12/21/2016 12:16PM

Nolan made right move by playing against a winning heavy favorite


Sean Nolan has one of the best records in the history of the National Handicapping Championship, with three top-20 finishes in the last 10 years. He has qualified 11 times overall and is on a streak of seven in a row. Last Saturday, he earned his second qualification for 2017 in a DRF Tournaments contest.

Nolan, 51, lives in Alexandria, Va., and is a contractor for the Department of Defense. Last Saturday, he was mostly looking to secure his second seat but also had an eye toward finding his way into the top 40 on the tour and the berth into the contest-within-a-contest at the NHC that goes along with that.

With one race to go, Nolan was tied with Cheryl McIntyre, who was playing for tour points only. He figured it likely that she would play the odds-on favorite, Forest Blue. For Nolan, there were two issues with playing Forest Blue. For one thing, he provided no protection against players farther back because if he won, Nolan would achieve his main goal of a second seat anyway. But Nolan had a more fundamental reason to not play the horse.

“He was easily the fastest on numbers but I had seen him run a bunch of times, and he tended to hang, so I thought he was a good candidate to throw out,” Nolan said.

Instead, he went with his initial choice, Pete’s Play Call.

“He was the horse I liked anyway, and when he kept drifting up, he became a good blocking opportunity as well,” said Nolan.

On his second entry, Nolan used a 37-1 outsider named Zarqa Star. He wasn’t close enough to qualify with his second entry, but a surprise win would have gotten him tour points.

As the horses were in the stretch, Forest Blue made the lead. Pete’s Play Call, who had good stalking position early, was in deep water. Making a charge on the outside was Zarqa Star, looking like a winner.

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“I needed Forest Blue, this horse I thought was a hanger, to dig deep at the sixteenth pole, and luckily he did,” Nolan said, “I take back everything bad I ever said about him.”

Typically, Nolan puts in all his picks in advance of the first race.

“I do not like changing my picks,” he said. “For me, the first look is usually the right look, but I also like to look back afterwards to see if I should have been more flexible.”

This process is common with great players. They perform post-mortems after contests, going back after the fact to carefully examine their picks and decision-making.

“I always want to make sure my strategy was sound,” he said, “In this case I noticed that had I not picked Pete’s Play Call, there were five people who would have passed me if he won. That validated the pick.”

Nolan does a similar exercise with his live-bank play.

“In my mind I’ve had a mediocre year,” he said. “I’ve qualified for several live-money tournaments and I’ve been in the top 10 heading to the last, but wasn’t able to close the deal.”

Looking back and talking to some other players, Nolan feels like maybe he hasn’t approached the last race correctly when he has already been in a good position.

“I tend to hone in on one horse to key in an exacta or trifecta,” he said, “But I’ve seen competitors with a bankroll in those spots spread around a little more to protect themselves, playing three, maybe four horses in the win column. It’s not something I’d do as a horseplayer but it might make sense as strategy in a live-bankroll contest.”

It’s an interesting idea: You trade some upside by lowering the percentage return on your bet, but you gain a much higher chance of seeing your already square total go up instead of down.

“Live-bankroll play usually comes down to the last race,” he said. “You have to have it, but there are various levels of having it.”

Nolan believes in horses-for-courses – both on the track and in handicapping contests. He is well suited to the demands of the NHC.

“It fits my handicapping pretty well because I have the ability to pick a lot of the races and that’s my strength – looking for live horses, not having other people tell me what to play in every race,” he said.

His handicapping works by a process of elimination. He takes 10 to 15 minutes for most races – that’s fast for a non-computer handicapper.

“Say there’s a 12-horse field,” he said. “I can often eliminate eight of them right off the bat and spend my time going through the four I have left.”

In addition to horse-for-course angles, another important eliminating factor for him is overall win percentage.

“I don’t typically want to bet horses that win less than 10 percent of their starts,” he said, “I’m interested in horses who can compete and win versus those who just run around the track.”

He’s basically looking for fit horses who are ready to give their best.

“I don’t like horses coming back on short rest,” he said. “If he ran five weeks ago and has two or three works since, that tells me the horse is doing well and the trainer had this spot picked out versus a trainer just taking a shot.”