01/27/2016 9:01PM

Field of 629 chases National Handicapping Championship title

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LAS VEGAS – The 17th annual National Handicapping Championship, presented by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, is finally here. This year’s NHC, which runs Thursday through Saturday at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, will offer the largest purse in handicapping contest history – approximately $2.5 million, with $800,000 to the winner. In a move meant to honor all horseplayers, the winner also will receive an Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year.

“The National Handicapping Championship is one of the great success stories in horse racing and a true celebration of the horseplayer and all they mean to our sport and business,” NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop said. “The NHC has realized sustained growth for 17 consecutive years, and it would not be possible without the support we receive from Daily Racing Form, thousands of horseplayers who participate in NHC qualifiers throughout the year, and the more than 40 diverse organizations that host qualifiers in North and South America.”

The NHC is the one contest where players can’t buy in – your spot must be won in a qualifying event. The field consists of 507 individuals, 122 of whom qualified twice, for a total of 629 entries, the largest in NHC history and up from 606 entries last year, a record number at the time.

:: NHC 2016: Video updates and news coverage from Las Vegas

The field was finalized Wednesday afternoon with the completion of Treasure Island’s last-chance tournament. Nine players won entries in the Last Chance, which featured a $500 buy-in. The 225-runner field was topped by Dan Kovalesky, who won his second entry. Kovalesky went crazy at Gulfstream Park, picking six winners and beating the field by a wide margin. Also gaining entries were Craig Hom, Eric Lange, Clint Littlejohn, Jerry Barash, Vaughn Bair, Steve DeCaspers, and Pat Cronin.

As usual, the NHC field represents the cream of the crop in the contest world. Seven former champions will be competing, led by last year’s winner, John O’Neil. Also looking to become the first two-time winner in NHC history will be Stanley Bavlish (2007), Richard Goodall (2008), Brian Troop (2010), Michael Beychok (2012), Jim Benes (2013), and Jose Arias (2014).

:: Play at Home: Play online to earn a spot in the 2017 NHC at NHCQualify.com

Additionally, six winners of the prestigious NHC Tour – a yearlong, interconnected series of contests – will be competing: Tom Noone (2010), Paul Shurman (2011), Mark Streiff (2012), Brent Sumja (2013), Eric Moomey (2014), and Jonathon Kinchen (2015).
Kinchen is a particularly interesting case because should he win, he is eligible for a $2 million bonus as the current NHC Tour champion.

For many in the field, qualifying for the NHC is annual ritual. Three players will be making their 14th appearances: Sally Goodall, Paul Shurman (consecutive, 2003-16), and David “Trey” Stiles (consecutive, 2003-16). Four players will be making their 13th appearance: Louis Constan, Patrick Gianforte, Duke Matties (consecutive, 2004-16), and Bill Shurman (11 consecutive).

As usual, California is the state that the most players call home, with 110 entries representing the Golden State this year (as of Jan. 25). Second in the parade of states is New Jersey with 61 entries, followed by New York (54), Illinois (28), Texas (27), Florida (25), and Ohio and Pennsylvania (21 apiece). Canada is represented by 33 handicappers, with Ontario leading all provinces with 22 players. In all, 40 U.S. states (including Hawaii) and four Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario) will be represented at the NHC.

This year’s field also will feature the first-ever Latin American NHC qualifier. Leandro Tomas of Lima, Peru, won a Nov. 28 event at Lima’s Hipódromo de Monterrico, held jointly between the NTRA and LARC, the Latin American Racing Channel.

Tomas is attempting to become the second NHC winner based outside of the United States, joining Brian Troop, from Barrie, Ontario, who took down NHC 11 in 2010. Tomas is new to contests, but he’s already caught the bug. Should he finish high enough at NHC 17 to earn a significant check, he’s already on the record as planning to reinvest it in entries to qualify for NHC 18.

NHC Finals rules have evolved over the years, and there are significant changes to the 2016 format, starting with the shift of days from Friday to Sunday to Thursday to Saturday. On each of the first two days of the tournament, players must make 18 $2 win-place bets – this is up from 15 last year. Just like last year, eight of those races each day will be chosen by a selection committee and designated as mandatory.

Thursday’s mandatory races are (all times eastern): Aqueduct race 6, 3:20 p.m,. Oaklawn race 4, 3:52, Oaklawn race 5, 4:19, Fair Grounds race 7, 5:23, Gulfstream race 11, 5:35, Oaklawn race 9, 6:10, Santa Anita race 6, 6:30, Santa Anita race 7, 7:00. Friday’s mandatories will be announced at approximately 10 a.m. Eastern on Thursday. Look for them on DRF Live and the @loomsboldly Twitter account.

In addition to those mandatory bets, the other 10 bets each day will be optional and can be placed at any race held at one of six tracks on Thursday: Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Gulfstream, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita. On Friday, Tampa Bay Downs will be added to the mix for a total of seven contest tracks.

After two days, the field will be winnowed down to a semi-final round of the top 10 percent. Last year, this round was limited to 50 entries. In a new rule for 2016, players with two entries may carry them all the way through the end of the contest – the so-called Jonathon Kinchen rule.

At the start of the day on Saturday, the top 10 percent, whose scores will carry over, will play 10 optional races, concluding at approximately 3:30p.m. Eastern. At that point, the top 10 entries will advance to the final table, with scores once again carrying over. The final table will once again consist of seven mandatory races.

For complete coverage of the 2016, follow along with DRF Live throughout the three days. Players also are encouraged to play along with the NHC via online tournaments on Friday and Saturday hosted by NHCQualify.com for just $50 each day. Friday’s prize pool will be at least $10,000 in site credit and/or an entry to the Ultimate Betting Challenge at Gulfstream or Santa Anita. Saturday’s contest will feature the first seat to the 2017 National Handicapping Championship offered online.

For the second straight year, players can bet on who will win the NHC at the Treasure Island sports book. The field, consisting of players who qualified after Oct. 31, opened as the 4-1 favorite.