10/17/2013 2:51PM

Tournament titan: Kevin McFarland loving the live-money contests

Shigeki Kikkawa
Kevin McFarland thinks live-money tournaments are the best way to determine the elite gamblers in racing.

DEL MAR, Calif. – With his second straight win in a live-money handicapping tournament at Del Mar over the summer, Kevin McFarland earned a fees-paid berth into a similar tournament at the Breeders’ Cup next month at Santa Anita. It was the handicapper’s version of the popular Win and You’re In program, yet in a sport based on gambling, the benefits to bettors are far less known than the those of the Win and You’re In prep races for horses, an imbalance McFarland hopes can be righted.

His mission is born of one part ego – McFarland thinks live-money tournaments are the best ways to determine the elite gamblers in racing, and he wants to be thought of in that realm – and another part a love of racing, for he has a sincere appreciation for a sport he has followed since he was a child growing up in San Diego.

“The World Series of Poker has shown that it’s okay to be known as a gambler, and that you can profit from gambling,” McFarland said. “I’d like to see our sport grow, and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for it to grow through tournaments, just like poker did.”

McFarland, 37, was sitting in a restaurant that overlooks the far turn at Del Mar, the track where just weeks earlier he had turned a $6,000 stake into a prize package worth more than $54,000. Of the original buy-in, $1,000 went into an overall pot to be divided among the leading players based on gambling profit. McFarland turned his remaining $5,000 betting stake into $19,015, got $25,000 from the pool for finishing first overall, received a berth into the Breeders’ Cup tournament – which costs $10,000 to enter – and earned a spot in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January. Ka-ching.

In 2012, McFarland won the same tournament at Del Mar. He turned his $5,000 betting stake into $27,000 and received another $30,000 for finishing first, a $57,000 payoff for his $6,000 buy-in. Last year’s tournament, however, did not provide a berth to the Breeders’ Cup tournament. McFarland was thrilled to see Del Mar add the Win and You’re In feature to this year’s tournament and believes more tracks should be doing it more often.

“People who play in poker tournaments understand the value of being in Las Vegas to play,” he said. “You have to be there. There are a ton of people who will be betting $10,000 or more on the Breeders’ Cup, but only a percentage of them will actually be at Santa Anita to play in the tournament. That needs to change.

“It would be great if there were more cash tournaments, so high-stakes players can play against each other and you can find out who the best gamblers are on a series of days. You ask someone who their favorite jockeys, trainers, and horses are, and they have an answer. Let’s find out who the best gamblers are.”

At the Breeders’ Cup, the best gamblers the last two years were Patrick McGoey and Christian Hellmers, who finished one-two, in that order, both times. In a 138-person field last year at Santa Anita, McFarland was ninth. The entry fee was $10,000, and $2,500 went into the prize pool. McFarland turned his remaining $7,500 stake into $27,745 and got another $7,000 for his ninth-place finish.

McGoey’s haul was $255,341. He turned his $7,500 into $85,341 – propelled by a $7,000 win bet on Fort Larned in the BC Classic – and got another $170,000 for finishing first in the contest.

“Tracks promote food trucks, and T-shirts, and concerts – and there’s a place for that – but they should make gambling a much higher priority, and there are benefits to making it a much higher priority,” McFarland said. “If players have the incentive to play these tournaments ontrack, it would help ontrack handle. There are opportunities currently, but not enough. There should be a big tournament every big racing day.”

McFarland was hooked on the sport at an early age. His family was friends with John Mabee, who operated Golden Eagle Farm with his wife, Betty, and whose Best Pal won the inaugural Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 1991.

“I remember having to dress up for the Turf Club as young as I can remember, going with my family and the Mabees,” he said. “The Mabees were like pseudo-grandparents.”

By junior high, McFarland said he was bringing the Daily Racing Form with him to school every day, and during summers in high school, he was at Del Mar for live racing every day. It was there that he met Hellmers and Nisan Gabbay, friends and betting confidantes of McFarland to this day. McFarland and Hellmers had summer jobs at the track as waiters.

“Christian would make my bets for me because he looked older than me,” McFarland said.

Hellmers and Gabbay attended handicapping classes of Jim Quinn and Tom Brohamer and introduced McFarland to their methods. Their enthusiasm for handicapping and betting, and the intellect they showed toward the discipline, attracted other well-known handicapping practitioners like Gibson Carothers, the father of TVG’s Matt Carothers.

“We were like sponges, trying to learn from them,” McFarland said. “Gibson has been the constant all these years. I still talk to him two or three times a week. He helped me think in a contrarian style, to try to find things others aren’t seeing.”

McFarland, Hellmers, and Gabbay achieved their first brush with fame years ago when TVG profiled them and nicknamed them the “Pick Six Boys.” On a live broadcast, they played the pick six and hit 5 of 6 on a day no one swept the card. They won more than $14,000.

McFarland makes his own speed figures. He said that, plus extensive tape watching and use of DRF’s online Formulator product, are essential elements to his approach. He says he tries to be “patient and disciplined, picking my spots.”

Playing poker, too, demands discipline. The denouement, though, differs greatly.

“In poker, you turn your cards over and go, ‘I’m a winner,’ ” McFarland said. “When you see horses coming down the stretch, it’s a different feeling.”