04/07/2015 11:54AM

Fornatale: Stiles finds home away from home at NHC

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Trey Stiles might just be the handicapping contest version of Odysseus. Like Homer’s hero, Stiles has traveled far and wide to reach his goal on a journey that’s lasted more than a decade. Odysseus was trying to get home. Stiles's journey has taken him away from home and to the National Handicapping Championship.

It began simply enough for Stiles. In 2002 and 2003, he qualified at Retama Park, a simple three-hour drive from his home in Houston. In 2004, he traveled five hours south, to Valley Race Park, a dog track in Harlingen, Texas. That contest was popular and a number of heavy hitters, including Bryan and Judy Wagner, would attend annually. You have to remember, there were no online tournaments back in 2004.

The lack of online contests led him to some strange locales. He remembers waking up in a room on an Indian reservation in South Dakota one morning, led there by his pursuit of NHC glory. “I looked out the window and saw all these cows,” he said. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

One of Stiles’s best adventures – his encounter with the Laestrygonians, if you will -- came in 2005. Stiles decided to make the 12-hour drive to Zia Park, just across the border into New Mexico. He got to town, defeated his foes, and headed home. What he didn’t realize is that he was traveling, a few miles per hour too fast, on a route known for drug smuggling ... in a Ford Explorer with tinted windows. The trooper asked Stiles what he was doing so far from home. Stiles told him. “You expect me to believe you drove 12 hours to play in some horse contest?” he barked.

“You sound just like my wife,” Stiles said. “She can’t believe I’m doing this either.”

After a drawn-out process where troopers removed everything from his car, Stiles was allowed to go.

In 2006, Stiles won in at Fair Grounds. There was a sea change in 2007. Stiles received his first of what would become six online qualifications, this one on a then-new website called NHCQualify.com.

In 2008, Stiles actually qualified twice, but back then only one entry to the NHC was allowed. He got in first at Louisiana Downs, and shortly thereafter finished first in a qualifier at Santa Fe Downs. “Some other guy got in because I finished first,” he said. “Never even thanked me.”

The closest Stiles’s streak came to ending, came in 2009. Stiles had toiled the whole year without meeting his goal. But he had amassed a fair amount of Tour points along the way. Back then, only the top five players on the Tour received automatic berths to the Finals.

Stiles had the option of going to Surfside in Del Mar to play in the last tournament of the year. But it was Dec. 28 – his wife’s birthday. He wasn’t going to go. “But then I saw that Southwest had some crazy discount fare to fly to San Diego for $29. My wife let me go. She is very good to me.”

Good indeed. Stiles made the most of the opportunity, flew out there, secured a top 10 percent finish and kept the streak alive. “It was an advantage to not be playing for the win,” he said. “I was able to lay up some low-priced horses to get the job done.”

The years 2010 through 2014 were comparatively easy, with Stiles gaining an online qualification each year. In 2012 he didn’t officially get in until late November. “I wasn’t too worried about it though,” he said, “because I was looking good on Tour points."

Last weekend, Stiles’s odyssey brought him to Chicago for the Hawthorne contest. He had a good Tour result on Friday, a fifth. “I was down to my last $20 going into the last so I consider that a win,” he said.

Saturday he went at the goal double-barreled. He played at Hawthorne and had an entry in the NHCQualify.com contest. It was the latter that paid dividends. Stiles backed Spirit of Xian in the anchor leg at Santa Anita to make it 14 years in a row at the NHC.

“I’m excited every time I qualify,” he said, “but this was particularly special. Usually when you qualify online, you don’t have anyone to celebrate with, just the cat and the dog. But since I was at Hawthorne and I had a bunch of friends with me, it felt really great.”

Stiles’s best finish at the NHC was 18th in 2013, but he feels like he’s improved his approach and could be ready for a breakthrough. “If I’m not at the top, I don’t mind being at the bottom,” he said. “You don’t want to be stuck in the middle.”

Stiles is living proof of one lesson, applicable to ancient Greek warriors or handicappers: For too much rest itself becomes a pain.