by Peter Thomas Fornatale
Eric Pineiro will never forget his first Belmont Stakes. And neither will anyone else who has seen that race.
Pineiro was just six years old in 1973 when his father and uncle took him and his brother from their house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to the famed New York oval to see a Triple Crown attempt.
"I can't get that vision out of my head," said Pineiro, now the 52-year owner of a distribution business in the southeastern U.S. "When the great Secretariat was thundering down the stretch to win by 31 lengths. We were all screaming our heads off."
Pineiro said racing remained an important way to link the family together over the years.
"It's something we still enjoy," he said, "and it's a way to bring everybody close."
His father still lives in Brooklyn, in the same house he bought for $25,000 a half-century ago.
"Now they come with suitcases of cash trying to get him out but he's not going anywhere," Pineiro said.
Pineiro will be competing in next weekend's Belmont Stakes Challenge presented by Mohegan Sun, a $10,000 handicapping contest which closes its entries on Wednesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. ET.
He has always had plenty of gamble in him, honing his skills while still a teenager.
"I've always been a gambling beast," he admitted. "Back then, I was working for a bookie shop in Brooklyn and I'd bet every dollar I made. As a 15-year old betting $500, that's like betting $5,000 now."
He wasn't a winning player back then, nor was he for most of his adult life. He described himself simply as a guy who liked to fire. That started to change after he read an article in the Daily Racing Form in early 2012.
"I read about this Michael Beychok, who won a million dollars at the National Handicapping Championship," he said. "That article got me searching on the web all about handicapping tournaments. Right away, I felt they were meant for me."
Pineiro has done well playing online in mythical money events and also in live-bankroll, real money events like the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge and Belmont Stakes Challenge, with the New York contests' format suited to his style. "I have no issue betting $5,000 or $10,000 on a horse," he said, "and I don't mind tapping out."
The big win in a tournament has eluded him so far - though he's had plenty of online wins and cash scores along the way. "One day it'll be my day," he said. "If I keep firing away, I'll get there."
That type of aggressiveness can give him an edge over players carefully minding their bankrolls and just playing minimums. But in the past couple of years, Pineiro has added a few wrinkles to his live-bank play.
"I used to look to accumulate a bankroll and then look for a spot where I could make a big bet to go for the win," he explained. "But now, while I'm still waiting for a big spot to fire, I'll also look to take some smaller shots with what I call cover tris - keying a horse I like in all three spots for a smaller overall bet that can still pay big and give me extra money to play with."
A big part of Pineiro's development as a player is due to the people he's met along the way - a crowd that includes Beychok; the man who inspired him to take up tournament play in the first place.
"I met him at a tournament a few years ago and it took me a minute to figure out who he was - I didn't remember his name from the article - and I've become good friends with him, and also guys like Anthony Trezza and Jon Hurd," he said. "We text about the races nearly every day, putting our heads together about who we like, and that helps with both tournaments and my cash play. Years of talking to those guys have educated me and brought my game to another level."
Pineiro describes tournaments as "college for horseplayers."
"They've made me a much more disciplined player, allowing me to lose better and also to focus more on the right situations where I'm able to win," he said.
Each of the last four years have been winning ones for Pineiro, who has met many others directly through tournament play.
"I respect every horseplayer," he said. "Even if it's a guy screaming about how a 2-5 shot can't lose. I'm not learning from that guy but let me put it this way - I've never met a horseplayer who wasn't my friend."
The Belmont Stakes Challenge presented by Mohegan Sun is a two-day live-bankroll handicapping contest that costs $10,000 to play. Of that money, $2,500 goes into a prize pool that will be fully distributed back to players, with the other $7,500 acting as a bankroll. The deadline to signup is Wednesday, June 5 at 5 p.m. ET. Players can compete on track or online via NYRABets.com. For more information, go to: