12/28/2015 8:46AM

Fornatale: Toowindytohaulrox key in weekend contest

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Eight more players punched their tickets to the 2016 National Handicapping Championship on Saturday on NHCQualify.com. The NHC, which takes place Jan. 28-30 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, is the world’s richest handicapping contest, with a purse of $2.5 million expected for the 2016 event.

Contest veteran Mike Labriola topped Saturday’s field of 332 players with a score of $145.10. Also earning NHC berths were William O’Neal ($142.90), Louis Licata ($134.50), Jason Lane ($122.50), Dustin Moore ($119.50), Robert Schwartz ($117.20), Mark Henderson ($104.20), and Mike Sylvester ($100.70).

James Henry, already double-qualified, finished seventh with $114.90 and earned NHC Tour points that will solidify his position within the top 20. The top 20 all receive cash and will play in a contest within a contest at the NHC for $20,000. For a list of tour prizes, go to www.ntra.com/en/nhc/2015-nhc-tour-official-rules/.

Notable among those top nine players was Henderson. The other eight earned their scores largely because of the cap horse Toowindytohaulrox in Santa Anita’s fourth race. But Henderson achieved his goal without that longshot.

Instead, he had four winners and one big place price. He collected $14 to place on Perfectly Majestic in Santa Anita’s sixth race and then had a cold late double with Bullards Alley ($10.80) in the eighth race at Fair Grounds and Birdatthewire ($23.80) in the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita, the contest’s anchor leg.

But the day belonged to Labriola, who played in the second annual NHC in 2001 and estimates that he has qualified for the event 10 times. He has been writing about handicapping-contest strategy for years and co-wrote an article about contests entitled “The Mandatory Myth” with Noel Michaels for the latest issue of American Turf Monthly, where he considers the idea of eliminating mandatory races on the first two days of the NHC.

He is not a player who does things on the fly. “I've always been more of a planned player versus a reactionary one,” he said. “I usually have about a 75 percent to 25 percent ratio of plays that are going in regardless, as opposed to getting a mental breakthrough late and playing something unexpected or because of the odds.”

Labriola explained his selection of Toowindytohaulrox in the Daytona Stakes.

“When Del Mar was ending, I made a big (for me) $200 win bet on Midnight Storm,” he said. “The trainer was Phil D'Amato, who also trained the third-place flying finisher, Toowindytohaulrox. I knew right then that when he came back at his favorite track, Santa Anita, I'd be playing him. I hardly capped the race, to be honest. Luck brought me a horse I'd been waiting for in a tournament race. No questions asked, just sent it in.”

He had an anxious moment later on. “On my only strategy play, I froze and almost paid the price,” he said. “I was in good shape heading into Santa Anita’s sixth, the one-mile race. My midpriced [No.] 6 ran like a donkey, and the [No.] 2, who I liked but didn’t play, loomed up like a winner at 25-1 and got second. I broke my own rule: ‘Pick them deliberately, play them recklessly.’ ”

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale.

Also on Saturday on DRFQualify.com, Kenneth McMahan ($127.60) won his second $4,500 seat to the Gulfstream-Santa Anita live-bankroll contest on March 19-20. McMahan also won a DRFQualify.com qualifier on Dec. 13.

On Sunday, two players won seats to the Gulfstream-Santa Anita tournament: Scott Rubinchik ($130.40) and Corey Johnsen ($119.20). DRFQualify.com will continue to run qualifiers for the Gulfstream-Santa Anita contest over the next few weekends.

On Saturday and Sunday in $21 feeder contests, 47 players won their $190 buy-ins to the Jan. 3 qualifying event for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge on BCQualify.com. Bill Wilbur topped the field Saturday with $151.30, and Howard Schwartz was best on Sunday with $113.20. Players can still put up $190 and buy into that contest directly.