11/10/2014 11:01AM

Fornatale: Contest winner hits at 50 percent


After a one-week hiatus for the Breeders’ Cup, qualifying action returned to NHCQualify.com on Saturday. A full field of 325 players competed for five seats at the National Handicapping Championship, to be held at Treasure Island in Las Vegas from Jan. 23-25.

The winner was Tom O’Connor, of Mableton, Ga., who finished with $149.20, 3.1 times the starting bankroll of $48.

O’Connor selected six winners in the 12-race sequence, but the one who mattered most was the longshot Itz a Saint in Del Mar’s seventh race, the anchor leg of the contest. Itz a Saint led the field wire-to-wire and paid $47 to win and $19 to place, though because of the price cap, she paid only $42 to win for contest purposes. Her place price was under the $22 place cap, so she was worth a total of $61 in the contest.

All five players who qualified for the NHC selected Itz a Saint. Second-place finisher Robert Minutillo, of Bethesda, Md., finished with $146.80. He was hot early and late in the contest. He started out by hitting a cold pick four: Gathering ($8.60 to win) in Churchill’s sixth; Aigue Marine in Aqueduct’s seventh, the Grade 3 Long Island Handicap; Official ($4) in Aqueduct’s eighth; and East Hall ($6.80) in Gulfstream’s eighth.

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Minutillo then blanked five races in a row but secured his spot in Vegas by scoring in the last three contest events. He received place points on Savingtime ($13.20 to place) in Gulfstream’s 10th, then had Suva Harbor ($14.80 to win) in Del Mar’s sixth and Itz a Saint.

Sheldon Usprech, of Thornhill, Ontario, finished third with $139.60. He is another whose contest hopes rose from the ashes late in the game. He hit the late pick three cold: Leap Year Luck ($17.20) in Gulfstream’s 10th race, then Suva Harbor and Itz a Saint. Those added to his two earlier winners and were enough to get the job done.

The fourth-place finisher was Bob Gregory, of Durango, Colo. ($139.20). Five races into the contest, he didn’t have a single point. But he got things going with two place horses, including place capper Hamp in the Grade 3 River City at Churchill Downs, and then, like Usprech, nailed the late pick three.

The fifth qualifier was William Sadoo, of Central, S.C. After a poor start, he got on the board with Little Jerry ($27.60) in Del Mar’s fourth race, then backed that up with Hamp, Savingtime, and Itz a Saint.

One other interesting name on the final leaderboard was Frank Polk, of Oklahoma City. Polk finished ninth with $124.80. He already has two NHC seats secured but was playing for NHC Tour points.

On the last available leaderboard, Polk sat 28th overall with 10,287 Tour points. The way the tour scoreboard works is that players can use up to five scores from throughout the year, at least one of which must be from a live event.

Current tour leader Bill Shurman has 15,927 points. But whereas Shurman’s five scores are all pretty high, a player like Polk has room to improve his scores in an attempt to get into the money. For his success Saturday, Polk will get 2,280 points and move up the leaderboard significantly.

For more about the Tour, check out http://www.ntra.com/en/nhc/nhc-tour-leader-board/.