Judy Wagner Headed Back to the NHC; Chris Lavezza Preparing for Battle in Vegas Again Too; Michael Somich and Zachary Ledford Crush it on Sunday (Weekly Recap, June 1-5)

It was a fun week at HorseTourneys and HorsePlayers—particularly with respect to NHC qualifying. We saw one of the event’s most storied names win her way back to the 2023 renewal. Meanwhile, a similarly happy outcome befell one of the most talked-about participants in NHC history.

All that fun stuff happened on Friday and Saturday, but our featured-tourney week got started on Wednesday, of course.

Gary Lee Russell uncovered 3 winners including Manuelito ($43.60, $8.00…prices ok!) in the 5th at Horseshoe Indianapolis to take home $2,799 in Wednesday’s $5,000 Guaranteed cash tourneys, which closed with a purse of $6,221. Here’s a look at his scoresheet.

I wonder if there has ever been a racetrack name longer than “Horseshoe Indianapolis.” I digress. We also had a Spa & Surf Showdown qualifier on Wednesday.

Kirk Tesar didn’t have the big-win-price, small-placeito-price that Manuelito offered. He more than made up for that, though with 5 of the first 6 winners plus a pair of place collections to snag the $2,500 entry. 

On Thursday, Clint Littlejohn picked 5 winners out of 10 races.

For that handicapping feat of strength, Littlejohn received $3,701 from a pot of $8,225 in Thursday’s $6,000 Guaranteed Pick & Pray.

With 4 wins and a place, Steven Meier breezed to a $24.40 triumph in Thursday’s Spa & Surf Showdown qualifier.

Meier’s four winners all paid between $12.60 and $17.90 to win. 

Moving on to Friday, we’re going to start with the $75 NHC qualifier at Horseplayer…and with good reason.

Chris Lavezza distinguished himself on Friday by putting up the day’s highest score, defeating fellow qualifier Gene Cahalan.

This is the second time Lavezza has qualified for the NHC. The first time was in 2008. This time around, the publicity for his doing so will likely be limited to this blog. In 2008, though, it was big news.

That’s Lavezza competing at Red Rock in the 2008 NHC

He was a media darling that year because he had qualified online…while deployed in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army sergeant!

This year, he presumably qualified under more serene circumstances. Lavezza now lives in Hagerstown, Md., and will undoubtedly be welcomed back enthusiastically to the NHC next March…even if the media attention is a bit less. Speaking of media, though, here is the 2008 story on Lavezza, written by Mark Beech, that ran in the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated. 

I’m still not sure what’s more amazing—qualifying for the NHC from Afghanistan…or races from Churchill Downs being part of an online contest!

Anyway…there was another feature at HorsePlayers on Friday, a Low Ratio Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge Pick & Pray.

Anthony “ATM” Mattera won’t need to hit the ATM to fund his BCBC entry this year. He had 2 winners including Penn National bomb Wow Whata Summer ($168.60, $27.00).

That upset winner of the Penn Mile Stakes was also key to Patrick “Gino” Gianforte in his Friday victory.

Gianforte counted Wow Whata Summer among the 3 firsts and 1 second that landed him a $2,500 seat to the $400,000 Guaranteed Spa & Surf Showdown here on August 6-7 (Whitney Weekend).

Turner West won Friday’s HT Tour event, our $15,000 Guaranteed Pick & Pray despite not having Wow Whata Summer. That’s surprising on one level.

That West won the $7,930 first prize over Igor Mirambeau by just 10 cents is interesting on another level (though perhaps not for Igor). 

Still, this 10-cent loss had to be even more excruciating than most…if such a thing is possible. Let’s take a peek at West’s scorecard.

West picked the final three winners to get up by that dime. And in the final contest race, he needed to gain $30.90 to overtake Mirambeau, and that’s exactly (exactly!) what he got. They say that some jockeys have a stopwatch inside their head. West clearly has a totalizator inside his!

As was the case on Friday, Saturday’s lead story came from the day’s NHC qualifier at HorsePlayers.

The story was not that Miguel Wenceslao (5 wins, 3 places) qualified for his first-ever NHC (though that is certainly worthy of much acclaim), the story was that the “First Lady” of the NHC, Judy Wagner, qualified for the 2023 event by finishing second to Wenceslao.

“I want to congratulate Miguel Wenceslao on winning,” Wagner wrote in an email to HorseTourneys. “I am thrilled to lose to a first-time qualifier! Welcome to the NHC…it will be a great experience!”

Of course, Wagner didn’t exactly “lose” on Saturday. And the 2001 NHC Champion and Hall of Famer admitted that her runner-up finish brought with it not just joy, but also a healthy dose of relief.

“It’s a big deal for me to go back to NHC,” she wrote. “I feel it’s a real blessing to have won the NHC, but it’s also a curse. As a past champion, I feel such a pressure to at least qualify for NHC. Year after year, there’s a 500-pound monkey on my back. I’m thrilled to have shed the monkey.”

Saturday was also a thrilling day for Joe “Tex” Scanio.

Scanio had a pair of winners, including Monmouth longshot Lemon Creek Louie, plus two places to rake in $13,860 in Saturday’s HT Tour event, our $30,000 Guaranteed Pick & Pray.

Scanio played those winning cash-game picks back in Saturday’s Spa & Surf Showdown qualifier.

Here, Scanio defeated everyone except fellow Lemon Creek Louie fan Mark Wilgard.  Both Wilgard and Scanio now head to the August 6-7 final leg of the Tourney Triple with their $2,500 entries already covered.

Gary “Macho Man” Machiz’s deepest dive on Saturday came with Cousteau in the 8th at Belmont.

The 8-1 winner—along with another winner and two runners up—got the job done for Machiz in Saturday’s $10,000 Guaranteed Big Bucks Pick & Pray. Machiz’s winner’s share amounted to $7,124.

Cousteau was also Shad Walton’s biggest Saturday price.

The payoff for Walton (4 wins, 3 places) was a spot in the field of no more than 57 for September’s The BIG One. This week was the first in which we have gone to dual Saturday and Sunday qualifiers for the “High Expectation Tourney” (so that we can get up to that 57-entry level). A happy by-product of that for players is that field sizes are down to about 15 per day. So if you’ve been contemplating trying to win your way into this lucrative event, now may be a particularly good time to get involved!

Kirk Rockwell made collections in each of the final 7 contest races on Saturday.

Rockwell finished with 5 firsts, 3 seconds and one victory in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge play-in at HorsePlayers.

Two players dominated the action on Sunday, combining for five grand prizes. One of the day’s big winners was Michael Somich.

Somich captured Sunday’s qualifier for The BIG One, and he also led the way over at HorsePlayers in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge Low Ratio Pick & Pray. 

The very same picks got Somich, a 2022 NHC Final Table participant, a Spa & Surf Showdown seat.

Gary Gristick took top honors here thanks to 3 winners and a place. Gristick’s highest yielder was Continental Divide ($45.00, $14.40) in the 2nd at Santa Anita.

When Somich wasn’t winning something on Sunday, it seemed like Zachary Ledford was. Ledford turned in the day’s gaudiest scorecard.

The 4-win, 1-place effort resulted in a nice cash/seat combo for Ledford, starting with a victory in Sunday’s HT Tour event, our $20,000 Guaranteed Pick & Pray.

Ledford bagged $13,387 from a pot that wound up at a robust $29,750—and it was another “Zach attack” in Sunday’s $165 NHC Pick & Pray.

Here, Ledford shared the spotlight with runner up and, thus, fellow 2023 seat recipient James Henry. All three of Henry’s winners paid at least $20.00.

In other Sunday action, Jim Trepinski accounted for Sunday’s $7,500 Guaranteed Big Bucks game.

Trepinski pinned two tails on the donkey, including Santa Anita race 2 longshot Continental Divide. He also added 2 runners up, and he took home $6,411 out of a total final purse of $9,159.

Daniel Kaplan, meanwhile, nailed 4 consecutive winners in contest races 3 through 6 and added a pair of placings thereafter.

The return for Kaplan was a $5,000 entry into the July 30-31 Del Mar Summer Challenge. 

So ended another week here at Featured Tourney Central. Thanks to all of you for helping us get June off on such a positive note. The upcoming week figures to be bigger and even better with the Belmont Stakes anchoring one of the best race cards of the year on Saturday. There won’t be a Triple Crown. Hell, there won’t even be many Derby or Preakness horses—but the racing and the contest excitement should be truly excellent.