By Jennie Rees for NTRA.com
LAS VEGAS — Danny Kovalesky had not bet on the races at Gulfstream Park all year until Wednesday, when he participated in the Treasure Island Last Chance contest to gain entry into the $2.77 million DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island on Vegas’ famed Strip.
But like a horse benefitting from time off, Kovalesky won the NHC’s final qualifying tournament in Secretariat fashion, finishing with a mythical bankroll of $148 after betting $2 to win and place on seven mandatory and six optional races, all at Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs.
“Gulfstream and I historically don’t get along,” said the 32-year-old restaurant and hotel supplies sales rep from Minneapolis. “This year I made a point to stick to Santa Anita and Tampa. There were only two tracks today, so it kind of forced my hand a bit. Maybe the time off, the freshening might have helped.”
Finishing second at $109.40 was C. R. Hom, with Rob Earle third at $107.40. The top nine finishers earned a spot in the NHC, which has more than 600 entries playing for the $800,000 top prize. But Kovalesky will be bringing some house money into the championship event, having earned $16,875 in prize money for finishing first in the qualifier.
“I got very lucky with a few early plays,” Kovalesky said. “I kind of had a game plan mapped out. That can go two ways: You can be really on or really off. All my price horses seemed to run. I didn’t really take any huge long shots; a couple of horses I really loved were 5-1 and they just happened to win. I won four straight races at Gulfstream, and that sure helps.”
Before this came from the horse’s mouth, word was that Kovalesky had hit seven straight races. “See, the myth grows,” he said with a laugh. “There was one (winner) I didn’t have in there, a favorite.
“My friend Steve was saying, ‘Everything you’re picking is magic right now.’ It’s amazing when you’re confident how things just work out for you and builds on each one. The last race just rolls into the next one. Horses jump out at you.”
Players can have up to two entries in the NHC, with Kovalesky first qualifying through TwinSpires.com.
“I play a lot better when I have two entries in contests,” Kovalesky said. “You see a lot of these guys, the top 50 guys last year, half of them or something like that had two entries. I was thinking, ‘If I want to really compete on this, I need two entries to comfortable and confident.’ So that’s what I did today.”
Kovalesky finished fifth in the NHC two years ago. “I kind of got my confidence that I can compete with some of the best tournament players. One those where you look back (and think) I should have had all these winners. But you learn from those kinds of things. You waver a bit in those situations and learn from those mistakes. Days like today come along every once in a while and you’ve got to learn to enjoy them.
“I’ve been playing really well the past few weeks. Hey, why can’t I get hot tomorrow and keep going from there?”
You can follow Kovalesky on Twitter (@triptothederby), where on his home page he says in reference to Minnesota, “centrally located so I can play in as many Handicapping tournaments as possible.”
Runner-up Hom had not previously qualified to the 17th NHC. Earle, a standardbred breeder, owner, trainer and driver in his native New Zealand, had qualified earlier through NHCQualify.com.