12/11/2009 12:00AM

NHC Tour means no reason to rest


We're in the stretch run for those trying to qualify for the 11th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Jan. 29-30, 2010, to crown the 2009 Handicapper of the Year. The event will be held for the third straight year at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

After the tournaments held last weekend at Golden Gate Fields, Beulah Park, and NHCqualify.com, only 18 berths are left for NHC XI, which is expected to have a record field of 302 going for the first-place prize of $500,000 out of the estimated $1 million purse. The total figure will not be official until the Last Chance Tournament, which has 70 percent of entry fees going to the finals, at the Red Rock on Jan. 27, two days before the finals.

But unlike the NFL, where contenders sometimes take the last few weeks off to rest up for the playoffs, many of the top handicappers continue to enter these end-of-the-year qualifying tournaments as they hold out hope of winning or finishing high in the NHC Tour.

Case in point was the tourney at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., on Sunday, Dec. 6. Brian Feldman of Mason, Ohio, and Michael Labriola, of Richmond, Calif., both hit a 16-1 first-time starter named Helen Belen in the last race of the contest to finish 1-2. Feldman already earned his NHC berth in the Twinspires.com Leaderboard competition, and Labriola won the Claiming Crown Ultimate Handicappers Open at Canterbury Downs on July 25. That means Turfway's three representatives will be the third- through fifth-place finishers - Ricky Hurd of Lexington, Ky.; Brian Troop of Barrie, Ontario; and Paul Parker of Woodstock, Ga.

Horseplayers would not have had the incentive to play these tournaments two years ago, before the NHC Tour, which ties all the qualifying tournaments in a circuit with season-long prizes ($100,000 to the Tour member earning the most points in their top five finishes, $50,000 for second, $25,000 for third, $10,000 for fourth, and $5,000 for fifth) as well as a $2 million bonus if the Tour winner goes on to win the NHC.

A Tour victory is worth 3,000 points, with a graduated scale based on the number of contestants in each field. Labriola used his runner-up finish to increase his point total to 9,422, second-most behind Tour leader Bryan Wagner of New Orleans. Wagner, who has 10,042 Tour points heading into this weekend, is a seven-time NHC qualifier. He also is the husband of NHC II champion Judy Wagner, who is in fourth place on this year's Tour with 9,154, right behind Shawn Turner (9,275). Each placement in the standings means a lot, not only in the aforementioned prize money, but also because the top five finishers also will earn automatic berths in NHC XII in January 2011 along with airfare and hotel accommodations.

The final tournaments that award Tour points will be the Dec. 19 NHCqualify.com event, which is sold out with many Tour members taking the 150-entry spots at $400 apiece, and the Dec. 26-27 Del Mar Surfside Super Qualifier. The NHC Tour-Maiden Challenge on Dec. 19 is only open to nonqualifiers who are members of the NHC Tour and does not award Tour points. The Last Chance Tournament on Jan. 27 also is not a points event.

But it's not just those near the top of the leaderboard that are playing these events. The NHC Tour also awards NHC seats to the top six members who haven't earned a seat, and that also includes airfare and hotel during the finals. Entering this weekend, the top 30 Tour members had earned their way into NHC XI, but it's wide open for those six spots. Among those who haven't qualified but are in decent position to make it in the back door are Eric Kurzhal, who has the most points (4,559) without having qualified, and NHC VII champion Ron Rippey (3,791).

November yields 44 NHC berths

November was a huge month of NHC qualifying tournaments. It started Nov. 6-7, with two major events held in conjunction with the Breeders' Cup races.

The BC Betting Challenge was held at Santa Anita and drew 75 entrants. There was a $10,000 entry fee, of which $2,500 went to the prize pool and $7,500 was used as a live bankroll. The total prize money was $225,000, and David Wilkenfeld turned his $7,500 into $41,125, thanks to hitting the Zenyatta-Gio Ponti-Twice Over trifecta in the BC Classic to add the $125,000 top prize to his real-life winnings. The top six finishers earned NHC berths, including Brian Herrity, Gene Cahalan, Benjamin O'Connell, John Hewitt, and Steve Wolfson Sr.

In the Ultimate Handicappers Invitational on Breeders' Cup Weekend tourney at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee, Minn., they had a $3,000 entry fee with $2,000 used as a live bankroll. Paul Shurman ended with the highest bankroll at $2,375, edging out Patrick Giaforte, who had $2,356.28. Shurman added $15,000 to his winnings, and Giaforte added $5,000. They both had already qualified for the NHC, so Canterbury's berths from this contest went to Brandon Cooney and Roberta Templin, who finished third and fourth.

In all, 44 NHC berths were earned in November, with the biggest chunk coming Nov. 21 from the Twinspires.com 25-Seat Guarantee online contest. That contest sends the top 15 finishers to the NHC and the next 10 to the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans in February. Tim Anderson of Columbus, Ohio, outlasted a field of 560 who put up the $300 entry fee and won the $10,000 first-place prize. The full list of those who qualified at that event can be found at www.drf.com/nhc/2009/qualifiers.html

* On Dec. 5, Sidney Sea of Louisville, Ky., won the $15,000 first-place prize at the Keeneland DRF/NTRA Handicapping Challenge and earned his first NHC berth. Also earning his first trip to the NHC (as a contestant) was Noel Michaels of New York. Michaels covered the NHC for Daily Racing Form from 2000 through 2005 and authored the "Handicapping Contest Handbook" by DRF Press in 2003.