Jan 27, 2012 • By

Serious horseplay


Ask most casual horseracing fans how much success they have when betting at a track and you’ll probably hear about a few successful picks and payouts, but not many.

You’ll get a different story if you talk to any of the people competing in Las Vegas this weekend in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) National Handicapping Championship.

And one of them is one of our employees.

Cara Yarusso is a technology manager in the Innovation, Technology and Quality (ITQ) organization at General Mills.

She and her dad Mike – who also qualified – will compete against 480 others for horseracing’s official title of “Handicapper of the Year” and the $1 million prize that goes with it.

It’s the final stage of a series of yearly NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments conducted by racetracks, casino racebooks, and websites. Each sends its top qualifiers to the national finals. More than 4,500 people signed up for the 2011 NHC Tour and participated in local tournaments.

With so many people vying for the title, the fact that Cara and her dad both made the cut is impressive. This is actually Cara’s third year as a qualifier.

We had a chance to chat with her about her horseracing hobby.

Can you explain what handicapping is?

Yarusso: You are essentially buying the Daily Racing Form. It’s got the races for that day at that given track. You will see the past performances for each of the horses that are competing.

You can typically see their last 10 races. You’ll look at how far they went. Were they on dirt or grass? Who was the trainer? Are they going longer or shorter? Are they switching distances? Are they going up in class? Down in class? You kind of factor that across each of the horses that are in a given race to determine, in part, how you think the race will run.

How did you get started playing the ponies?

Yarusso: My dad had gotten a job at Canterbury Downs, a horseracing park in the Twin Cities, when it first opened in 1985. He had never seen a horserace, but he started learning a little about it. He took us kids out there, and I learned how to handicap.

I followed breeding way back then, and there was a certain sire that I really liked the name of. I used to bet $2 on the horses that came out of that sire, and hit one day. It paid $135 to win for my $2 wager, and I’ve been tracking breeding and all that good stuff ever since.

How does the National Handicapping Tournament work?

Yarusso: It’s invitational only; you can’t buy your way in. Everything is just theoretical points. There will be a certain number of racetracks, and each person gets to select horses out of 15 of those races over two days. He or she who accumulates the most points wins.

Has this been a profitable hobby for you?

Yarusso: I’m a tiny bettor, but I’ve been successful at finding some good long shots to turn $2 investments into thousands. I’ve certainly been able to recoup most of my entry fees and travel costs through it. Some years I’ve had a nice, tidy profit – not enough to quit the day job, though!

What do you like most about horseracing?

Yarusso: The friends I’ve met through it. It’s a little bit of a unique hobby. When you tell people what you do, it’s a little bit odd. Particularly through the tournaments, I have met so many other people who have this strange, little hobby and have built some of the best friendships.

What are your hopes for this weekend?

Yarusso: While I would love to win and finish in that top spot or finish in the money, it’s the first time that both my father and I qualified for the National Handicapping Tournament. So I’m just looking forward to that experience of getting to spend time with my dad at this tournament. It’s also like a reunion of folks I know from all around the country, so I’ll get to connect with a lot of people that I haven’t seen in awhile.

Congratulations, Cara! Good luck to you and your dad!

Editor’s note: ESPN.com reported on the National Handicapping Tournament, here. You also can read about it on the NTRA website.