07/22/2015 12:28PM

Fornatale: Marlaire sets sights on NHC Tour's top five

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Michael Marlaire went into last weekend thinking he might try to make a late run to get into the top five on the NHC Tour. The players in those spots through Aug. 1 will collect $10,000 bonuses. He has already earned the maximum of two qualifications for the 2016 National Handicapping Championship, but he continues to play in NHC events because of the tour points.

“I was barely in the top 20 heading into the weekend,” he said, “but I got really hot on Sunday and managed to win the NHCQualify.com contest.”
The win vaulted Marlaire into the top 10 on the tour and gives him a shot at a $10,000 bonus. There is a funny wrinkle to Marlaire’s win. Players who come close to qualifying on the Daily Racing Form contest sites but fall just short often receive breakage credits that enable them to play in future events. In addition to his two qualifications this year, Marlaire has had several close calls.

“I’ve been playing on breakage credit and being registered automatically on NHCQualify.com,” he said, “so I didn’t notice the paragraph about last week’s winner also getting a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seat until after the contest.”

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So, not only is Marlaire now in the hunt for a $10,000 bonus, he’s already won a prize worth more than $10,000 – a BCBC seat.
Marlaire, 61, has been playing the horses since the mid-1980s and discovered contest play two years ago. He qualified for the NHC in his first year of tournament play by finishing in the top 150 on the NHC Tour.

“Sitting in a room with 400 experts was remarkable,” he said. “You knew somebody in that room was going to win close to a million dollars.”
He failed to qualify for the NHC in 2014 but made a last-ditch effort to get into the tournament by playing in the last-chance contest the day before the NHC began.

“I still couldn’t get in, and it felt so much worse because I got the flavor of being there,” he said.

In 2015, Marlaire vowed to take a different approach in contest play.

“I was playing too many longshots,” he said. “You have to get them when they are there to be gotten, but I think I was forcing it.”

Marlaire handicaps by using the DRF. “There are three things I look at,” he said. “First, the horse, then the jockey and the trainer. I go through all the stats in the Form.”

He said preparation is crucial to contest success. “The key for tournament purposes is to make sure you handicap all the races in advance,” he said.

“In particular, I look if there are any big favorites at the end of the day who probably won’t lose. If there are, I know that I’ll have to find my bigger prices earlier.”

It’s a good point, especially because longer prices early in a contest are worth a lot more in reality than longer prices late, simply because fewer players will have them.

“At the end of the day, if you’re way behind, it can be hard to come back,” he said, “because a lot of players will start playing every longshot. I don’t want to bet longshots at the end because that’s what everybody is doing.”

Instead, Marlaire takes a chip-away approach. “I try to be patient for as long as possible,” he said. “I try to get some points each round.”

In his day-to-day life, Marlaire works for NASA. “I’ve been a federal civil servant for 30 years,” he said. “I’m the director of a research facility in Silicon Valley [California]. It’s a huge 2,000-acre site.”

The competition is the primary factor that draws him to contest play. “I’ve heard a lot of contest players talk about how they play for the competition more than for the money,” he said. “When you think about that, it makes sense, especially being older. I’m not going to go run races anymore or play sports, and even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be one of the best guys out there. In contests, you can compete successfully against the best. The satisfaction of playing against the experts and being competitive is very inspiring.”

Marlaire plans to continue playing online and to take a shot at the Wynn tournament at the end of the month to work his way into the top five. He figures to do some additional contest-related traveling before the Breeders’ Cup as well.

As for the BCBC, based on his own past performances, he’s an interesting contender. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve had my best days of the year over Breeders’ Cup weekend,” he said.

No matter what happens, last Sunday’s contest will remain one of the highlights of his year.

“It was one of the days you dream about that never happen,” he said.