06/25/2009 12:00AM

NHC tour leader grabs spot in finals

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As we approach the halfway point of 2009, it's also time to take stock in the midway point of the NHC Tour as horse handicappers try to earn berths in the 11th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, to be held Jan. 29-30, 2010, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

The NHC Tour requires participants to pay a $125 entry fee and then uses the schedule of NHC qualifying tournaments throughout the year as the circuit. The yearlong champion will win $100,000 and be eligible for a $2 million bonus if he or she goes on to win NHC XI, which is again expected to have a first-place prize of $500,000 before bonuses.

Louis Constan, 43, of Glendale, Calif., won the qualifying tournament at the Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, Nev., on June 20 to move into first place in the NHC Tour standings. Tour members earn 3,000 points for a tournament victory and lesser amounts for lower finishes on a graduated scale based on the number of entrants in the qualifier.

Constan now has 6,017 tour points, with NHC II champion Judy Wagner, 49, of New Orleans, in second place with 3,729 points and Brian Schwade, 34, of Henderson in third at 3,635. Heading into last weekend, Constan was in fourth place with 3,017 points, but amazingly was the only person in the top 11 who hadn't yet earned an NHC berth despite all his points.

"I used to only play the California tournaments and online," said Constan, who earned his seventh NHC berth at Green Valley. "I would play at Hollywood, Santa Anita, Del Mar, Fairplex - where I qualified four times - but when the tour started last year, I started playing more of the tournaments in Vegas as well."

This year alone, he finished third at the Santa Fe Station on April 18, ninth at Aliante Station on May 23, and seventh at Sunset Station on June 13 before winning at Green Valley. Close but no victory cigar, as all of those events award NHC berths to only the top two finishers.

"I was confident heading into last weekend because of how close I had gotten in the other tournaments, though I never go into a tournament thinking I'm going he win," he said. "I just want to be in contention and take my shots."

The Green Valley tourney had a $100 buy-in and has the same format as the NHC finals, with players making mythical $2 win-and-place bets on eight mandatory races and seven races of the player's choice.

Constan moved into contention, and in fact on top of the leader board, around 1:30 p.m. Vegas time when 25-1 longshot River Bear won Arlington's sixth race, the White Oak Handicap, returning $52.20 to win and $21.60 to place. Payoffs are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place, but it was still worth $63.60 for Constan, who also tacked on another $11.80 when Kami D B C won Hollywood's second race a few minutes later as the second choice and paid $7.40 to win and $4.40 to place.

"I think I caught a big break because the second at Hollywood was a mandatory race," said Constan, who handicaps primarily with DRF and the Simulcast Weekly and makes his own bias figures. "Maybe a lot of people were handicapping the Hollywood race and concentrating on that and not looking at the Arlington race, so not a lot of people had River Bear."

That was only Constan's third optional play, so he had plenty of bullets to fire. He slipped to second on one of the scoring updates, but held two optionals for races to be run after the final mandatory so he would know what score he was shooting for. He used Grazen at 3-2 in the ninth race at Hollywood, the Affirmed Handicap, and Zip Quick at 7-5 in the 10th at Hollywood. They didn't pay much, but it was enough to give him a final score of $119.20 in the low-scoring qualifier. It was Constan's first NHC berth since 2007, as he failed to qualify the past two years after making it in five straight. With his win, Constan also receives round-trip airfare to Las Vegas and three nights' hotel accommodations during NHC XI.

"In the past, I would have stopped playing tournaments - one year I qualified in March - but being in contention [in the tour], I'm definitely going to keep playing," he said.

Constan said he will target the Hollywood Park tournament this Friday and Saturday, the Firecracker Shootout at Red Rock Resort on July 4, all of the tournaments at Del Mar this summer, and the ones at Fairplex in September.

Fairplex tourneys back on schedule

The big recent news on the NHC Tour is that the Fairplex tournaments have been put back on the schedule. Earlier this month, the track had notified the NTRA that it was dropping its six tournaments, which were scheduled to give out a total of 15 NHC berths. The contests were set for Sept. 11, Sept. 12-13, Sept. 18, Sept. 19 20, Sept. 26, and Sept. 27-28.

Fairplex's tournaments have been among the most popular at that time of year, between the summer spa meets and the lead-up to the Breeders' Cup, and the NTRA started talks with Fairplex. Tournament players also made calls, and this past Tuesday, it was announced that Fairplex was keeping its dates.

"You have to hand it to Fairplex," said NTRA tournament coordinator Fritz Widaman. "They really listened to their customers, and we're glad to have them back."

Upcoming tournaments

In addition to the two-day Hollywood Park tournament that Constan is playing in this weeked, there is also a Saturday and Sunday tournament at Belmont Park with three NHC berths up for grabs and a Sunday tournament at Churchill Downs with two NHC seats. In addition, has the finals of its monthly contest. The top 30 finishers from each of its three pre-qualifiers compete Saturday for nine NHC berths.

* The only qualifier on the July Fourth weekend is the appropriately named Firecracker Shootout at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. The entry fee in this NTRA Super Qualifier is $500, and it's only open to NHC Tour members, but newcomers can pay the extra $125 to join the tour and play in plenty of tournaments the rest of the year to earn points.

* On July 11, Monmouth and Canterbury will host a commingled tournament with three NHC berths.

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