by Mike Henry

Competing in the “Live It Up Challenge” Handicapping Contest is a labor of love for Clearwater resident Keith Pouliot.

“The track just seems to get better every year,” said Pouliot, who defeated 1,189 other players to win this year’s event and first prize of two seats at next season’s High Rollers Handicapping Contest (date to be determined) at Tampa Bay Downs. “It’s growing, the competition keeps getting better and the payoffs and field sizes are good, especially for the turf races.”

Although he works fulltime as the Tampa branch manager for SavATree, a nationwide tree service and lawn-care company, Pouliot found time throughout the contest to devote sufficient energy to the task and feel good about his daily picks. “My wife (Debbie) said it was like a part-time job for me,” said Pouliot, who had finished second in three previous “Live It Up Challenges.”

Pouliot finished the 26-day contest with a bankroll of $436, bettering runner-up Rick Pignataro, who amassed $410.20; Christopher Rieber, who was third with $365.80; and fourth-place finisher Mike Klodnicki, with $345.90. The second-through-fourth-place finishers each earned one seat at next season’s High Rollers event.

Pouliot also earned a cash prize of $500 for selecting the most winners, 22, over the course of the contest.

This year’s “Live It Up Challenge” required each player to select a horse in two of each day’s three “Challenge Races,” compared to past contests in which players selected a horse in one of two designated “Challenge Races.” An out-of-the-money finish resulted in the loss of a lifeline, and by the time the dust settled Sunday afternoon, only 19 players were still eligible, the others having exhausted their lifelines.

“I thought the new rules made this year’s contest the most difficult,” Pouliot said. “You really had to manage your lifelines well, and it really made you handicap and think differently than in other contests. I never hit a big long shot this time, but I was lucky enough to have enough 3-1 and 4-1 and 5-1 shots that slowly moved me to the top.”

But that is probably the part Pouliot likes best. The Boston product has a lifelong love affair with horse racing, having visited almost every racetrack in the country in person. He has been a semi-regular at Tampa Bay Downs since moving to the area 25 years ago, coming with Debbie every weekend and any other days their schedules allows.

Pouliot said his local knowledge helped him wind up on top.

“I’m a big ‘trainer-jockey angle’ guy. So when I see Samy Camacho riding one of Gerald Bennett’s horses, or a Chad Brown horse with Samy on it, that’s a strong angle,” he said. “ ‘Horses for courses’ is another big factor – if a horse has trained here and raced here, you can count on them winning a lot of the time, or at least being in the race.”

Other angles sound a bit more esoteric, such as trainer Kathleen O’Connell winning a turf race after a jockey change or jockey Pablo Morales winning the last race of the day when it’s on the turf. But his overall contest record shows that his observations are usually valid, and this time resulted in a championship.

There are few better feelings.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Pouliot said. “I think I haven’t bragged to enough people yet, but I’ll be at the track Saturday to toast everybody and let them know I beat them. And I imagine I’ll run up a pretty big bar tab.”

Around the oval. Leading trainer Gerald Bennett sent out back-to-back winners today. He won the fifth race on the turf with 6-year-old gelding Xy Speed, owned by Michael Dubb and Steven Bouchey and ridden by leading jockey Samy Camacho. The Bennett-trained Savvy Layla completed the exacta.

Bennett added the sixth race with Knight Ofthe Crown, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Mr. Pug, LLC, J.P.G. 2, LLC, Gregge Dasher and Winning Stables. Ademar Santos was the jockey.

Santos also won the seventh race on the turf on Sandy Lane Kitten, a 7-year-old gelding owned and trained by Juan Arriagada.

Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:15 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through May 7, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed, and May 1, when the Thoroughbred action is limited to simulcasting.

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.