Belmont Grass Helps Retired Groundskeeper Tony Martin Mow Down the Competition in The BIG One

Tony Martin connected on a 64-1 longshot in Belmont’s final race on Saturday, and hit a 29-1 winner in the Sunday Belmont finale to power past his 54 opponents and win the 2019 renewal of The BIG One, held at Laurel Park on Saturday and Sunday. For the victory, the 51-year-old retired groundskeeper from Lexington, Ky., earned $27,000, a seat to the 2020 National Horseplayers Championship and a $10,000 entry to November’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge.

David Stone, Ken Seeman, Edward Wright and Steve Arrison took turns on the early Day 1 lead, but the complexion of the competition changed markedly when Cirque upset the field in Belmont’s 11th race, a New York Bred grass allowance that was the last of five mandatory races on the Saturday schedule. Cirque paid $131.50 to win and $34.20 to place.

Only Bruce Pratt of Las Vegas and Martin had Cirque and that rocketed them into first and second places, respectively at the end of Day 1 of the two-day competition.

“I was going to play Cirque no matter what…even if it hadn’t wound up being a mandatory,” Pratt said. “She’s a very erratic horse that had nine really bad races showing but four really good races showing too, and those good races were very competitive with anything the rest of the field had done. I also liked that Pablo Fragoso was back on her this time. He had ridden her in all four of the good races.”

At the conclusion of Saturday action, Pratt led Martin by $9.20—$225.90 to $216.70. Steve Arrison was well back in third with $152.00.

As was the case on Day 1, players had to make $2.00 win and place live-bankroll plays from the races at four eligible contest tracks. Five plays had to be on designated mandatory races, the other seven were of the players’ choosing. The top 10 finishers at the end of Day 2 would earn National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) seats plus either a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC) entry or a Pegasus World Cup Betting Championship entry. There were five of each to be distributed and players got to choose which they preferred based on order of final finish.

On Sunday, no one ever seriously threatened Pratt and Martin for the top two spots, but after the second of five Sunday mandatories, Martin wrested the lead from Pratt by $2.80.

Play remained tight for the next couple of hours with Martin clinging to a slim advantage—but then he landed the knockout blow. Ironically, it came in another New York Bred grass allowance that served as the final race on the Belmont program. This time it was a 29-1 shot that Martin scoped out—Saratoga Colonel ($61.50, $26.20). His total ballooned to $300.20—$118 more than Pratt, who was $23 ahead of Chris Podratz in third.

Some late fireworks in the form of an 11-1 winner at Woodbine and a 35-1 bomb at Laurel shook up the standings during the day’s last hour, but when the tournament concluded it was Tony Martin first and Bruce Pratt second.

Here’s the complete final standings. Three players got left off the printout shown below because they finished with zero. (Their names have been withheld pending notification of next of kin.)

Here’s what the top 15 won (in addition to their final bankrolls which all players retained):

Tony Martin—$27,000 + NHC seat + BCBC entry
Bruce Pratt—$13,500 + NHC + Pegasus World Cup Betting Challenge entry
Paul Kirnos—$6,750 + NHC + BCBC
Howard Welsh—$5,063 + NHC + BCBC
Chris Podratz—$3,375 + NHC + BCBC
Edward Wright—$3,038 + NHC + BCBC
Thomas Nola—$2,700 + NHC + Pegasus
Steve Arrison—$2,363 + NHC + Pegasus
Howard Blumberg—$2,025 + $5,000 in lieu of NHC due to being dual qualified + Pegasus
Mike Mulvihill—$1,688 + $5,000 (dual qualified to NHC) + Pegasus
Rick Broth—$1,500 + NHC
Kevin Engelhard—$1,500 + NHC
Ryan Mueller—$1,500
Ken Seeman—$1,500
Frank Drew—$1,500

Similar to Pratt on Saturday, Tony Martin’s weekend performance provided some inconvenient truths to those on social media who are fond of dismissing handicapping contests as stabfests.

“I use Thorograph sheets sometimes,” said Martin. Not always, because that can get expensive, but I used them here and Cirque had a back number, an 11, that was competitive. I figured of she could get to the lead and run back to that number, she could do it. I used the horse in all of my Pick & Prays at HorseTourneys.”

On Sunday, Martin laid waste to other speculation…such as that he would be playing a day-long cat-and-mouse game with Pratt… or that his play on late-day longshot Saratoga Colonel was a defensive play designed to ward off players shooting boldly for the lead.

“I put all 12 of my plays in early in the day,” he laughed. Then my wife Karen and I just hung out in the back of the room here and watched the races. On Saturday, I came up with a horse I liked and put my plays in right before the race. Today [Sunday], I told myself I wasn’t going to change any of my picks. My attitude was ‘If you think it’s the winner, play it.’ A couple of people made comments to me during the day wondering why my totals on the leaderboard weren’t changing even after mandatory races. It’s because all my picks, including Saratoga Colonel, were already in. I had already been debited!”

Karen and Tony Martin

Saratoga Colonel was another one who had a back number on the Thorograph sheets that Martin liked. And if the horse needed some time between peak efforts…well, so did Tony.

“In 2002, I qualified for the NHC and was part of Team Keeneland, which won the team championship that they had back then. I got away from contest play for quite a while after that, and then it turned out that I was trying to help take care of six grandchildren that were all between the ages of six months and 9. I couldn’t travel anywhere. And my job as a groundskeeper for Fayette County kept me busy until I retired recently. It’s only in the last year or two that I’ve gotten back into contest play.”

Martin is suddenly back in a big way. Next stop, BCBC. And after that, the NHC—ironically back at the same hotel, Bally’s, where he last played in the event 18 years ago.

Now THAT’s running back to a back number!