Mike Buccina had a few good reasons for not entering Saturday's High Rollers Handicapping Contest at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla.
“I was hedging, because I've been going so bad,” the former Thoroughbred owner said. “And I'm not a win-place-show bettor. I'm a gimmick player – I can't remember the last time I bet a horse to win, place or show. I'm mostly a superfecta player, so (the contest format) was out of my game a little bit.”
Throw in the fact that Buccina went 0-for-5 in last year's contest, which marked his first venture into the world of big-money handicapping contests, and the prospect of paying the $1,000 entry fee gave cause for concern.
But after some arm-twisting from contest organizers and a look at Saturday's 10-race card, the 64-year-old resident of nearby Tarpon Springs decided to opt for his share of fun and excitement.
His decision to throw caution to the wind paid off handsomely when Buccina topped 91 other entrants, building his $500 bankroll to $1,315 by day's end to collect the first-place prize of $18,000.
“I'm here too often to get nervous, but it was exciting, especially when I shot to the lead (with a $100 win bet in the eighth race on the turf on Hope Again, who paid $10.60),” said Buccina. “I didn't think I'd shoot right to the lead like that, but when the favorite won the ninth race, I knew I'd be hard to catch.”
Buccina, who was the leading owner at Tampa Bay Downs during the 2004-2005 meeting, rendered that scenario impossible with a $50 win-place wager in the 10th and final race on the turf on the winner, Beantown Baby.
Finishing second, with a final bankroll of $1,135, was John Kaiser, who earned $7,200. William Recio finished with $1,000 in his bankroll, earning $5,400. Mikael Christen ($962) finished fourth, winning $3,600, and Gregory Lewis ($886) took the fifth-place prize of $1,800.
In addition to awarding cash prizes to the top-five finishers, the contest offered two seats to either of the next two National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas (this year's event is Feb. 7-9 at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino), which will be used by Kaiser and Recio.
Buccina, who owns Revenue Systems, Inc., an insurance collection firm, won 110 races as an owner from 2000-2009, most at Tampa Bay Downs. His top horses included Malo, Dry Ice and Spirit of Flag, a mare who won the 1999 Ohio Valley Handicap at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort (with current Tampa Bay Downs agent Paula Bacon in the saddle).
Like most of the entrants, Buccina enjoyed the competitive spirit of the contest. He stuck with his picks from his previous night's handicapping, with a strong feeling about Hope Again, one of only three in the 10-horse field with more than one lifetime victory.
“That was a very tough race, and the Jonathan Thomas and Arnaud Delacour-trained horses both looked good,” Buccina said. “But I liked the fact (Hope Again) had won five times, and Samy Camacho rode him perfect. He laid close and at the top of the lane, he exploded.”
Like a golfer who makes a hole-in-one, Buccina was prepared for what lay ahead at the post-contest gathering in Legends Bar: drinks were on him.
“They were waiting for me,” he said, smiling. “Some even left their tab. That's OK – I had no problem with that.”
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