08/04/2016 11:42AM

Joe Johnson wins First Half crown on NHC Tour

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Joe Johnson of San Antonio, Tx., has won the National Handicapping Championship Tour’s First Half, which concluded Sunday. By pegging Laoban, the 27-1 winner of Saturday’s Jim Dandy at Saratoga, Johnson vaulted himself to an 11th-place finish in the NTRA free contest, good for 2,851 points on the day and a final tally of 13,578 points on the First Half leaderboard.

The First Half top five – each of whom received either a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry worth $10,000 or the equivalent in cash – was rounded out by Gary McMaster (12,969 points), Cheryl McIntyre (12,617), Rick Broth (12,555), and Kevin Engelhard (12,199).

First Half totals are comprised of points earned in a player’s top four finishes, at least one of which must have come in an on-site contest, through July 31. Results became official Wednesday at the conclusion of a three-day audit period.

Johnson did well earlier in the year in online contests but knew he’d need a live-event score to contend for a First Half award. Health issues and scheduling had prevented him from playing in any live events throughout the First Half. “I decided to travel to Woodbine with my son for their live contest,” Johnson explained. “I figured if I could get a score there that would be great. I’ve been pushing for this for some months now and it feels good to have it happen.”

Johnson’s son, who shares his name, is the one who inspired him to play in contests in the first place. “He’s in law school and is under time pressure but he just signed up for the Tour and maybe we’ll see his name on the Rookie Tour leaderboard before the end of the year,” Johnson said.

The elder Johnson ended up third at Woodbine, amassing 1,908 points, and had a final opportunity to accrue big points in last Saturday’s contest that featured 1,810 other entries. “I knew that all I had to do was to get in contention,” he said. “I figured I could get in the top five without a win.”

That allowed Johnson to play shorter-priced horses than he usually would against such a big field. “I definitely modified my strategy,” he said. “In the past in that format I would go nuts with these massive longshots, but this time I didn’t need cappers in every race.”

But it was a near capper who was key: Laoban. Johnson also backed Laoban on multiple entries in another contest Saturday, on DRF Tournaments, finishing first and second while earning his second BCBC entry of the year as a result. With the maximum of two BCBC entries in his own name already secured, Johnson will receive $10,000 cash for his NHC Tour First Half exploits.

“I hate to say I had some luck because we like to think it’s all skill, but things broke just right for me,” Johnson said. “It really worked out well. I was only aiming for the top five but to win feels great.”

Now Johnson will turn his attention to the overall, yearlong NHC Tour leaderboard, where he sits in second with 16,616 points, just behind Engelhard, the current leader with 16,783. The overall NHC Tour leaderboard incorporates a player’s top six scores. First prize for the NHC Tour is $75,000 and comes with a trophy and the chance to play for a $2 million bonus should the NHC Tour winner go on to win NHC 18 in January. There is also a new “$3 million NHC Tour Double” bonus for anyone that can complete a sweep of the BCBC and the NHC.

“I’m very excited about the Tour and the new bonus,” Johnson said. “There are so many ways to win big.”

Here’s more of what we know about the rest of the top five First Half finishers after Johnson and whether they’re accepting a BCBC entry or taking $10,000 cash:

McMaster, of Etobicoke, Ontario, won live contests at Woodbine and Arlington Park this summer. He already holds a BCBC spot and elected to take $10,000 cash.

McIntyre, of Massillon, Oh., is an eight-time NHC qualifier. She has already earned four BCBC entries in 2016 (although only two can be played in her name) and will, therefore, receive $10,000 cash.

Broth, of Dunwoody, Ga., is a sales manager for an acoustical tile manufacturer. The 58-year-old made his NHC debut in January at NHC 17. He has co-owned several quality horses with trainer Ronny Werner, including Lady of Shamrock, a multiple Grade 1 winner after they sold her as a 2-year-old. Broth already held a BCBC berth he earned by winning Keeneland’s Grade One Gamble in April and will take $10,000 cash.

Engelhard, of Franklin Park, N.J., is a seven-time NHC qualifier. The 63-year-old is the current NHC Tour leader. He has accepted a BCBC entry.

The complete final “First Half” standings with scores for all 2,633 NHC Tour members that earned points so far this year can be viewed online at https://www.ntra.com/wp-content/uploads/First-Half-080116.pdf.

For more information on the NHC and NHC Tour, visit www.ntra.com/nhc.