01/26/2014 11:44AM

Great stories from Day 2 of NHC

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So many great stories came out of Day 2 of the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. Here are a few of my favorites.

Doubling up

James Michelson Jr., the 2005 NHC champion, was one of two competitors – along with Dick Mueller of Bear Lake, Minn. – to get two entries into the Final 50. Only one entry for each continues on, but Michelson and Mueller will receive cash bonuses for their efforts. I caught up with the former champ after the last race was official.

“I’m buzzing right now,” Michelson said. “Starting the day, I had one good ticket with $75 and one with $45, and I said to myself, ‘I need to have a $120 day.’ And I was concentrating on the good ticket. But then in one race, I played the good ticket safe and a cap on the other, and the capper came in, and I got the other ticket up there. And then the next race, I flipped that same scenario, and the tickets were drafting off each other.”

Michelson ended up cashing in the three straight Santa Anita mandatories, two of them with cap horses. He and I had spoken earlier in the day about his general lack of enthusiasm about playing two tickets as opposed to just focusing on one.

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“I don’t play two tickets very well,” he said. “But now I’m glad I had two tickets. A lot of things went right. I stuck to the plan I mapped out all day long. I was not good early, but then good things started to happen all in a row.”

With no assurance that he’d advance to Day 3 going in, I was curious if he’d done any preparation for Sunday.

“I’ve done nothing for tomorrow,” he said. “But I like doing the homework. I like handicapping, and I guess I don’t like sleeping. My dad [noted contest player and fellow NHC 15 qualifier James Michelson Sr.] and I have worked together for years doing this. We bounce ideas off each other, and I’ve got a lot of energy right now.”

Close call

After the last race at Golden Gate Fields, things were looking bleak for Jamaal Barnett of Ajax, Ontario. Going into the race, he was out of optional plays, grimly hanging on to his spot in the top 50.

Barnett explained what happened next, minutes after the race: “Two longshots hit. One longshot came second by a nose, and I thought it was going to knock me out. I was in big trouble. I didn’t save a bullet, and I was kicking myself.”

But because of two double qualifications in the top 50, Barnett and Rich Nilsen, who finished tied for 51st place, live to fight another day.

“I feel much better now,” Barnett said. “I was really hoping to come in the top 50. Now, I just need to catch my breath.”

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Brothers sweat it out

Michael Beychok won NHC 13 two years ago when Glorious Dancer, an $8,000 claimer, got up by a nose to win the last race at Golden Gate Fields. Several players, including Peter Rotondo Jr., Peter Rotondo Sr., and Michael’s brother, Benjamin, cheered wildly in the auxiliary ballroom as Michael sat watching the race unfold like a monk. This year, it was Benjamin Beychok who needed a little last-race magic to advance to the Final 50.

“I had two entries,” he said. “On one of them, I was $14.50 out of 50th place, and I had saved one optional to use on the last race at Santa Anita. Nothing. But I had one optional left on my other ticket, and Golden Gate was the last race left the whole day. I had told my brother earlier, ‘I really liked this horse [Oh My Goddess], and she was 11-1. I was about $18.40 out of 50th on my second entry, so that was an automatic play.”

Michael Beychok picks up the story: “We’re big karma guys, and there’s two pieces of karma here. Kevin Cox had told my brother earlier in the day, ‘Save a bullet for the last race at Golden Gate because that’s where your brother won.’ And then with two or three minutes to post, I said, ‘Let’s go watch it in the auxiliary room.’ And we all gathered together, the same boys that were there two years ago, Team Rotondo, the Wagners. It was déjà vu. You can’t script that.”

Except this time, it was Michael screaming like a crazy person while his brother sat stone-faced instead of the other way around.

Sunday races selected

The list of Sunday’s mandatory races and optional contest tracks for the Final 50 Tournament (and the concurrent Consolation Tournament) and the Final Table have been announced.

Final 50 participants will play 10 races – three mandatory and seven optional. The mandatory races are Tampa Bay Downs, race 4 (10:57 a.m. Pacific); Gulfstream Park, race 5 (11:36 a.m.); and Oaklawn Park, race 2 (11:57 a.m.). Optional races can be selected from Aqueduct, races 1-7; Fair Grounds, races 1-4; Gulfstream, races 1-6; Oaklawn, races 1-3; and Tampa Bay, races 1-7. The last scheduled post time for the Final 50 is race 4 at Fair Grounds, set for 12:26 p.m. Pacific.

The top 10 scorers from the Final 50 will move on to the Final Table, where all players will make $2 win and place bets on five mandatory races: Gulfstream, race 10 (2:03 p.m.); Gulfstream, race 11 (2:33 p.m.); Fair Grounds, race 9 (2:55 p.m.); Santa Anita, race 8 (4 p.m.); and Santa Anita, race 9 (4:30 p.m.). The final NHC race, the ninth at Santa Anita, is a $12,500 claiming event ($16,000 purse) for older non-winners of two races at six furlongs with a field of 11.