Dennis Johnson of Chicago is proof that you don’t need to be an experienced veteran to compete on the handicapping contest circuit. A 46-year-old handyman and accomplished pool player, Johnson qualified for the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping tournament – the $2.8 million (estimated) Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas, Jan. 27-29, 2017, at Treasure Island – in his first attempt. Combining a barrage of short prices with one decisive longshot play, Johnson defeated a field of 102 others entrants in Saturday’s Kentucky Downs Turf Handicapping Challenge.

What was your strategy going into the Kentucky Downs contest and how did you manage to get the job done?

“We flew in from Chicago that morning. I got two entries and figured that one would be my ‘nice and steady’ ticket with what I really thought and the other one would be longshots so that if just one of those came in I wouldn’t be totally out of it. It just happened that I hit the first four races on the ‘nice and steady’ ticket. None of them paid more than $11 but I knew I was in contention.

“When the storms came (there was a 20-minute delay before Race 7 on the 10-race card) was when I decided I needed to make a move. I really liked Lots o’ Lex [in the $150,000 One Dreamer Stakes] and I knew she’d be on my longshot ticket but she was coming out of Chicago and had some big races in her past so I decided to use her on my good card. She went off as a 12-1 shot so after that I knew I was in it to at least get one of the three NHC spots.

“Going into the last race I went with the chalk figuring everyone else would be using longshots trying to win. I just snuck in there and won it by $3.50. It just worked out perfectly the way it came together.”

Lots o’ Lex was a total flop in the Beverly D. and had a nearly a one-year layoff before that. Why did you like her so much?

“She had some big races in her past and when I was out there she looked so good, physically, to my eye. I just had a great feeling about her.”

How did you first find the track and become a fan of horse racing?

“I grew up in Cicero, which is right by Hawthorne and Sportsman’s Park, and I lived two blocks away. Since I was five-years-old I’ve been hanging out around racetracks and I’ve had family members that owned horses. It was just a normal part of life.”

Why did you decide to make the Kentucky Downs contest your first NHC qualifier?

“Joe Kristufek is the track handicapper there and he’s a good friend. I went to high school with him so I was going to hang out with him and my brother-in-law. Kentucky Downs is so beautiful and I was very impressed with the atmosphere. I was supposed to go the weekend before but didn’t so when I learned about the contest I figured, well, it’s the days when you shouldn’t even be somewhere that you usually win something like that. And it didn’t seem like there were a lot of people playing so it seemed like the time to take a chance. I don’t know if it was meant to be or what but there’s a first time for everything, I guess.”

Joe is a very sharp handicapper and obviously follows Kentucky racing very closely. Were you able to consult with him much during the contest?

“What I did for most of the day was I would write down Joe’s picks, Kevin Cox’s picks, Byron King’s picks in the Daily Racing Form, and my own picks. So I’d have all four of those in front of me and would see if there were any common denominators and that was my starting point. But after that it was a bit of a combination of everything.”

What tools do you like to use in your handicapping?

“Well, there’s this skull that I found at Balmoral Park. We were probably 18-years-old and one of my friends had a house near there. We’d go for the whole weekend, playing cards, gambling. One Friday night we lost all our money and were leaving the track and I came across this little rodent skull in the parking lot. I picked it up and that night when we were playing cards I couldn’t lose. I took everyone’s money. Then the next day at the racetrack we were hitting trifectas and everything we bet. I still have it and Joe said I had to bring it to Kentucky Downs on Saturday.

“I’m going to Wrigley Field tonight for the Cubs game and I’ll have it with me. I feel like I’m for sure going to win in Vegas this year. I mean, I won my first tournament and now the Cubs are going to win the World Series. It’s got to happen. Let the skull be with you!”

If you could choose between winning the NHC for $800,000 or the Cubs winning the World Series this year, which one would you take?

“You know, just because I think the Cubs are going to win it in the next couple years anyway, I think I’d rather win in Vegas. Plus I’d get to win an Eclipse Award and put it in Joe’s face.”