01/18/2016 1:50PM

Fornatale: Aylward tops final online qualifiers


Mark Aylward was one of seven players to qualify to the 2016 National Handicapping Championship via NHCQualify.com on Saturday. This was the final online qualifier for the NHC, which takes place on Jan. 28-30 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

Aylward ($104.80), backed five winners overall at a range of prices from odds-on favorite Stageplay ($3.20) in the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds to Analog Girl ($34.80) in Santa Anita’s sixth.

Aylward, a 45-year old self-employed concrete contractor originally from the Boston area, narrowly missed qualifying back in August on NHCQ, when he was fourth, less than $10 out of qualifying position – but he made up for that disappointment on Saturday. “This is a great opportunity,” he said. “I can’t wait for Las Vegas.”

At the last second, he got off a big-priced winner in the ninth contest event (Instant Drama, $28.40) and was worried he might have blown his chance. But he came back strongly in Santa Anita’s next race with Analog Girl. “I like Edwin Maldonado on a speed horse,” he explained. “She was changing trainers and had some good works so I played her. She won for fun at 16-1 and it was over from there.”

Aylward, a racing fan for most of his life, now lives in North Carolina, where there are no tracks or simulcast facilities. “That’s why I got into contest play,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win some online tournaments, including a $100,000 game and some $25,000 games. I love contests because of the competition; it is very thrilling to play against the best handicappers in the country.”

He made the NHC last year in his first year trying. He expects a better result in 2016. “I was overwhelmed by the experience,” he said. “I wasn't ready and still played okay; it is a first-class experience and can't wait to go back.”

Let’s have a look at the other six qualifiers from Saturday and how they got there:

* Will Nefzger ($97.70) also backed five winners, the longest of which was Instant Drama in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita.

* Vaughn Bair ($96.20) managed just two winners – one of whom was Analog Girl – but had seven collections overall. Those critical place points got him into qualifying position.

* Brian Chenvert ($95.80) didn’t have a winner in the first 10 contest races – but he did have $32.60 from two longshots he had bet to place. From there he hit his own personal late double with Analog Girl and Mo Tom ($6.40) in the Lecomte.

* Nick Tammaro ($92) earned his second NHC berth – both of which came on NHCQ – by backing five winners overall. He had three double-digit winners in the first half of the card: Nubin Ridge ($15.20) in Aqueduct’s eighth, Manchurian High ($16.40) in the Sunshine Millions Turf, and Alpine Luck ($11.60) in Santa Anita’s fourth. From there, two short-priced three-year-olds, Stageplay and Mo Tom, got him to his goal.

* Artis Roque ($91.70) had earned five top 10 percent finishes on the NHC Tour in 2015 but had yet to qualify until Saturday. Roque is another who rode the Analog Girl-Mo Tom double to success.

* Frank Foss ($91.60) had three collections – all of them winners: Nubin Ridge, Alpine Luck, and Analog Girl. He’ll head to Vegas with an eye toward winning his share of the expected $2.5 million purse.

Shurman sweeps on DRFQualify

The big story on DRFQualify.com this past weekend is a familiar name to most contest players: Bill Shurman. Shurman, who finished ninth on the NHC Tour this year and was third on the Tour last year, managed to win both of the DRFQ contests for the Ultimate Betting Challenge, to be held at Gulfstream and Santa Anita. He now has the maximum two $4,500 seats for the upcoming live-bankroll contest, which he’ll play from the Eddie Logan Suite at Santa Anita.

Shurman has been having a rough go of late in contests. “I haven’t been playing much since I got my sixth score for the tour,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve had a collection in a month, so I’ve been cutting back on my play even more.”

This weekend’s DRFQ contests appealed to him. “I’ve been looking for spots to have fun, but hopefully not spend too much money,” he explained. “Since I usually go to the Santa Anita tourney anyway, DRFQualify seemed like a good place to risk a little money while I watched football.”

Shurman’s long-held belief is that contest players are “just taking turns” beating each other, but when you examine the decisions made in Sunday’s final race on DRFQ, they tell a different story. At least three of the players chasing Shurman didn’t select a horse in the final race that gave them any chance to pass him. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be “the best tournament players are just taking turns.”

Shurman was also one of 35 players on BCQualify.com to finish in the top 10 percent thus earning a spot in next Sunday’s Round 2 contest for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. There will be a final Round 1 qualifier next Saturday on BCQualify.com.