01/25/2016 1:49PM

Top 20 tour players have a little side action

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For the first time ever in 2016, there will be a contest-within-a-contest at the National Handicapping Championship. In addition to the main tournament, the top 20 players from the NHC Tour will be facing off against each other for an additional $25,000 and a seat to the 2017 NHC.

The funny part about the top 20 contest is that most players aren’t thinking about at all – these are the best tournament players in the country and most of them have their eyes on a much bigger prize: the $800,000 winner’s share of the NHC purse. Or if you’re NHC Tour winner Jonathon Kinchen, $2.8 million.

Kinchen – who tops the players-to-watch list for 2016 – said it best. “I’m not even thinking about the top 20 tournament a little bit,” he explained. “The moment I start worrying about that I’m conceding that I’m not going to win the whole thing. When the time is right, I’ll start thinking about it.”

Leave it to noted contrarian Eric Moomey to take the opposite approach. Moomey, last year’s Tour winner, had a shot at the $2 million bonus in 2015 and was disappointed with the results of his all-or-nothing approach. This year he’ll be taking a different angle. His main goal is to get to the final table. His method for doing so might surprise you.

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“My focus in this contest will be solely on tracking my performance against the top 20,” he said. “If you win against this group of consistent players you will end up in the top 10 by default. Once I get to the final table I will switch my focus to the big game.  If I make it to the final table, I will win.”

John Nichols, a clocker at Churchill Downs, was fourth on this year’s tour. He is another player to follow in the top 20 tournament and the big contest. He’s played in the NHC seven times and feels better prepared than in years past. “I have been watching Gulfstream and Tampa close all winter and just started on Oaklawn,” he said. “I have also watched more races from other contest tracks than usual. I have seen plenty of biases from everywhere and hopefully that will produce some high-priced winners who ran against them.”

Sean Nolan is one of the most successful players in NHC history, with two top finishes in his 10 years at the contest. Nolan is a fan of the new rule changes. “I’m very excited to have three additional optional plays each day,” he said. “I am feeling confident to post a good number.”

Nolan isn’t the type to just reach for longshots – and with the tournament moving up a day to Thursday that might help him this year as well. “Based on some of my previous results, I know you don't have to play bombs to be in contention on day three,” he said.

With the great results he’s gotten in the last couple of years, Brett Wiener’s name has to be on any watch list. He’s had success in a variety of formats, but is particularly fond of the NHC rules. “This is my strong format,” he explained. “It’s the true handicapping challenge. No hitting crazy exotics or going all-in on the last race for thousands on a cheap claimer you can buy for the money you just bet. This is a handicapping contest to find the best handicapper for these three days; this is not a contest that will be won by a person who has a good three days of gambling.”

Wiener is taking a different approach this year from the other five NHCs he’s played in. This year it’s a business trip. “This will be the first year that I will be In NHC-only mode,” he said. “No taking friends out to dinners and shows every night. Just going to 'cap.”

Some players are not fond of the format but will show up to compete anyway. Tommy Massis, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, is in this latter group. Most of his success has come playing live-bankroll. Still, he did win a mythical-money event at Woodbine. Besides, he’s worth watching because you never know what he’ll say. Contacted for a quote for this piece, he opined, “A monkey picking numbers out of a hat has the same chance as anyone else in this childish format.”

Another name to look out for is Roger Cettina. Cettina was second to Jim Benes at NHC 14 by a mere $1.40. This time around he is focused on the mental side of the game. “The power of positive thinking is always a help, you need a good attitude,” he said.

The switch to a Thursday start helps him because it gives him a chance to get a jump on his homework. “I study the races for hours using Formulator with Racing Flow and Thoro-Graph,” he said. “I’m happy to get a head start.”

A final player-to-watch is an NHC firster, Mark Stanton. Stanton, who we’ll hear more from on DRF Live later this week, stepped up his horseplaying in 2015 after a shoulder injury impeded his “1-A hobby,” golfing. “I got more involved in contest play to offset the withdrawal symptoms of the golf void,” he said. “This has resulted in three things. My golf crew had to get real jobs because they weren't able to fleece me anymore. My golf tan is gone and my skin is now one color - pale. And I have put a tremendous amount of effort into contest play and following the nuances of certain racetracks.”

Stanton, while only 40, has been playing the horses for 25 years. “I don't care if you are a doctor, teacher, salesperson, journalist, or golfer,” said the 18th-place Tour finisher, “If you have been doing something for 25 years and are not really good at it, it’s probably is time to find a new hobby.”

Even though this will be his first NHC, he summed up the excitement perfectly. “This is the horseplayer's Super Bowl and if your juices aren't flowing you probably need to have your pulse checked.”