2023 King of the Turf: Phil Lam

FRANKLIN, Ky. (Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023) — Phil Lam got the belt.

The 64-year-old from Queens, N.Y., is your 2023 National Turf Handicapping Champion by virtue of having the highest cumulative score after competing in all three stand-alone online tournaments that comprise Kentucky Downs’ live-money King of the Turf Handicapping Challenge. Lam bolted to the lead in the first contest on Aug. 31 with a bankroll of $6,518.35. That proved enough to hold on to win after he finished the second contest on Sept. 3 with 38 cents and then was blanked on the finale Saturday Sept. 9.

Anthony Spinazzola finished second at $5,831.81 and Robert Gianquitti, the second contest winner, was third at $5,231.67. Players had to compete in all three contests to be eligible for the overall prize, with Lam winning a seat in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC), a $10,000 buy-in, and the instantly iconic Global Tote King of the Turf WWE-style belt trophy. Lam also earned $10,530 in cash plus a seat in the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) for winning the first contest.

“I’ve won quite a bit of contests, but this particular one, I’ve gotten a lot of fanfare from a lot of my constituents,” Lam said by phone Sunday. “It’s been a lot of fun. Everybody was texting me from all over, ‘Get that belt.’ ‘Get that belt.’ Nobody said, ‘Oh, get the BCBC.’ ‘Get the NHC.’ They kept texting, ‘get the belt.’”

Lam said his big play in the first contest was FanDuel Tapit Stakes winner Harlan Estate, who went off at 37-1.

“I liked that horse, and I keyed him in exactas and doubles,” he said. “The funny thing was, when I saw the odds at 30-something to 1, I scaled my bet back. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had to sweat (Saturday). I’d have had a bigger lead. But that’s what made it fun. The week in between the two other contests, it makes it exciting because you have to sweat it out.

“The second contest I had $300 of my bankroll pretty intact, and I went for it. I decided to go big on a race instead of betting to show or just trying to pad my lead. You really have to try to win these things. But I got blanked. Now I was going to sweat it a full week, and hoped to do well (in the finale). It didn’t go well. But I was able to hold on.

“It was really exciting because the guy who won the second contest needed a little over $1,200 to pass me. I saw with three races to go he had (picked up) $1,100. He only needed to get another $100 to his bankroll. He could have just sat on it, because I was done. He played several horses to win, like two horses in each race, and missed on all of them. I actually thought I had lost at that point, when he was only $100 behind.”

Lam said he tapped out with four races to go. “I think it was tough for everyone,” he said. “It was tough for anybody to make any traction the last few races. That’s why Kentucky Downs is such a great track – very tough to handicap.”

The last three of six graded stakes were won by Gear Jockey ($48.60), Bay Storm ($7.74) and Get Smokin ($41.14).

Lam lives midway between Aqueduct and Belmont Park and is a long-time racing fan. He said he got into playing handicapping contests when he was at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. “I thought, I’m going to play anyway. Let me play that.’ And I wind up winning the contest.”

He got a seat to the World Series of Handicapping. Later that week he saw an online contest, finishing second to win a berth in the NHC. “I was hooked,” he said. “That was about 15 years ago. The people who play are fantastic. You meet a lot of interesting people, a lot of professionals. It’s a lot of fun.”

Lam describes himself as a “retired IT guy.”

“So I try to automate things and create models, and that kind of keeps things fun,” he said. “I just retired in June. Through my time off, I said, ‘The Kentucky Downs thing, I can never do well. Let me see what this is all about.’ I did some studying, looked at past results. It paid off Day 1 anyway.”

Of having only 38 cents to show for the final two contests, he said, “It’s just the nature of the game. Even in the NHC, which is a three-day contest, people can do very well or poorly and it turns around quickly. I expected that. I really wasn’t disappointed. It’s like a relief pitcher. You learn to just forget the bad inning, bad pitches and move on.”

Lam said he played the first two contests at home but on Saturday drove to Delaware Park, which was having a handicapping contest.

“I decided to multi-task,” he said. “A lot of fellow horsemen were there rooting me on. ‘Go Phil, go get the belt.’ In hindsight, that was a mistake. It was a distraction. I didn’t do well in either contest.”

Paul Kirnos easily won Saturday’s final tournament with a bankroll of $8,720.68. However, he was not eligible for King of the Turf honors because he did not play in all three tournaments. A total of 129 people played in all three contests.

“The fourth year of the Kentucky Downs King of the Turf Handicapping Challenge proved yet another success with a total of 637 entries in the three contests,” said Tournament Director Brian Skirka. “We saw three incredibly deserving contest winners in Phil Lam, Robert Gianquitti and Paul Kirnos – and it was Phil Lam who was able to hang on to take the overall championship. I’ve known Phil a long time from our Monmouth Park contests, and I can’t think of a more fitting King of the Turf. I look forward to presenting him with his championship belt at the NHC in Las Vegas.

“Thanks goes out first and foremost to all the players who supported these three handicapping contests. I’d also like to thank Ted Nicholson and his team for having me as part of one of the most unique contests of the year. Congrats to all the winners and I’m already looking forward to Year 5 of King of the Turf in 2024.”

2023 King of the Turf: Phil Lam - Kentucky Downs