02/03/2015 12:56PM

Fornatale: Nichols's skill set makes for strong player


Racing is in John Nichols Jr.’s blood. His father, John Sr., was a jockey in the 1950s at the famed Aqua Caliente in Tijuana. His uncle Jimmy rode in four Kentucky Derbies and was the leading rider at Del Mar in 1948. In addition to being a good rider, Jimmy was also a keen judge of horseflesh – he advised Louie Roussel on the purchase of Risen Star back in 1987. The colt would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont the following year.

It’s safe to say that Nichols inherited his uncle’s eye for horses. Nichols, 39, is now the head clocker at Churchill Downs, where he has worked since 2003. His day job dovetails perfectly with another passion of his – playing in handicapping contests. He has qualified for the NHC six years running and finished 35th in the 2014 NHC.

He’s off to a great start in 2015 as well – just in the last two weeks he has won two important contests online. On Jan. 25, he finished first on DRFQualify.com, winning his way into the Raise Your Game Handicapping Challenge at Gulfstream Park. And last Saturday, he won on NHCQualify.com, securing an NHC seat and placing himself atop the 2015 Tour standings.

The key horse for Nichols on Saturday was Include Betty. “I liked the way she broke her maiden down at Tampa,” Nichols said, “It looked like there was going to be a pretty good pace in there with a couple of horses stretching out. Her race before was a key race at Churchill with Birdatthewire and Lassofthemohicans, who came back to run one-two in the Forward Gal. I just thought it was a good price on her.”

It was a good price, indeed. Include Betty paid $39.80. In addition to the Gulfstream contest on Feb. 28, Nichols is also eyeing the Santa Anita Betting Challenge on March 14-15. He prefers contests where players get to choose their own races.

“I like looking at the better races on the day, the allowances, the stakes,” he said, “I don’t really like the bottom-level claimers, especially at a track like Tampa where I don’t know the horses real well.”

One might think that as a clocker, Nichols relies on so-called “inside information” in his play, but he takes more of an integrated approach. “I try to use everything,” he said. “You can’t single in on one thing, really. I try to use common sense to look at the whole race and try to figure out how the race is going to come together, how the pace is going to set up, which trainers do well in those spots.”

But of course Nichols does have an edge when he is familiar with the horses beforehand or can see them up close before the race. In turf and maiden races, he emphasizes his knowledge of breeding along with his physical opinions. “In races with horses trying turf for the first time, I look for that sloping turf foot,” he explained, “If it’s a sprint race for first-time starters, I look for that stocky build and I’ll make note of ones that look like they might stretch out later.”

What he’s looking for in the paddock or post parade depends on the type of race, but there are some general guidelines. “I look for a bright, alert horse, one that’s not overly fractious and is feeling good and looks fit,” he said.

The key to learning what to look for in an equine athlete comes down to experience. “Watch as many post parades and races as you can, even if you’re not betting,” Nichols advised. “See what works for you, try to make notes about what you think looks positive, and see how those horses do.”

Another important area for Nichols is organization, especially when playing multiple tournaments at once like he did when he qualified for Gulfstream while simultaneously competing in the NHC consolation tournament. “I lay the whole day out on paper,” he said, “I’ll write down two or three horses for each race that you think are the key horses and then play the board based on prices.”

Given his hot start to the year, Nichols is looking like one of the players to watch on the 2015 Tour, especially if he ends up with a good finish at Gulfstream or Santa Anita. Even putting aside his strong bloodlines, his combination of skill, industry knowledge, and experience might make him very hard to run down.