by Mike Henry

Stephen Albano has been a fan of horse racing since the days of Dr. Fager and Damascus in the late 1960s. His favorite horse was the star-crossed filly Ruffian, and he was at Belmont Park in 1977 when future Triple Crown winner Affirmed broke his maiden.

To put it in racetrack jargon, then, the Sayville, N.Y., resident definitely belonged in the Tampa Bay Downs “Live It Up Challenge” handicapping contest. But the player whose contest user name was “SpotterStevie” needed every bit of know-how and handicapping creativity to emerge on top after 31 days of spirited competition among more than 1,000 entrants.

Albano, who began the final day of the contest Sunday in fourth place and out of lifelines – meaning an out-of-the-money selection would end his chances – correctly selected seventh-race winner Mr Sheen to enable him to vault ahead of the competition.

The 3-year-old colt’s across-the-board payoffs of $18.20, $6.80 and $4.20 boosted Albano’s total bankroll to $277.70, $15.10 ahead of runner-up David Goodhand of Parrish, Fla.

By finishing first and second, both Albano and Goodhand qualified for the 19th annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s National Handicapping Championship (NHC), to be held Feb. 9-11 at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Albano also won $1,000, while Goodhand collected $500. Texas residents Matthew Ache and William Tennie each won $250 for most winners selected, with 12 each.

“I’ve always wanted to compete in the national championship, so this is very exciting,” said Albano, the director of admissions at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Two of my brothers live in south Florida, and about six years ago all six remaining brothers got together for a spring training trip and made it up to Tampa Bay Downs.

“I’ve always liked the racing there. The takeouts are good, the racing is competitive and they have some big 3-year-old races on the Kentucky Derby trail, and that’s what I’m tuned in to this time of year,” Albano said.

But knowledge and passion are only two factors that go into succeeding in a handicapping contest. On Feb. 26 – his wife Carol’s birthday – Albano found something to like about Coquivacoa, a 4-year-old filly from Mountaineer in West Virginia who won and paid $59, $24 and $8.40. “The next day was our grandson’s first birthday, so we left early (on the 26th) to go to Manhattan to celebrate both birthdays. I didn’t get to watch the race until 11 p.m.,” Albano said, unsure if he woke any of the neighbors.

Albano’s final close call came Saturday, when he picked first-time starter Waitingforaspark in the sixth race. Already without lifelines, he watched helplessly as the 9-1 shot broke poorly, finally breathing a sigh of relief when the 3-year-old filly showed enough of a spark to finish third.

While Albano needed a price play on Sunday’s final day, turning into “SpotterStevieSupreme” to dope out Mr Sheen, who had been idle since August, Goodhand was trying to hold on to the lead he held entering Sunday.

Flush with lifelines, he elected to sit out the seventh race and play the ninth, the $100,000 Florida Cup Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies, in which R Angel Katelyn was a heavy favorite.

Goodhand determined that if he played R Angel Katelyn and she finished out of the money, and a horse at odds of 5-1 or greater won, he might lose his chance at second place. So he played Yes I’ll Go, who finished third behind R Angel Katelyn, paying $2.80 in the show slot.

His strategy was vindicated when he learned both of his nearest pursuers had played Yes I’ll Go in an attempt to pass him. “I knew I was safe unless a 20-1 or 30-1 shot won the race and they had played it,” Goodhand said. “Once it comes down to the end of these contests, it’s not always about the horse – it’s handicapping the people.

“I’ve been trying to qualify for the NHC since the first one 18 years ago,” said Goodhand, who works for the National Gypsum Company in Gibsonton, Fla. “I missed by $2.10 one time, and I got knocked out once by a disqualification. A lot of people call me the best handicapper never to make it to Vegas, but we can cross that off the list now.”

Around the oval. In today’s feature event, Judy’s Chance rolled to her third consecutive victory in the sixth race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth starter allowance on the turf for fillies and mares 4-years-old-and-upward. The 4-year-old New Jersey-bred, who finished second by a head in her first start of the meeting on Dec. 9, won in gate-to-wire fashion under jockey Wilmer Garcia.

Now 4-for-9 lifetime, Judy’s Chance is owned by her breeder, Judy C. Sessa, and trained by Derek Ryan.

Trainer Bernell Rhone sent out two winners on today’s card. His 4-year-old gelding Empire Image, owned by Empire Racing, won the fifth race under jockey Martin Escobar. Empire Image was claimed from the race by trainer-owner Michael A. LeCesse.

Rhone also won the eighth race on the turf with Quality Indeed, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Lynda G. Lail and ridden by Dean Butler.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:45 p.m. Friday is also the first day of the Keeneland spring meeting, which Tampa Bay Downs will simulcast in its entirety. Friday’s feature race at the Lexington, Ky., track is the ninth, the Grade III, $150,000 Transylvania Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf event for 3-year-olds.

The 9-5 morning-line favorite is Oscar Performance, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November at Santa Anita. Among his challengers are the top three finishers in the Columbia Stakes on the turf on March 11 at Tampa Bay Downs: the Ian Wilkes-trained Sonic Boom, Profiteer from the barn of Claude “Shug” McGaughey III and Holiday Stone, trained by George Weaver.

Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the May 6-7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands weekend, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed, and May 3.

Otherwise, the track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.