by Mike Henry

Like most horse racing handicappers, Steve Tucker and Henry Walthert have faced the question of “how did you pick that horse?” countless times.

After finishing 1-2 in the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge Handicapping Contest,” it’s one they don’t mind answering.

Even though Tucker was in third place entering Friday’s final day of the online contest conducted through Tampa Bay Downs, the high school biology teacher from Hillsborough, N.J., decided a hunch play was too strong to ignore in the fourth race on the turf.

“My college roommate at Rutgers University was named Skip, so I decided to play Skipperini,” Tucker said of the 2-year-old gelding who was 8-1 on the morning line. “Whether you’re doing the stock market or playing the horses or gambling on sports, there are so many different angles you can take.”

Walthert, a retired association executive from Ottawa, Canada, had a more logical reason to select Skipperini in the free online contest: He was in 18th place entering the last day and needed to gain lots of ground to finish first or second and collect a cash prize. “The guys in front of me were probably going to play the favorite, so I wouldn’t be able to make a big enough jump otherwise,” he said.

By the time the race started, Skipperini’s odds had climbed to 19-1 – the longest shot in the race – and Tucker and Walthert seemed to be grasping at straws. But when Skipperini and jockey Antonio Gallardo rallied for the victory, their two big contest backers collected $63.40 on their mythical $2 across-the-board wagers – enough to defeat more than 1,300 entrants.

At the conclusion of the contest, Tucker sported a bankroll of $247.60 and Walthert stood at $223.20. Tucker took home first-place money of $1,000 and Walthert earned $500. In an interesting twist, Skipperini had won his previous start two weeks earlier, breaking his maiden as a 2-1 favorite.

“It’s an exhilarating feeling,” said Tucker, who won $5,000 playing an online handicapping event through Remington Park in Oklahoma several years ago. “I’ve been following horse racing for 20 years, and to come out on top is really something. It’s humbling because there are a lot of people who know more than I do.”

Skipperini wasn’t the only hunch horse to help Tucker win. He played Bens Malice on Dec. 10 because his brother’s name is Ben, and the 2-year-old gelding won at odds of 27-1 while returning $82 in mythical contest winnings.

Walthert, reached Monday during a ski vacation at Sommet Edelweiss north of Ottawa, was already having a great time playing the contest when Dame Fortune smiled on him Friday. “It’s always a challenge to pick winners, and when you’re able to, it’s rewarding,” he said. “It makes you look forward to the next race. It’s fun to follow along and see how you’re doing.”

Walthert’s general strategy through the contest was to look for hot jockeys and trainers connected to horses with odds he felt would reap enough profit to climb in the standings. “I tried not to go with the favorites,” he said.

While Walthert and his wife Monique have visited Tampa Bay Downs, Tucker and wife Diane have not. The Festivus champion says that is likely to change.

“I’m thinking about (retiring) next year, and I have a couple of buddies who are retired in Florida,” Tucker said. “I really hope to get to Tampa Bay Downs. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been there says it’s a beautiful place.”

Around the oval. Leading trainer Gerald Bennett combined with jockey Fernando De La Cruz for two victories today. They captured the second race with Peaceful Way, a 3-year-old filly owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables and James Welsh. The Bennett-De La Cruz duo also won the fifth on the turf with 3-year-old Florida-bred gelding Tapsasional, owned by Arno River Racing and Winning Stables.

Tapsasional was claimed from the victory for $25,000 by trainer Kathleen O’Connell for new owner Josie Gump.

Trainer Mike Dini sent out the first two finishers in the third race on the turf, producing a $2 exacta payoff of $150. Dini also owned the winner, 8-1 shot Summer Helper, a 2-year-old filly who was ridden by Isaac Castillo. Summer Helper was claimed from the race for $16,000 by trainer Jean L. Adomo for new owner Azuquita Racing. The second-place finisher, Magic Mikaela, is owned by her breeder, Ballybrit Stable.

Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:38 p.m. The following day, New Year’s Day, all Thoroughbreds in North America become a year older, for record-keeping purposes. Tampa Bay Downs has scheduled a 10-race card on Saturday starting at 12:14 p.m. to mark the occasion.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed. Otherwise, the Oldsmar oval 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.

High Rollers Handicapping Contest is Jan. 8. The annual High Rollers Handicapping Contest Presented by HorseTourneys is Jan. 8, with first prize (based on 100 players) of $20,000. Players are required to deposit $1,000 to enter, with $500 serving as the player’s bankroll for wagering and the remaining $500 going to the prize pool. At the conclusion of the tournament, any dollar amount remaining in the bankroll remains the property of the player.

Wager types permitted are win, place and show only, with each player making five $100 win, place and/or show bets during the tournament. The player with the highest bankroll takes top prize (50 percent of the prize pool), plus a seat in either the 2022 or 2023 National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, plus accommodations.

To enter, register at www.tampabaydowns.com and make the required $1,000 payment by noon on Jan. 8. For details, contact Margo Flynn at mjflynn@tampabaydowns.com or (813) 855-4401, extension 1368.