by Peter Thomas Fornatale
The Gotham Challenge takes place this Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack and online for the first time via NYRA Bets. Entries for the $500 live-bank contest close Thursday night at 5 p.m. One of the players looking forward to competing is Joe Scanio.
Scanio is an old-school New York horseplayer. How old school? He describes himself as being from the Fred Capossela-era. He used to hitchhike from his home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn - where he still resides today.
"First, you'd get a ride from the Verrazano Bridge to Flatbush, and from there you'd get another guy to take you to Lefferts Boulevard," he happily recalled.
His horseplayer "origin story" is a twist on a theme. Unlike so many in his generation, he did not have an older relative who introduced him to the track.
"No one in my family was into the horses," he admitted. "I broke the mold. I like to kid that I got my Associate's Degree at Aqueduct, my Bachelor's at Belmont, and my PhD at Saratoga."
His first experience came one day when he cut school to hang out at a Bay Ridge pool room - as one did back in the day. There he met a couple of older guys who took him along to the races.
"I bet on a horse named Mountain Crest," said Scanio. "You always remember your first horse. And the worst thing that could have happened, happened."
Mountain Crest was an easy winner and Scanio's $2 bet across the board multiplied in value.
"I said, forget school, what do I need that for? I want to come here every day."
Scanio has been active since the earliest days of NYRA's contests in the tent in the backyard at Belmont. He might not have learned racing from a family member but he has passed on the bug to a future generation. His niece and protege, Stephanie Davis, won one of the first NYRA contests and continues to be an active participant.
"She's great because she doesn't get emotionally bent out of shape like a lot of everyday gamblers," he said. "She stays calm and collected and makes better decisions than I do when it comes to contests."
He estimates that he's qualified for the National Horseplayers' Championship 14 times and figures six of them have come on the NYRA circuit. He's been to one NHC Final Table, and he and Davis both made the semi-finals in 2017.
Scanio has followed all the changes in NYRA contests through big transitions, from mythical money fixed-odds to real-money live-bankroll, and now the advent of online play.
"I think it's a good idea and it should help increase participation a lot," he said. "I'll always go in person when I can. I have to work weekends sometimes and this is a benefit to me to play online those days but I'd always prefer to go because that's really where the fun of it all is."
Speaking of work, Scanio's had an interesting and varied career. He started off in direct sales, and now works selling timeshares in New York. He's also been an actor, and is currently working on a comedic screenplay - Crime Share - based on his experiences in his day job. But his real passion is for racing.
In fact, Saturday night, after the Gotham Challenge is over, he plans on heading across the river to play in a harness racing contest at the Meadowlands.
"The last time I did a doubleheader, it was Aqueduct-Roosevelt Raceway but I was a lot younger then," he joked. "This time around we'll see if I have the energy to survive."
Winning players on Saturday will receive cash as well as the opportunity to qualify for a seat to the two-day 2019 Belmont Stakes Challenge on June 7-8 or one of two seats to the National Horseplayers Championship in February 2020.
Tournament races include those races run live at Aqueduct Racetrack, Gulfstream Park, and Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, March 9, 2019. The final tourney race will be the nightcap at Aqueduct. Permitted wagers include Win, Place, Show, Exacta, Trifecta, Quinella, and Daily Double wagers. Rules require players to wager a minimum of $25 per race on a minimum of ten 10 races. Players can go all in at any time.
In order to enter and play online, contestants must be registered NYRA Bets account holders. New NYRA Bets members are currently eligible to receive a bet $200 get $200 bonus.
Full rules for the Gotham Challenge are available at this link.