12/14/2016 2:55PM

Fallica runs out the clock to get NHC bid

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Chris Fallica is headed back to the National Handicapping Championship for the fifth straight year. Fallica, better known as The Bear from ESPN’s College Gameday, won his seat to this year’s NHC, with its $2.5 million purse, on Saturday via DRF Tournaments. Time is running out for players to qualify for this year: The event takes place Jan. 27-29 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. Fortunately for Fallica, he got in under the gun.

“Better late than never,” he quipped. “Last year I got in on the first weekend of the college football season. This year it took until the last weekend of the year, but it was meant to be.”

Fallica’s ESPN responsibilities make it tricky for him to play as much as he’d like during the hieght of the season. In addition to his work on Gameday, he also co-hosts a podcast with Steve Coughlin, part of ESPN’s Behind the Bets series. On Saturday, his day started in Baltimore for the Army-Navy game.

“I knew there was an afternoon qualifier on DRF Tournaments,” he said. “After the show I grabbed lunch and made my first run through the Form. I got back home to Connecticut right around the time of first race.

Fallica had the game on TV and all the racing streaming on his laptop throughout the afternoon.

“I thought getting off to a good start was key. With the races off the turf at Gulfstream, my plan going in was to take points where I could find them,” he said. “I figured a lot of people would be looking for longshots in short fields so I decided to go the other way.”

That was a smart plan as Fallica cashed small in the first three contest legs with Talk Logistics ($7.40), Hurricane Callie ($3.20), and Fact Finding ($8.20). But the key race for him was the fourth in the sequence, Fair Grounds’s seventh.

“I didn’t like the favorites in there and Ivana’s Wish had a lot of positives. She won sprinting at first asking, I tossed the first try against winners, then she went long but her breeding is pure sprint. Now she was back sprinting with [Florent] Geroux, a great money rider, up, and the price was right.”

The price was right, indeed. When Ivana’s Wish won, Fallica collected $55.60 win-place combined and was in a great spot.

He had an interesting call to make with two races left. There were three seats on offer in the tournament. He was roughly $10 out of first, andheld a $10 lead over third and a $16 lead over fourth. The race featured a huge chalk in Mastery. Fallica initially wanted to switch off but decided to use him despite being long odds-on.

“I wanted to make sure I had a good enough cushion,” he said. “I figured even just the $4 would give me another click ahead of a longshot in the last race at Fair Grounds, which I thought set up for a price.

Heading to the last there were two prices he liked, Look Into My Eyes (9-1) and Wheatfield (5-1). He was $18 ahead of fourth so he knew any winner under 5-1 would be no problem anyway. He played Look Into My Eyes and was a little nervous when Wheatfield prevailed.

“Before it went official knew it was going to be close,” he said. “But I went back through leaderboard and clicked on all the picks and worked out where nobody close enough had the horse. Then and there I knew I was good.”

He was relieved and excited. “It took a heckuva a lot longer and was more stress than it needed to be, but it would have been a real letdown to miss the NHC,” he said. “It’s my goal each year to get back and do better than I did the year before. Everyone who knows me knows my love and passion for college football. That’s number one for me, but horse racing is a close second.

The appeal of the NHC is varied for Fallica. “Anybody who says the money isn’t part of it is lying,” he said, “but I also love the competition and the chance to see people I only get to see once or twice a year and share stories about bad beats and big scores. It’s just fun being in that room and knowing you’re competing against the sharpest minds in the industry, trying to prove that your mind is better is than theirs, finding an angle they don’t see.”

Players looking to join Fallica at the NHC still have a chance. Every Wednesday through Sunday, DRF Tournaments is running credit builders and feeders for as little as $18. Every weekend day between now and the start of the tournament will feature a qualifier which can be bought into directly as well. Go to tournaments.drf.com for more information.