01/30/2016 12:29PM

Fornatale: Heading into the stretch of the NHC

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It’s championship Saturday at the 17th annual National Handicapping Championship. David Gutfreund, a handicapping- and poker-tournament veteran, leads the field with a bankroll of $237.

Ray Arsenault, of Toronto, who led the NHC going into yesterday’s final available race, held on for second with $236.40. A tightly bunched top 10 was rounded out by David Sullivan ($235), Charlie Davis ($232.60), Day 1 leader Phil Bongiovanni ($224.40), Paul Matties ($223.90), Robert Engelhard ($219.70), Dan Camoro ($213.60), Joe Perry ($213), and Jeff Einardt ($211.40). Perry also has a second entry in 22nd place, the only contestant with two entries left.

Today begins with 63 players – 10 percent of the original field – continuing in the semifinal round, where their bankrolls will carry over from the first two days. The players will make 10 elective plays from 29 races ending at approximately 12:30 p.m. Pacific. The semifinals’ menu of eligible tracks and race numbers (listed in order of first post time) are: Gulfstream, races 1-7; Aqueduct, 1-7; Tampa Bay Downs, 1-7; Oaklawn Park, 1-3; Fair Grounds,  1-3; and Santa Anita, 1-2.

Bankrolls also will carry over to the final table, where the massive cash prizes from $800,000 for first down to $50,000 for 10th and the Eclipse Award for Horseplayer of the Year will be determined on seven mandatory races with estimated post times from 1:30 to  4 p.m. Pacific.

The final-table races (with estimated Pacific post times) are: Gulfstream 10 (1:35 p.m.), Fair Grounds 6 (1:54); Oaklawn 7 (2:09), Gulfstream 12 (2:35), Santa Anita 7 (3:00), Santa Anita 8 (3:30), and Santa Anita 9 (4:00).

For coverage, stay tuned to DRF Live and follow @loomsboldly and @bernier_matt on Twitter.

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• In addition to his success in handicapping tournaments, current NHC leader David Gutfreund has an impressive résumé in the world of poker. His career earnings on the felt are $594,000, with his biggest success being a $156,000 score on the Heartland Poker Tour at Soaring Eagle in November.

There are three other players in the semis who have final-table experience – Ken Jordan, second in last year’s event; Chris Skotz, who finished seventh in 2014; and Michael Ferrozzo, who was 10th last year – but Gutfreund is a final-table veteran in the poker world.

“I’ve played at three televised final tables,” he said. “I’d like to think if I’m lucky enough to get that far, that my experience under the lights would be helpful. There are very few realistic opportunities for me to make this kind of score.”

Gutfreund, a 12-time NHC qualifier, has cashed twice previously in the NHC, with two top-20 finishes. He feels good about his preparation for this test.

“The way it works out, preparing for Day 3 isn’t as time consuming as preparing for the first two days,” he said. “There are only 29 races to choose from, and a number of those have disqualified themselves, so I might only be looking at 14 races to make 10 optional plays.”

Gutfreund is friendly with Randy Bauer, who is coming off an emotional year and was in contention to advance at the end of the day.

“Right after I put in my last play, I saw Randy,” Gutfreund said. “He was right on the bubble and told me he had to get some points in the last race.”

Gutfreund told him, “You’re fated to finish in the money here; I know you’re going to do it.”

Bauer did it indeed, getting place points in the last race and just creeping in by 20 cents. “I saw him after the race, and we had a nice moment,” Gutfreund said. “As long as he doesn’t finish in front of me, I’m rooting for him.”

• Let’s take a look at a few of the 63 semifinalists still competing at NHC 17.

Only one player, Joe Perry, has two entries remaining. Perry, a 56-year-old accountant from Hamilton, N.J., has won 10 tournaments, including a $25,200 payout at a Sports Haven contest in Connecticut in 2008. His two-ticket strategy was generally to play his optional races the same across his two tickets and to split them up in the mandatory races. “I played them half split up and half the same,” said Perry, an eight-time NHC qualifier.

He is not yet thinking about the new NHC rule that allows players to advance two entries to the final table. “I usually struggle in these contests, and I’m hoping to get money,” he said.

Two of the players have previously appeared at the NHC final tables. Ken Jordan was second last year and took home $250,000. Chris Skotz was seventh in 2014 and won $14,000. Skotz is a 50-year-old program manager from Campbell, Calif. He’s been known to have premonitions about horses. “I once had a dream about a horse named Beans,” he said, “and then I saw the horse entered the next day at Charles Town.”

Skotz convinced a college buddy to drive with him in the snow from northern Virginia to Charles Town to bet the horse without even looking at the Daily Racing Form. “Beans ended up winning convincingly at 6-1 or so,” he said, “making for an enjoyable ride back in the snow.”

Skotz looks forward to playing for a whole lot of beans this afternoon.

Five players from the top 20 on the NHC Tour are still competing. In addition to the main tournament, those five are competing for an additional $25,000 and a seat at next year’s NHC. They are Bob Engelhard, Roger Cettina, Sean Nolan, Mark Stanton, and Bill Shurman.

Stanley Bavlish is bidding to become the first two-time champion. Bavlish, who won the NHC in 2007, sits in 15th place.

Two NHC runners-up are still around, Cettina, second to Jim Benes in 2013, and Jordan, second to John O’Neil last year.

Brothers Paul and Duke Matties are in the semis, with Paul in sixth with $223.90 and Duke in 30th with $192.90.

There are two players in their 20s remaining: Dylan McIntosh, 23, and Josh Montes, 25.