01/04/2016 2:13PM

Fornatale: Kinchen wraps up Tour title

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Jonathon Kinchen became the youngest National Handicapping Championship Tour winner on Sunday. Throughout the year, Kinchen scored four wins and two seconds in NHC-sanctioned events. The 33-year-old from Austin, Tex., first made a mark on the handicapping tournament world by landing two entries in the top 10 at the 2015 NHC Finals and kept his momentum rolling from that point on.

The NHC Tour is a year-long interconnected series of contests. The winner receives $75,000, plus a chance at a $2 million bonus should that player go on to win the NHC itself. By winning the tour, Kinchen also becomes the first qualifier for the 2017 NHC.

NHC Tour rules use a player’s best six scores in NHC qualifying events – at least one of those must come at a live venue (i.e., not online). The number of Tour points awarded varies depending on the number of participants. Winners also receive a 25 percent points bonus – a new rule for 2016 that dramatically increased the importance of finishing first overall in Tour events.

This played right into Kinchen’s hands. He dominated online Tour events in the first half of 2016, earning two crucial first-place results. From there, the equation looked simple: If he was going to win the Tour, he’d need to do well – and probably have to win – an on-site contest. This proved to be a difficult chore.

Multiple times in 2015, Kinchen was in the lead or in contention halfway through live events. Each time something went awry. He went cold on day two at Santa Anita after being in second at the end of day one in June; he was over-aggressive and bet himself out of position at Del Mar in July; and after a strong start at Saratoga in August, he failed to connect in a meaningful way on day two.

“I was starting to feel like a sprinter stretching out who couldn’t quite get the mile,” he joked at the time.

In all seriousness, all the travel and stress were starting to take a toll. “To be honest, I was feeling tired and a little bit dejected,” he said back in August. “It’s been a long time to be away from my family – I haven’t been home 26 of the last 30 days.”

Undaunted, Kinchen kept plugging away. That very weekend, he flew to Chicago on Saturday morning to play in Hawthorne’s Arlington Million Day contest, one of the few live-bankroll events that allows multi-race wagering. Kinchen went all in on a Pick 5 and had apparently lost when Secret Gesture, whom he did not use, won the Beverly D. But when the inquiry sign went up, Kinchen had hope, and when Secret Gesture came down, he was sitting on a ticket. A short while later when The Pizza Man won, he was nearly $20,000 richer and looking a likely NHC Tour winner.

Knowing the depth and quality of the field in behind chasing him, Kinchen decided to keep playing. In the process, he did something else he hadn’t done before: He won a traditional live-bank contest, the Gulfstream Raise Your Game in September.

From there, it was a waiting game. There were just enough scenarios for him to be overtaken that Kinchen had a few anxious moments. Especially when Tommy Massis, shortly after winning the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge and fall Del Mar contest, appeared poised to win Hawthorne’s fall contest. But Massis fell short in the end, and while he continued to apply pressure throughout the end of the Tour season, he never got to Kinchen.

Later this week, when official scores are vetted and tabulated, there will be more news on the NHC Tour front. The Top 20 players on the Tour will all compete in a contest-within-a-contest at this year’s NHC, for an extra $25,000 and a seat to the 2017 Finals. Additionally, any player finishing in the top 150 who wasn’t already qualified will get a berth to this year’s Finals. At last year’s NHC, five of the 10 players at the Final Table qualified through this method.

NHC qualifiers

On Saturday, seven players won their way in to the NHC Finals via NHCQualify.com. They are: Bart Powell ($109.60), James Timinck ($99.20), Nick Masesso ($98.60), Phil Hoedebeck ($97.40), John Cilia ($94.40), Steven Simonovich ($94.30), and Howard Meyers ($94.20).

It was a fascinating contest that started with an impressive 466 entrants. Scores were very low until the last race, when Flamboyant won Santa Anita’s eighth at 45-1, though the price was limited to 20-1 for contest purposes. The players in the top five before that race ended up in the low 50s overall and didn’t even get tour points.

Around 50 of the overall 466 participants played the big bomb in the last, a result that will no doubt produce gnashing of teeth among those who don’t like mythical money online contests. But it’s important to note that the seven players who qualified all had around $35 on average heading to the last. In other words, it’s not like one horse was able to win the day for them. They had all done something up to that point.

It was a particularly good contest for the editorial staff of PublicHandicapper.com. PublicHandicapper is a free contest site owned by Daily Racing Form. Steve Simonovich, who finished fifth, is a PH editor who won the prestigious PH Challenge back in 2011. PH founder Scott Carson also had a big day. Carson, on the bubble in terms of the necessary Tour points for qualification via the top 150, finished 13th, and will advance to the NHC.

A few other bullet points from around the country:

* Last year’s NHC winner John O’Neil – who secured his first seat for the 2016 event by virtue of that win – now has a second seat for 2016. He finished in third in Monmouth’s event.

* Ryan Flanders had a lucky-unlucky weekend. Flanders finished in the money in all three of Surfside’s tournaments with seconds on Friday and Saturday and a third on Sunday. Even with two wins, Flanders wouldn’t have passed Kinchen, but he would have at least finished second on the Tour. Still, Flanders, who made the final table in 2014, will have a spot in the Top 20 tournament and get some Tour prize money as well.

* John Nichols, head clocker at Churchill Downs and an avid tourney player, finished fourth at Hawthorne, earning his first on-site points for 2016. These should be enough to secure his spot in the top 20. Tour results will be finalized later this week.