01/19/2015 2:37PM

Fornatale: Listen up, NHC rookies


The National Handicapping Championship, to be held Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, is just days away. A record number of entries this year means a record number of first-time players. With that in mind, today we’ll take a look at the unique challenges that first-year NHC players face.

Let’s start with booking your trip to Vegas.

“It’s a good idea to get out there early,” professional player Mike Maloney said, “to get that Vegas rush out of your system.”
The night before his first NHC, Maloney stayed up late playing Mountaineer and Charles Town.

“I have trouble walking by a racebook when the lights are on,” he said.

Then he went back to his room and started looking at the next day’s Form.

“I had no shot,” he said. “I treated it like it was just another day at the races, and it’s not. If you’re going to compete with those guys, you’re going to have to prepare properly.”

Preparation really is a key. If you’re looking at races for the first time the day of the tournament, you’ve probably already lost.

“I did all my prep work ahead of time,” said 2010 champ John Doyle. “That let me spend the two days making final adjustments. It seemed to me like I had more stamina than a lot of the field.”

Doyle is really the poster man for first-year NHC entrants. Not only did he win his first NHC, the 2010 NHC was his first live tournament.

“A lot of players get to a point where they fold because they’re under a lot of pressure,” Doyle said. “You have to deal with split-second decision-making, and it can be tough.”

What’s Doyle’s advice to first-time participants?

“Keep cool, and don’t get off your plan right away,” he said. “You’re going to hear a lot of screaming, and you’re going to think half the room has every 20-1 shot that comes in. Don’t worry about that.”

Doyle should know. On the first day at his first NHC, two players went way ahead of the field. Doyle saw the exasperation on the faces of other players, but he just kept plugging along.

Frank Scatoni qualified for the NHC for the first time last year, and he heads back this year with a lot more confidence for having had the run. He agrees with Doyle about the importance of having a plan.

“You need to have a clear-cut game plan for how you want to play – and win – the tournament,” Scatoni said. “Obviously, you also need to be flexible and adapt as the tournament goes on, but being organized and prepared for a two- or three-day battle is of paramount importance because once that first race goes off, it’s two or three days of madness.”

As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” And that’s why it’s good to have more than one plan.

DRF’s Matt Bernier related a story from his first NHC experience that illustrates that point.

“I had some opinions for Santa Anita on Day 1, only to get out there and find out that Santa Anita was washed off the grass,” Bernier said. “I went into immediate panic. You don’t only need to have Plan A. You need to have Plan A, B, C, and D.”

That 12-1 morning line you like might be 6-5. Have a backup plan, whether that means another alternative in a mandatory race or another optional race to play instead.

Eric Moomey, the 2014 NHC Tour champ, will be making his third NHC appearance. In 2013, he started strong and found himself as high as second place.

“I started playing short prices near the end of Day 1, thinking about day money,” he said. “And then a nice longshot hit who I originally liked, and I fell way back. My sight was not set on the finish line.”

By 2014, Moomey was already making a name for himself, and he ended up socializing too much. He wasn’t able to regain his focus after a 16-1 shot he meant to play won. Moomey’s advice to first-year players is simple: “Have a great time. Bring no expectations. Do the best you can.”

But he also sees the opportunity for the NHC to be a great learning experience.

“If you see people who you know are great players, find a good time to go talk to them,” he said. “At no other time throughout the year are you going to be surrounded by as many good players as you are at the NHC.”

BCQualify.com Round 2 Event
Finish Player Hometown Bankroll

1 Kenny Boagni  Opelousas, La.  $123.00
2 Shadron Walton Austin, Texas  $117.20
3 Michael McIntyre Massillon, Ohio  $107.40
4 Brian Herrity  Mankato, Minn.  $100.80
5 Tim Gasaway  Pine, Colo.  $93.80
6 Gerard McClenin Staten Island, N.Y. $93.20

All six win full $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seats plus a travel allowance. Full leaderboard here.

Finish Player Hometown Bankroll
1 Michael Eves  Toronto  $133.20
2 Nathan Ridley  Benicia, Calif.  $132.80

Both win entries to the $3,500 Santa Anita Betting Challenge. Full leaderboard here.

Gulfstream Park Last-Chance Qualifier
Finish Player Hometown Bankroll
1 Even Freedman Hollywood, Fla. $842 NHC berth +7,520
2 Allen Abbott  Toronto  $783 NHC berth  +3,760