John Sacca may not win the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship but that wouldn't be because nerves got the best of him or that he went in without a game plan. He knows what it's like to study and prepare for a contest and what it takes to come through when the pressure is on. He learned those traits on one of the biggest stages in sports, Penn State's Beaver Stadium.
Long before Sacca got serious about playing the horses, he played for Penn State, where he was the starting quarterback for much of the 1992 season. That meant regularly playing in front of crowds in Happy Valley that topped 100,000 people and carrying the hopes ands dreams of a rabid fan base on his shoulders. Being the Penn State quarterback is a demanding job, but Sacca loved every minute of it.
"I miss the game and I certainly miss the crowds," Sacca said. "I don't care what anyone says, when you run out on the football field, especially at Penn State where there's 110,000 people cheering, it's of those irreplaceable feelings. Throwing a touchdown pass or running for a touchdown, those are the things you miss."
Sacca's dreams of playing in the NFL never materialized. He lost his starting job at Penn State in 1993 to future NFL quarterback Kerry Collins and transferred to Eastern Kentucky. After college, he played professionally for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. Today, he lives in Jersey and works for QVC, a home shopping network. But he's still using the lessons he learned during his football career.
Growing up in South Jersey, Sacca saw Spend A Buck run at Garden State in 1985 while the colt prepared for the Kentucky Derby and kept following the horse throughout his 3-year-old year. He never had much time for racing while playing at Penn State, but his interest picked up again when he moved on to Eastern Kentucky, which is in the middle of horse country in the Bluegrass State.
Sacca retired from football after the 1997 season in Amsterdam. Now having some free time on his hands, he began to take racing more seriously and started to read handicapping books.
His two greatest pleasures in racing have become going to Monmouth Park and playing in handicapping contests. He qualified for the DRF/NTRA contest at Philadelphia Park. His specialty is playing races where the horses don't have much established form.
"I like the baby races, the maidens, the entry-level type allowance races," he said. "That's what I go after. I think I can outwork some of the public in those races. I do a lot of information gathering on things like the sires and the siblings."
Sacca treats theses contests like he's getting ready for Notre Dame.
"In the handicapping tournaments themselves, I try to take what I've done or accomplished in football and apply some of that," Sacca said. "A lot of it is preparation. At Penn State, we'd draw up a script of the plays we were looking to run, when we were going to run them and in what situations. When I go into a tournament, it's the same. I try to identify the races I'm most suited to and then I draw a script that covers things like what time the race goes off. The script becomes a central point of my attack."
He has found that there are other parallels to football.
"When you're in these handicapping tournaments there are a lot of ebbs and flows so you have to have a short memory. If you just threw an interception, the same thing would apply. When it comes down to crunch time you really have to be composed because there are a lot of races going off and you have to keep your cool under pressure and make calculated decisions at just the right time."
Though he's yet to win a major contest, Sacca has gotten plenty of thrills from horse racing. One stands out: the time he put $8 into the Pick Six and hit the wager for $30,000.
"That was incredible," he said. "It was comparable to throwing a touchdown pass. Actually, I'd give the edge to the Pick Six. At the end of the day, not only are you rewarded with $30,000, but the sheer excitement when your horse turns for home and starts to draw off and all that money is on the line is hard to top."
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.