12/02/2014 12:44PM

Fornatale: Hoffman rocketing up charts on NHC Tour

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For a large part of the year, the same six names have been atop the NHC Tour leaderboard in one combination or another: Bill Shurman, Brett Wiener, Bill Wilbur, Jacqueline Sukanick, Eric Moomey, and Ken Seeman. But in recent weeks, a new contender has emerged from the middle of the pack. Nobody is hotter than Paul Hoffman right now.

It has been said that a player doesn’t choose to play on the Tour so much as the Tour chooses them. But that’s not really the case with Hoffman. “I made a conscious effort to chase the Tour this year,” he said. “I took some money that I won on the Tour last year and decided to invest it in myself, to play against the best and improve my skills.”

In fact, Hoffman has spent the last three years thinking about the Tour. In 2012, he ended up 20th overall. Last year, he came in fifth. And that’s where he sits this year as we approach the final stretch.

“It’s been a progression,” Hoffman said, “I’ve been improving every year and I’m hoping to have some more luck go my way and to close out the deal in December.”

Hoffman, a 59-year-old retail manager from Schaumburg, Ill., got off to a hot start this season in live-bankroll events at Santa Anita. He qualified twice for the NHC by Preakness Day. His recent successes include a win on NHCQualify.com’s Nov. 15 contest and another over Thanksgiving weekend at Hawthorne. “Hawthorne’s been very good to me,” he said. “That’s where I grew up and I’m very comfortable there.”

In a funny twist on the story one usually hears, Hoffman had been going to the races regularly before he discovered that he was a third-generation horseplayer. “After going to the track about 100 times, I ran into my dad there,” he said. “I never even knew he was a horseplayer. He comes from an older generation where you had to hide that.”

He started going to the track with work associates from a country club. “We’d hear from some owner that some horse was going to win,” he said, “And we’d go out there and bet and the horse wouldn’t do anything. So we learned to avoid bad information and do the handicapping ourselves.”

Hoffman has qualified for the NHC each of the last four years but he only learned about horse racing contests in the wake of Brian Troop’s well-publicized NHC win back in 2010. “Brian Troop was on the back of every Racing Form I picked up one summer,” Hoffman said, “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ And then I started playing in contests myself, first in local events and then nationally.”

He is old-school in his approach to handicapping. “I’m a problem solver,” he said. “I believe you only need two tools. One is the Daily Racing Form. The second one is an open mind.”

Hoffman believes players develop personal biases that infect their overall handicapping – a certain jockey isn’t good on the lead or a certain trainer doesn’t do well with layoff horses. “When you can throw all that garbage out of your handicapping,” he said, “you have a chance to solve the problem and discover who is going to win today.”

In a nice contrarian flourish, Hoffman will even look to certain horses where he feels other players’ biases might get in the way – a horse who usually breaks poorly, or one who apparently needs the lead – because under the right circumstances those horses can still win at prices.

Hoffman won’t reveal all the contests he plans to play between now and the end of the year but he knows it’s not going to be an easy road – the payout structure for the NHC Tour final standings is top-heavy, with $75,000 to first and only $5,000 to fifth. “That’s okay with me,” Hoffman said, “Even if I don’t get there I’ll just be that much more prepared the next time I have the opportunity.”

He probably needs an outright win of one of two upcoming events to win the top prize and be eligible for the $2 million bonus if he wins the NHC itself. “I know I’m still a longshot,” he said, “but if I can pull it off, I’m going to be that deep closer who swoops in and gets to the wire first in the last jump.”