01/26/2015 3:28PM

NHC: Texas man gets boost from tablemates


The single most cited reason why horseplayers love handicapping contests is the camaraderie. Lifelong friendships are made in the contest room. But having friends in the contest doesn't just mean you'll have more fun - it can also help you win.

Jonathon Kinchen gave major credit to his tablemates Nick Tammaro and Eric Bialek for his success in Las Vegas at the National Handicapping Championship this past weekend. Kinchen, of Euless, Texas, landed both of his entries in the top eight, netting $84,000. It's an achievement some contest players consider more difficult than winning the whole thing.

Kinchen and his tablemates weren't partners, but they watched his back.

"Between races, we'd go over things," said the 32-year-old Kinchen, who is a realtor. "I'm a people person. I like to bounce stuff off of other people. Those guys were instrumental for me."

As the contest heated up and Kinchen proceeded to the final table, his crew became his eyes and ears.

"We were paying attention to what the other guys were playing, looking for any tendencies," said Bialek, a 23-year old engineer from Libertyville, Ill. "We'd let him know what prices he needed to move up to which spots."

In the end, Kinchen was unlucky at the final table. He collected place points in two of the races, had a tough-beat third, and just missed picking the winner of the Clocker's Corner stakes at Santa Anita. He bet on Sweet Swap, who finished third in a race won by Pure Tactics.

“I thought Sweet Swap was going to win the race,” he said. “My second choice was Pure Tactics. I sat back there with my guys, we talked about it and talked about it, and I ultimately decided on Sweet Swap. Had that gone the other way, it would have changed things a little bit.”

Still Kinchen had no regrets. “It’s been awesome,” he said. “I’m grateful for all the nice words that people have said to me. That’s been very rewarding.”

At the awards ceremony, his buddies whooped and hollered as he made an impromptu speech. Kinchen, who was the first player to arrive at the Treasure Island ballroom each morning, at 4 a.m., before even the bell boys, gave the TI staff a shout out.

"I'd like to thank the people in black who've helped us all out the last few days," he said.

Then Kinchen promised a donation to Old Friends - the Thoroughbred retirement organization with farms in Kentucky and New York - in the name of Ron Rippey, the 2006 NHC champion who died last summer.

"I got one of my seats because of Ron's passing," he said. "I never got to meet him but everyone says he was a great guy and I really wanted to honor his memory."

The idea of players helping one another at the NHC is nothing new. One of the most formidable tables of players at the tournament comprised Paul Shurman, Bill Shurman, Steve Wolfson Sr., Steve Wolfson Jr., Jamie Michelson Sr., Jamie Michelson Jr., and Mitch Schuman. Among them they have two NHC wins, an NHC tour win, and a collective contest return on investment that makes them the envy of many players.

They all play their own tickets but they help each other out, discussing potential picks and keeping one another organized. At the 2003 NHC, there was a lot going on at once and Steve Wolfson Jr. was about to miss a mandatory race. His friends reminded him and he got the bet in just in time. Had he not placed the bet, he'd have been disqualified. Wolfson went on to win that NHC.

It will be interesting to watch the progress of the Kinchen-Tammaro-Bialek table in coming years. They have a ways to go to catch up with the Wolfson-Shurman-Michelson-Schuman table, but they show many of the same qualities. They're sharp, they're focused, and they go out of their way to help each other out.