12/23/2014 11:04AM

Fornatale: Last call to qualify for NHC online


Saturday marks the final online event for the 2014 NHC Tour on NHCQualify.com. On the same set of races, BCQualify.com will be hosting a qualifying event for a new contest – the Raise Your Game Handicapping Challenge.

The race is still tight at the top of the NHC Tour standings, with Brett Wiener holding a narrow lead. But the really interesting race is to see who will earn automatic National Handicapping Championship berths by finishing in the top 150 on the NHC Tour.

Heading into last weekend, Michele McSweeney, assistant trainer to Tim Hills, was right on the cusp in 151st place. “Of course, I started the year looking to qualify by winning a tournament,” McSweeney said. “But I looked about a month ago and saw that I was in the top 150, and I started pursuing the tour more online. It hasn’t worked out, but I’m glad I have one more chance.”

McSweeney’s contest strategy is to keep things simple, and she prefers formats where all picks must be in before the first race. “I just try to pick winners,” she said, “and I find that my first instincts are usually the better ones.”

As part of this philosophy, McSweeney plays only one entry per tournament. But Eric Bialek, who at 23 was among the youngest qualifiers at the 2014 NHC, believes that this is the time to play the maximum number of entries in order to maximize one’s chances of getting crucial tour points.

Bialek was sitting in 143rd place heading into last weekend. He was in 100th place as recently as November. “I’ve been declining ever since,” he said, “but the most I’ve ever dropped in a week is about five spots, so if this weekend holds true to a typical weekend, I should be fine.”

He mostly plays online but does attend the NHC Tour events at Hawthorne, near his home in Chicago. In fact, if one more player had played in the most recent Hawthorne live event, assuming that he beat that person, he would have received 200 extra points for his ninth-place finish and would be pretty much locked in for the NHC right now.

Mark McGuire, a veteran on the tournament scene, got into the NHC via the points system last year. “I love swooping in with just points,” he said. “I play mostly in live tournaments, but if it’s late in the year and I’m in contention, I’ll start playing in every tour event I can.”

McGuire was in 145th place heading into last weekend. “It’s been a little more of a struggle at the end of the year here than I was hoping,” he said. As a result, he’ll be pulling out all the stops, heading to Del Mar to play in the three live Surfside tournaments and also playing in the NHCQualify.com event online.

“I’ll just be shooting for a top 10 percent finish in all of them,” McGuire said. “If I can get 300 points, I’m in.”

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For McGuire, that means just trying to find winners. “In the beginning, you keep your longshots in,” he said, “but once you get into position, you can just play the horses you like the most or even chalk out.”

One thing that unites all three players is the margin by which they have missed qualifying for the NHC outright this season: a nose. McSweeney missed qualifying at Pimlico, Bialek at Hawthorne, and McGuire on NHCQualify.com. All hope to be on the right side of those photos this weekend.

Here are the races that make up the NHCQualify and BCQualify contests Saturday:
3:43 Aqueduct 8
3:58 Gulfstream 8
4:12 Aqueduct 9
4:21 Fair Grounds 5
4:27 Gulfstream 9
4:57 Gulfstream 10
5:00 Santa Anita 4
5:19 Fair Grounds 7
5:30 Santa Anita 5
6:00 Santa Anita 6
6:20 Fair Grounds 9
6:30 Santa Anita 7

For NHCQualify.com, sign up here. For BCQualify.com, sign up here.