01/18/2015 1:16PM

Fornatale: Doyle slides into NHC finals

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When the betting lines for the National Handicapping Championship finals were released yesterday, the field, consisting of all late-season single qualifiers, was listed at 8-1 on the line. If you took those odds, you’re feeling a bit better today – because now you have John Doyle running for you.

Doyle, the 2011 National Handicapping Championship winner, didn’t spend a lot of energy trying to qualify this season. He has been more focused on his own cash play and his roles in two new businesses, the contest site Derby Wars and a startup data company called Equilytix. Still, as the NHC drew close, Doyle wanted to be there.

“I figured I’d qualify somewhere along the way this year, but it just never happened,” Doyle said. “Thank goodness for DRF and NHCQualify.”

He had a couple close calls late in the year. He finished close up in person at one of the Surfside contests in December, and last weekend at NHCQualify.com, he was drawing live to a live longshot at the end. The horse managed third, but Doyle was encouraged by the performance, thinking maybe he was rounding into form.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to build on that,’ ” he said

That’s exactly what he did. The key to the contest for Doyle was picking back-to-back 11-1 winners, Purple Sky in Oaklawn’s sixth and Pink Poppy in Gulfstream’s ninth. Two races later, he thought the favored Silk in Silver couldn’t lose, but that’s not who he played in the contest.

“The price was just too short at 4-5,” Doyle said. “So I switched over to Spirit of Ten.”

When Spirit of Ten won, paying $22.80, Doyle was nearly there, but he still had some work to do. His resolve was tested in the next race at Santa Anita, where his pick, Holy Lute, got taken down. But he kept his cool and backed Notte d’Oro in Fair Grounds’ 10th at 9-2, putting him in first overall. From there, he just hung on. He finished fourth, but that was good enough for a return trip to the NHC.

Doyle understands the challenges – mathematical and otherwise – about potentially becoming the first two-time NHC champ.

“With the field size going through the roof, it’s becoming more and more difficult, but it’s not impossible,” he said. “If it’s my day, I think I can get there.”

As one of the few in the field to have won the NHC before, that statement is indubitable, but the champ also realizes there is a new breed of contest player out there.

“It’s possible that the first two-time winner hasn’t won it once yet,” he said. “It’s becoming more like poker, where the younger players might have an advantage because of their energy level.”

Doyle’s plan for this year involves making his tournament play mirror his cash play more.

“I’m focused on two or three tracks, and that’s the way I’m going to play it,” he said. “I’ll look at the two tracks I play every day and pretty much let it play out. When a mandatory comes up, I’ll dig deep for those.”

He is not concerned about having only one entry in a tournament in which at least 77 participants will have two.

“I had two entries last year, and it changed the way I played,” he explained. “I’d be a lot more worried about not having two entries if it were a one-day contest, but over three days, I have more time. I’m an incher. I grind along, but I’m very consistent.”

The overall contest winner was William Kennedy. Kennedy picked five winners overall, including four whose win mutuels were right around $20 – Purple Sky in Oaklawn’s sixth, Spirit of Ten in Santa Anita’s fourth, I’m a Chatterbox in Fair Grounds’ ninth, and International Star in the Lecomte, Fair Grounds’ 11th.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

Results

Saturday, NHCQualify.com contest

William Kennedy – Chales Town, W.V. – $141.80
Dan Brockman – La Verne, Calif. – $134
Michael Gotkin – Thornhill, Ontario – $121.80
John Doyle – Scottsdale, Ariz. – $118.20
Dan Shugar – Los Angeles – $113.60
Ed Reidy – Gibsonia, Pa. – $110

All six receive berths and travel allowances for next week’s 16th National Handicapping Championship.

Saturday, DRFQualify.com contest

Richard Guggenheim – Sarasota, Fla. – $133.40
Edward Enborg – Jacksonville, Fla. – $121.40
George Chute – Dedham, Mass. – $121

All three receive $3,000 seats plus travel vouchers for the $100,000 Raise Your Game Handicapping Challenge at Gulfstream Park.

Saturday BCQualify.com, round 1 contest

Twenty-one more players advanced to round 2 Sunday. Click here for a list.