01/26/2017 2:39PM

Kinchen fresh and fit for NHC

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Whatever happened to Jonathon Kinchen?

It’s a tongue-in-cheek question. The 2015 National Handicapping Tour champion is alive and well, co-hosting the DRF Players’ podcast and playing two entries in this weekend’s National Handicapping Championship, to be held Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island.

Kinchen hasn’t been nearly as active in 2016 as he was during his tour run, when he seemingly flew to a different city every weekend chasing the gold, winning more than his fair share. The year before that he arrived on the contest scene with fanfare, landing two entries in the top 10 in the NHC finals. For the last few months, he has been quiet.

There’s an old saying about the tour attributed to Randy Gallo: “You don’t choose the tour; the tour chooses you.” Kinchen’s 2016 is proof of that phrase in reverse. Even by the end of NHC weekend last year, he looked likely to make a run at defending his title. He did well in Treasure Island’s First Chance tourney the day after the NHC, and backed that up with an online qualification in February.

“At that point I was double qualified and I had plans to play in several tournaments over the next few months,” he said.

Kinchen played in Santa Anita’s three contests and the Grade One Gamble at Keeneland but came up empty. At that point it was clear: The tour hadn’t chosen him.

“If I’d won one of those it might have been different," Kinchen said, "but it didn’t make a lot of financial sense to me to play in every online tournament and even by the time I did well at Saratoga I wasn’t thinking about the tour.”

The tour chase can be taxing. There’s even a story of a former winner checking himself into a hospital during crunch time because the experience was so stressful. Kinchen arrived in Vegas for the weekend not only ready, but rested.

“I decided to take a different approach this year,” he said. “I’m going to do all the work but I’m also going to make sure I have the mental energy I’ll need to get through the three days making the best decisions I can.”

That contrasts with the previous two years. “My first year at the NHC I was carried by the adrenaline and excitement of the event itself,” he said. “I was doing well and pretty early on I established the goal of getting two entries in the top 10 and that kept me going.”

That adrenaline was flowing once again last year as he sat on the precipice of a huge potential score. “Last year’s NHC for me was the opportunity of a lifetime with that extra $2 million on the line,” he said, referring to the tour winner’s bonus that Cheryl McIntyre is chasing this weekend. “Knowing that, I did a lot of extra work coming in. I’m not a guy who says, 'If you think long, you think wrong.’ For me in general, more preparation is better preparation. But there’s no doubt that all the extra work I did last year took something out of me.”

Kinchen started off last year's NHC hot. When the first leaderboard was posted his two entries were first and third, prompting a couple of envious wannabes in the main ballroom to boo. It looked like all the extra work was paying off, but it was not meant to be.

“At first it was just normal racing bad luck,” he said, “but at one point I looked and I’d missed 10 bets in a row and it started to take a toll on me mentally. I was losing the photos I’d won the year before and I just kind of fell apart.”

All horseplayers, including tournament players, are going to be subject to streaks both good and bad. The best players know how to maximize their success when they’re running well, and gather themselves when things aren’t working out so well. That might be the real story of Jonathon Kinchen’s last two seasons.

Kinchen remains confident. “I’ve had success here before,” he said, “and I’m a much better player now than I was then so I know I can do well. It’s just a question of picking a few winners and winning a few photos.”

The famous Lefty Gomez quote reminds us that it’s better to be lucky than good. But Kinchen knows from experience that if you want to succeed at the NHC you have to be lucky and good.