through the parimutuel system on the contest races.

Mickey Seagle of North Carolina built that $750 bankroll into a total of $3,199 (players got to keep all their cash winnings) to earn the first-place prize of $1,950, while Kelly Phillips of Germantown, Tenn., was second with final bankroll of $2,442.50 to earn an additional $1,170. But, more importantly, both qualified for the national championships.

Phillips, who won Gulfstream Park's Turf-Vivor tournament two years ago, is the daughter of tournament veteran Joe Hinson, who had already earned his spot in the championship.

On Wednesday, the Win a Place to the Big Show tournament, using the same format, will send the final three qualifiers to the championship.