04/21/2016 12:11PM

Fornatale: O'Neil qualifies for NHC for seventh time


John O'Neil will be heading back to the National Handicapping Championship for the seventh time after grabbing third place on NHCQualify.com last weekend. "It was nice to get back in the fold," said O’Neil, the 2015 NHC champ.

O'Neil has been playing consistently on weekends, but it's been an up-and-down year. He was at a strategic disadvantage Saturday. He missed the first race of the contest and had to leave before the end. But none of that mattered when We Be Stormin got second in the anchor leg, Oaklawn's 10th race, returning $16.20 and propelling O'Neil to qualification.

"I was out at the time," O'Neil said. "I was coming out of church at Saint Elizabeth's, and my wife texted me and said, 'You got it!' "

While he realizes that it's far from ideal to play a live contest as if it were an all-in contest, it's not a big disadvantage when the horses you like include a few longshots. "I always preferred the live contests," he said, "but I ordinarily play some price horses anyway if they look like they have a pulse. We Be Stormin was a serious contender in my eyes."

Indeed, the Al Cates-trained gelding was a typical contest play for O'Neil. He liked the previous races in the form cycle and thought the horse could improve again Saturday after a one-paced run last time with a troubled start.

His handicapping process is rooted in his analysis of speed figures, and he also liked that We Be Stromin had done so well over the Oaklawn surface. "I don't like transferring numbers from one track to another," he said. "Sometimes they transfer, but other times, after the race, you look up and say, 'What happened?' "

Joe Petitt, a tablemate of O'Neil's at the last few NHCs, got the overall win and e-mailed O'Neil a congratulatory note shortly afterward. The two plan to meet up again soon and sit together again, along with O'Neil's friend Robert Ramirez, at next year's NHC.

O'Neil has already qualified for the Monmouth contest on April 30 and looks forward to trying to win his $2,000 buy-in to the June 4 Monmouth Pick Your Prize contest via DRFQualify.com.

"Contests have changed my life, that's for sure," said the man who banked $800,000 at the 2015 NHC. "It's year-round action that's affordable, even for working people, and it gives players an opportunity to earn some pretty good money. Between DRF, Treasure Island, and the NTRA, contests have been a boon to racing."