Photo: Andy Muhlada - our National Turf Handicapping Champ
FRANKLIN, Ky. (Thursday, Sept. 18, 2020) — Andy Muhlada calls himself a “weekend warrior” when it comes to horse-racing handicapping tournaments, working in contest play around his full-time job in Cincinnati. But the 53-year-old from Lawrenceburg, Ind., proved a weekday wonder when it came to the inaugural Kentucky Downs Turf Handicapping Challenge presented by Daily Racing Form this past Tuesday and Wednesday.
The 53-year-old Muhlada, a self-employed manufacturers’ rep working with architects in high-end construction, earned the track’s title of National Turf Handicapping Champion with a final combined bankroll of $9,211 for the two, separate live-money tournaments. That included the $7,354 Muhlada finished with to top Wednesday’s competition.
Muhlada’s two-day score comfortably beat out runner-up Robert Swickard, a retired firefighter from Commerce Township, Mich., who accrued $7,965.60, including winning Tuesday’s tournament.
“I’m the classic weekend warrior type of guy on these contests,” said Muhlada, whose victory was made possible by hitting big exactas on the final two races of the RUNHAPPY Meet at Kentucky Downs. “… It’s bizarre how it just flowed and worked perfect. There were eight reasons I could have been derailed. Sometimes it’s just your day.”
As the overall winner, Muhlada earned $15,000, a seat in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC) worth $10,000 and all the fame that comes with being anointed National Turf Handicapping Champ. In addition, he won $7,012 in prize money and a prize package to the 2021 National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) in Las Vegas as the winner of Wednesday’s tournament. And, of course, he kept his Wednesday bankroll, plus the $1,857 he made Tuesday.
Muhlada called the victory a “mental breakthrough.” He now has qualified for the NHC four times and will be in his first BCBC.
“I’m always in these tournaments, and I’m always top 10, top 20 percent. I hold my own, do pretty well,” he said. “But I’d never won a major contest. I’ve come in third and gone to Vegas. Come in second and won money, but never like, ‘I’m it. I’m the winner.’ I stamped myself that I belong with these guys. That’s how I feel now.”
There were Hall of Fame horseplayers, past NHC and NHC Tour winners among the 182 entries in Tuesday’s tournament and 173 Wednesday. The tournament, overseen by Monmouth Park’s Brian Skirka, was conducted online through TVG and Xpressbet.
Starting with a $500 bankroll Tuesday (from entrants' $1,000 buy-in) and a $300 bankroll Wednesday (from the $600 buy-in), participants had to wager $50 or more on at least eight races from Kentucky Downs on Tuesday and on at least six races Wednesday. Contestants could bet win, place, show and exactas. A total of three BCBC berths and 11 NHC seats were awarded.
But at first it didn’t look like Muhlada was even going to be able to play.
He had a conflict and couldn’t play last Sunday when the first of the two tournaments was supposed to take place. He also was committed to a heavy work schedule on Wednesday afternoon. Players had to compete both days to win the overall prize.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to miss it. No big deal,’” Muhlada said. “When it rained out the Sunday and went to Tuesday, Tuesday was perfect. I literally signed up just for Tuesday, and if I did well enough I was going to decide what to do on Wednesday. I called Brian and he was awesome. He got me in literally an hour and a half before the tournament started on Tuesday and I did well enough that I played on Wednesday.
“But I was in a Zoom meeting from like 2 until 5, with the races on a side screen. Then it left me with a lot of work left to do. I got off the Zoom call with four races left. I didn’t really like the race coming up, the seventh race. I didn’t have any strong feelings. So I just took a walk to clear my head. I kind of put the plan together as to what I had to do in the eighth, the ninth and the 10th races to get to a money goal I needed to get to.”
Muhlada said he blew in the eighth race and was down to his last $100 with two races left Tuesday. His ninth-race bets included a $10 box on the 8-5 exacta in the Franklin-Simpson Stakes won by 9-1 Guildsman by a neck over 21-1 shot Island Commish.
“There were five horses in the ninth race I identified as live long shots,” he said. “I settled in aggressively on the 5, Island Commish. If he wins, I do even better because I had money to win on him. I started to get less comfortable with the horse as his odds kept going up. But I said, ‘I can’t just give up on it. I think he’s sitting on a good race.’ The 8 was the horse I liked the best. I settled in on the 5 and built tickets around him. All that did was give me enough money to have a shot at the last race to win it.”
The 8-5 exacta paid $364 for $2, propelling Muhlada into fourth. (Had the fast-flying 47-1 shot Souper Dormy, another neck back in third, won or split his exacta, we wouldn’t be telling this story.)
Muhlada had a $60 exacta box on No. 4 Chop Chop Charlie (an 8-1 shot) and No. 3 Zanesville (7-1) in the meet’s final race and also used some combinations with favored Peekacho. “Then at the end, just for security, I put another $100 to win on the 3,” he said. “If the 3 wins but my favorite horse of the day, the 4, isn’t there, I cash but we’re not talking. Them running 1-2 was the difference.”
The $2 exacta paid $169.80 and Zanesville paid $17 to win.
“The last two races I had live shots that I liked,” Muhlada said. “The ironic thing was they both ran second and I paired them with the right horse to exacta-box my way to a nice day…. I just got lucky playing the whole thing because it fell into my lap when Sunday got canceled.”
Muhlada said he went to the races at Kentucky Downs for the first time last year with his horse-racing buddies.
“It was like ‘Wow! How come we haven’t been here before?’” he said, saying COVID wrecked plans for a return this year. “Fell in love with it. The course, everything about it was dynamite.”
Muhlada does not consider turf handicapping one of his strengths. But he really likes live-money tournaments because they require not only picking winners but money management. Not surprisingly, he said he loved the format of the Kentucky Downs Turf Handicapping Challenge.
“I enjoy the mental aspect, the mental chess game of trying to figure it out,” he said. “You don’t have to be perfect; you just got to be better than the rest of the people.”
Kentucky Downs Turf Handicapping Challenge award winners
Note: Contestants who already had qualified for the maximum two seats at the NHC received $2,500. BCBC - Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge; NHC - National Horseplayers Championship.
Overall champion (seat earned, prize money)
Andy Muhlada -- BCBC, $15,000
Tuesday (seat earned, prize money)
Robert Swickard – BCBC, $10,000
Matt Mungiole – BCBC, $4,000
Eric Adler – NHC, $3,000
Marikate Carter – NHC, $2,000
John Gaspar – NHC, $1,000
Chris Goodrich – NHC
Steven Meier – NHC
Chris Cupples - NHC
Wednesday (seat earned, prize money)
Andy Muhlada – NHC, $7,012.50
Brett Wiener - $2,500 for double qualifier plus $2,800
Mike Elsass – NHC, $2,100
Rich Nilsen – NHC, $1,400
William Shurman – NHC, $700
Scott Carson – NHC