02/15/2016 1:06PM

Fornatale: Honaker qualifies for NHC for second time

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Eliot Honaker, a 38-year-old partner in Donegal Racing, won Saturday’s contest on NHCQualify.com, earning a score of $129.80 in the 12-race, all-mandatory sequence. Honaker will return to the National Handicapping Championship for the second time, along with three other players from Saturday: Allan Schaffer ($108.40), Peter Dresens ($107), and Geoffrey Schutt ($105.60).

Honaker, who works in the investment business, became a racing fan two decades ago when he was a student at the University of Kentucky who fell in love with Keeneland. It’s been an eventful couple of years for Honaker as a racing fan and a horseplayer. Travers Stakes Day in particular has been good to him.

In 2014, he played in an NHCQualify.com event on Travers Day and rode V. E. Day to an NHC qualification. A year later, he did even better. Having recently joined up with the Donegal partnership, he saw one of his horses actually win the Travers when Keen Ice pulled his monumental upset over American Pharoah. “The last two Travers have been pretty special,” he said.

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Honaker got off to a great start Saturday, pegging the first two winners, Moose Skowron ($11) in Santa Anita’s second and Weep No More ($29.60) in the ninth race at Tampa Bay Downs. He liked the first-time-gelding angle on Moose Skowron and thought that Weep No More was a contender in a wide-open race.

“The first two races were huge just for my confidence,” he said. “I do much better if I get a few wins early and don’t have to reach desperately for longshots.”

He kept his hot streak going, hitting five of the first seven races without using any favorites. He cooled off late, managing just $9.40 worth of place points from there, but it didn’t matter. His strong first half of the contest left him more than enough of a cushion for a return trip to Las Vegas.

Honaker could have been in trouble had a bomb won the last race, so he enlisted a little extra help to root him on, his 6-year-old son, Andrew. “If you could have seen him screaming for the chalk [Calculator] in the last contest race,” he said, “it was priceless.”

Honaker is a Daily Racing Form user who watches replays and uses Trakus data to make notes on Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Santa Anita. Among the tools Honaker has used to improve his trip handicapping is Dan Illman’s DRF-produced DVD “Trip Handicapping.”

“It’s a gem,” he said, “and it’s really helped me in watching replays.”

Honaker found extra motivation in the fact that he missed qualifying for the 2016 NHC. “I was mad that I didn’t qualify for the NHC last year and wanted to get back this year,” he said.

Also on Saturday, two players won $4,500 entries to the Ultimate Betting Challenge on DRFQualify.com: Tom Heller ($162) and Shea Harrod ($130.60). Both players had the two biggest prices in the sequence, Weep No More and One Lucky Step ($32) in Gulfstream’s 11th race. It’s worth noting that if Heller or Harrod had chosen to multitable and play in both DRF events on Saturday, they’d both be going to the NHC.

On Sunday, both events in the DRF universe were sold out. On BCQualify.com, four players advanced to the $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge: Robert Lloyd ($133.40), Matthew Rentze ($130), Corey Johnsen ($126.40), and Scott Roberts ($99.60). The top three all had at least four winners, including the cap horse Just Foolin Around in Gulfstream’s ninth, who paid $69.20 but was limited to $42 for contest purposes.

Alex Larmey was an unlucky loser, finishing just 40 cents back of fourth place.

Over on DRFQualify.com, Francis Drew ($103.60) and Jeffrey Schmitz ($102.40) won into the Ultimate Betting Challenge. It was the rare day when just two winners were enough to qualify for Schmitz, but the combination of big place points in the first race and the cap horse was enough. He also earned critical place points in three of the last four events.

In other contest news from the weekend, Paul Shurman qualified for the NHC for the 15th consecutive year, joining Sally Goodall as the only 15-time qualifiers. He managed to qualify without hitting the Sunday cap horse, the only player to do so. “I’m glad that’s out of the way,” Shurman said.