01/23/2017 3:48PM

Nilsen fine-tunes his balancing act

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For Rich Nilsen, 13 is a lucky number.

When Nilsen, 46, arrives at the National Handicapping Championship this week, he’ll do so ranking as one of the most successful players in National Handicapping Championship history. He’s finished in the money four times with his best finishes being a pair of eighths. This will be his 13th appearance overall. He returns to the event after a one-year absence, making it all the sweeter.

"I never take qualifying for granted,” he said. “Every year it is hard. Everyone who qualifies for the NHC in any given year should be proud of their performance."

He recognizes that there’s never been a deeper, better field of contest players. “With each passing year, the competition gets tougher,” he said. “Tournaments were always tough, but in years past you had some events where several in the room had no idea what they were doing.”

Nilsen arrives at the 2017 NHC in a very different place in his life than he was for any of his previous appearances. Nilsen and his wife, Marta, became foster parents for the first time in the summer 2015. “We have one daughter who is an only child and thought it would be good for her and us,” he said.

Naturally, his tournament play took a hit in the wake of that big decision, and while he refused to blame missing the NHC last year on being a foster parent, it is obvious his priorities are different now.

“It’s harder to negotiate the tournament scene when you have three kids at home under the age of seven,” he explained.

The Nilsens went through eight weeks of training including a home study in order to become licensed foster parents. “One thing they emphasize in the training is you can’t turn them back in. It’s not Walmart,” he said.

“Foster parents get involved when something has caused an unsafe environment for the kids,” he said, “We try to get everything back under control while the parents get their act together. The goal is for reunification with the parents within a year. We only had the first kids four months and they were reunified.”

Having that come together was better than any winner he’s ever backed. “It was rewarding and great to see the parent and child reunite and to feel like we’ve made a difference in the lives of the kids. It’s a lot of fun to see how joyful they can be even though they’ve come from a difficult situation and to provide a safe, happy, loving environment even if it’s not permanent.”

Nilsen’s mentor in horse racing is his father, Rich Sr. Now 87, the elder Nilsen has had plenty of contest success of his own, including a high-up finish at the Horse Player World Series a few years back. While he won’t be attending the NHC later this week, he’ll be rooting his son on from home.

These days racing still plays a role in the younger Nilsen’s family life. “I have the racing on quite often and they’ll pay attention to it and ask me, ‘Who are we rooting for?’ ” he said.

Having less time means he plays a lot less, but he tries to make it count when he participates. “It’s a little easier for me because my job is in racing,” Nilsen, the Director of Player Services for Premier Turf Club. “I’ve had to find ways to be more efficient and not spend hours on things that aren’t that important. Avoiding distractions and being organized are the keys.”

Come to think of it, that sounds like pretty good parenting advice as well.