Anthony Laurino, winner of last Saturday’s $101,000 tourney, is no stranger to horse racing or handicapping. His family would make an annual trip each summer from their Hyde Park, N.Y. home to Saratoga, where Anthony quickly picked up on the joys of trying to solve the many handicapping puzzles each day. Before that, his father was such a regular at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y. OTB, that he would comfortably leave young Anthony in his umbrella stroller outside the front door with other regulars while he ran in to get his bets down.
For the longest time, though, Laurino really was a stranger to tournament play.
“In 2009, I played in one of those free NHC tourneys with 5,000 people and had no idea what I was doing,” said the 42-year-old from Clayton, N.C., who works as a District Manager for a retail bank. “I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m never doing this again!’”
So he went back to the regular parimutuel play he had enjoyed since his Siena College days until seeing an ad in 2016 for a contest at Laurel, which wasn’t too bad a drive from his home, 15 minutes outside Raleigh. Surprising even himself, Laurino came in 6th at Laurel.
“I didn’t realize how competitive I could be,” said the divorced father of 8-year-old son Luke, who he coaches in Little League baseball. “I couldn’t bet through an ADW at home in North Carolina, but I soon realized I could play contests, so I tried an NHC qualifier online and qualified by coming in second. When I got to the 2017 NHC, though, I was completely overwhelmed.”
While his results were poor, Laurino enjoyed getting to know some of the other players, including Michael Sweeney.
“He asked if I had ever played HorseTourneys, and I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Laurino recalled. I opened my HorseTourneys account on the last day of that NHC, and within a couple of months, I had hit for six or seven thousand. Now tournaments are pretty much all I play.”
When Laurino saw the March 31 $100,000 Guaranteed game posted on HorseTourneys, he knew he wanted to play. But he followed his normal course of trying to win his way in via a feeder.
“I’m very budget conscious,” he admitted. “A Saratoga qualifier for $164 is well within my budget, so I’ll buy in directly to something like that, rather than try to qualify for $38. With bigger cash games, though, I’m not going to shell out $700. I try to qualify for those.”
Laurino won his way in to the $101,000 game—the richest in HorseTourneys history—via a Gulfstream-only feeder six days prior to the main event. When the big day arrived, he approached the 15 contest races just like he usually does—he handicapped them in reverse chronological order.
“I know that some other players like to do this too, but I like to start with the last three or four races to know what I think will be happening at the end of a tournament.”
What Laurino thought would happen at the end is that 12-1 morning line shot Infuriated Gary would win the 9th at Santa Anita, the last contest race.
Early on, it didn’t look like the Santa Anita race would matter too much to Laurino. He blanked on his first three plays—and one of those was won by a longshot—but there were still 12 opportunities left.
A 16-1 winner in a small Aqueduct stakes that served as the fourth contest race got Laurino off the schneid and then some. In the next race, from Gulfstream, he liked Res Ipsa, who lost a close photo that Laurino described as “heartbreaking.” However, the $12.40 place payoff did zip him suddenly all the way up to 15th place. Things were looking up!
After the next six races, things were looking down. Laurino didn’t add a thing to his total in any of the six heats, and with now just four races left, he knew he would need a little magic.
“I knew I really liked Infuriated Gary in the last race,” said Laurino, “and I was hard pressed to find anyone who could beat Audible in the Florida Derby, but between the two of them, I figured I’d get a total of about $45, so I had to switch off the 10 horse that I had originally picked in the 7th at Santa Anita. He was 9-2, and I knew I needed more of a price. My alternate pick in the race was Lightning Dove, who was 25-1. Just in general, I hate to have a 25-1 shot as an alternate because it makes you feel stupid when they win. So I made the switch.”
Smart move. Lightning Dove won and provided a max-contest payoff of $64.00. With three races left, Laurino was in second place, just $21.40 behind the leader, Michael Gotkin.
Laurino struck out on the 8th at Santa Anita—a race that saw Howard Schultz move into a virtual tie for second, though Schultz held the tiebreaker advantage. Laurino’s fate would be determined by the first two races he had handicapped that morning—and whether others on or near the lead used the same horses.
In the Florida Derby, Audible was just 8-5, but Laurino stuck to his guns. “Sometimes you have to go with the most obvious winner because the margins are so small between players. I didn’t want to lose first place by 20 cents.”
Schultz also used Audible, and Gotkin had chipped up slightly as well, so Laurino was still tied for second—though really in third—but now $19.20 out of first.
Laurino was playing the contest from his father Joseph’s home in Wilmington, N.C., and—much as they probably did 25 or 30 years earlier at a picnic table in the Saratoga backyard—father and son studied and restudied the upcoming race together.
Dad pointed out various scenarios and horses that could get him the needed $19.20. He also pointed out a short-priced horse that might ensure a second-place finish. Anthony told his father that he had loved Infuriated Gary early that morning as a second-off-the-layoff, second-time starter, trained by Phil D’Amato, who figured to benefit from a contested early pace in front of him. Even better, Infuriated Gary was sitting at 13-1 in the kind of starter allowance that the public didn’t seem to know what to do with.
With fatherly wisdom, Joseph told Anthony that if Infuriated Gary was his first thought, he should probably stay with that. Anthony agreed, though he worried that Infuriated Gary was the kind of value-laden contest horse that those above him might have. And he was certain that plenty behind him would be on the horse.
When the race began, father and son were relieved to see they had a chance—neither Gotkin nor Schultz had selected Infuriated Gary. Then when the early fractions of the 6 ½-furlong race were posted at 21 4/5 and 45 1/5, Anthony allowed himself to get a little excited. The race was setting up as he had hoped.
The rest was delightful history. Infuriated Gary got up along the inside to win and pay $28.20/$11.20. Laurino had won the largest single prize in HorseTourneys history–$40,594.95—a haul undoubtedly made sweeter by the fact that Anthony could share the experience with his father, who had introduced him to the game.
It was also the biggest prize in Anthony Laurino history—far exceeding the approximate $14,000 he won through straight and horizontal bets when Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
“I love it,” he said. “For me, tournaments are better than parimutuel wagering from a budget perspective. You don’t have to shell out thousands to win a lot. You can win a lot at the track, but it’s harder.”
Whether playing contests or into parimutuel pools, Laurino utilizes what he calls a four-step approach, leaning heavily on step #1: Identifying race shape. From there, he moves on to step 2: Elimination.
“I’ll eliminate as many as possible based on race shape. If there are five horses that figure to be on or near the lead, I’ll throw them all out!”
Step 3 is to look for possible hidden, non-obvious improvement, perhaps via workouts, trainer intent or pedigree. Last but not least is value—weighing the above versus anticipated off odds.
“I try not to spend too much time trying to make sense of too many data points, “ he said. “In tournaments, you’re ultimately looking for the right longshots in the right races.”
With the big win under his belt, Laurino is now setting his sights on trying to qualify for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the Saratoga Challenge and The BIG One—while not losing sight of even higher priorities.
“The only live tourneys I’ve ever been to are still just Laurel, Keeneland—which I love—and the NHC. I’d like to get to more. Horse racing is my passion. But spending time with my son and coaching him in Little League means a great deal to me.”