11/30/2015 12:22PM

Fornatale: Contest clique clicking on all cylinders


When you talk to most contest players, the message is clear: One of the best things about playing is the camaraderie among players. At any contest, especially one like the National Handicapping Championship or the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, lifelong friendships are made in the contest room.

For example, take Table 69 from the auxiliary ballroom at Treasure Island in 2015, where Eric Bialek and Nick Tammaro sat at last year’s NHC. Their group got along so well that they became involved in an ongoing group text exchange (older readers: ask your kids) involving six players, including Jackie Jenkins and Dan Kovalesky. On the group text, all of racing’s relevant topics have been discussed throughout the year, from the worthiness of American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown to the best way to staple (younger readers: ask your parents) your DRF past performances.

The group text has also been an opportunity to provide help and support – as well as a chance to bust each other’s chops. For example, Bialek is a bit of a pariah within the group. As the only one without an iPhone, “He breaks up the smooth communication that is iMessage,” according to one group chat member.

This weekend was in many ways the zenith of the group’s achievements this year. Tammaro, playing on NHCQualify.com, managed to hold on for a qualifying spot. This is his third NHC qualification in his four years of contest play. Tammaro was leading going into the last but was passed by Rocky Hardy and Tom Heller, both of whom will be joining him in Vegas.

Eric Bialek will be there as well. Bialek became one of the youngest NHC qualifiers ever when he qualified for the 2014 event at 22 years old. Bialek, an accomplished lacrosse player and budding triathlete, had home games on Friday and Saturday. The Chicago resident was playing in the Hawthorne NHC live-bankroll qualifying contests. He ended up in second place on Saturday, good for his third straight year at the big dance. He qualified on Tour points last year. “It was a low scoring day, but Dortmund finally bailed me out from the Derby,” Bialek said. “It was a great day for the group text.”

The group’s success didn’t stop there. Kovalesky, who finished fifth in the 2014 NHC, won a qualifying spot in another online contest. And Jenkins has the best story of all. He was playing in the BCQualify.com feeder for a spot in the Dec. 6 qualifying contest for next year’s BCBC. But he had a little problem. “I purchased my entries a few days before when they went on sale and forgot about them,” he explained. “When I heard on the group text that Nick was in position to qualify for the NHC, I remembered the BCQ entries.”

Jenkins almost didn’t bother to put the plays in at that point. Six races had already passed and he thought that the prices on the two Tom Proctor horses he liked might not pay enough to get him where he wanted to be anyway. But since the BCQ contest only required a top 10 percent finish to advance, he went ahead and put them in. Sure enough Family Meeting ($76.60 but limited to $42 for the contest) and Chiropractor ($30.80) both won and Jenkins ended up fourth overall, never mind that he didn’t put in his first six picks!

As for the other two members of the group chat, they had okay weekends as well. Track announcer Travis Stone, a friend of Tammaro’s for many years via a horse racing message board, called three graded stakes at Churchill Downs and finished up his first full rotation as the storied track’s caller.

The sixth member of the team is current NHC Tour leader Jonathon Kinchen. Kinchen has long been presumed to be home and hosed on the Tour – he has had a commanding lead since winning the Gulfstream contest back in September. But he started to look just a little vulnerable on Friday night.

Tommy Massis, who has been on an epic run in contests himself, was in first place by a lot going into the last at Hawthorne. It looked for all the world like he was going to have his fourth victory on the year. According to him, he left the plant having been told that he had won. If correct, that would have put him within another top 5 finish and a top 10 percent finish of unseating Kinchen – well within the realm of possibility. In the end, however, Gene Cahalan hit a $100 double in the last race to pass Massis and keep Kinchen safe – for now. Massis still needs an outright win and a top 5 finish to get close. Massis is, however, in the top 20 on the Tour already and in a great spot to be eligible for the contest-within-a-contest at the NHC.

As for Kinchen, he decided at the last minute on Friday night to fly to Chicago and play in the Hawthorne contest, the site of his first onsite victory this season. “I got it in my head that Tommy could become an issue and thought it would be fun to return to the scene of one of my tour wins,” he said. While he didn’t do much himself, he was able to celebrate along with his friends as they punched their tickets to Vegas.

Tammaro summed up the situation perfectly: “Most of the year Dan, Jackie, Eric, and I have been rooting Jonathon on, but we all finally had our day in the sun.”

For full NHCQ results, go to http://www.nhcqualify.com/leaderboard.aspx.

For full BCQ results, check out http://www.bcqualify.com/leaderboard.aspx.