08/26/2010 1:12PM

Summer is prime-time for NHC players


It has been an exciting summer on the National Handicapping Championship Tour, with some fantastic finishes – especially from the point of view of those who have qualified for the 12th annual Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Championship set for Jan. 28-29, 2011, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

This is the time of year when horseplayers enter the tourneys they want, either on the Internet or at the tracks, OTBs, and casinos around the country where they want to go. And there have been a lot of choices with no fewer than 24 tourneys since June 1 awarding NHC berths, plus numerous other pre-quailifying tourneys to earn seats at the biggest events.

Here are some highlights:

◗ At Belmont’s Summer Handicapping Challenge on June 26-27, Dave Gutfreund of Chicago prevailed in a battle of media members and won the $40,000 first-place prize. The two-day tourney was led nearly wire-to-wire by Noel Michaels, who covered the first six NHC finals for DRF and authored the “Handicapping Contest Handbook” in 2003. Gutfreund was the color commentator (kind of the Norman Chad role) of ESPN2’s tape-delayed telecast of the seventh NHC finals in January 2006 that was won by Ron Rippey of Wayne, N.J. Entering the final race of the contest, the 12th at Monmouth Park on Sunday, June 27, Gutfreund sat in sixth place but picked 8-1 Ready to Dazzle to vault over Michaels, who settled for $14,400 but also secured his second straight NHC berth. Michaels, of New York, also earned $1,000 as the Day 1 leader. Gregory DiStefano of Staten Island finished third to win $7,500 and the final NHC berth. Former NHC champion and another public handicapper/writer, John Conte of Oceanside, N.Y., won the $1,000 prize for the best Day 2 score but just missed qualifying in sixth place. Rippey was also there and finished fifth.

◗ The Cross Country Handicapping Challenge was held concurrently on July 10 at Monmouth Park in the East, Canterbury Park in the Midwest, and Emerald Downs in the Northwest. With online tourneys obviously involving players from coast to coast in the same tourney, this isn’t as novel of a concept as it used to be, but it’s still pretty cool and it drew a field of 206. Monmouth players ended up dominating the competition as they took the top four spots overall, including all three NHC berths. Ricky Zimmer, using a mix of win and show bets in the live-money format, built his $200 starting bankroll into a final bankroll of $2,361. He got to keep that as well as the $10,350 top prize from the purse. A critical play for Zimmer was going all-in with $240 on Violon Sacre in the Battlefield Stakes and moving up the leaderboard at $1,176. An out-of-the-money finish would have sent Zimmer home. On his final play of the contest at Emerald Downs, Zimmer put $500 of his $1,211 bankroll on Meet Me at Wilsons. When the favorite won, so did Zimmer. The other NHC qualifers from Monmouth were Joseph Perry of Hamilton, N.J., who built his bankroll to $2,105.40 and collected an additional $4,140 for second; and H. Mitchell Schuman of Brightwaters, N.Y., who finished at $1,947 and earned another $2,484. Monmouth has a $300 buy-in event this Saturday with three more NHC berths up for grabs.

◗ Other big winners of qualifying tournaments include James Dempster winning the July 3 Firecracker Shootout at the home of the NHC finals, the Red Rock here in Vegas; David Battersby of Bellevue, Wash., winning the NHC Tour Free Online Tournament on July 24 (setting a record for an NTRA-hosted tourney with 860 entries); Gary Levin winning the Ultimate Qualifying Tournament at Emerald Downs on Aug. 1 as part of the biggest group to qualifying for the NHC finals this year as nine earned berths; and Scott Eyraud of South Creek, S.C., winning the inaugural Saratoga tourney on Aug.10.

Upcoming qualifiers

The summer keeps rolling on with four qualifying tournaments this weekend. I already mentioned the Monmouth tourney. Green Valley Ranch here in Las Vegas (specifically the town of Henderson in the southeast part of the valley) is hosting the Stations/Fiestas monthly finals with the top two earning NHC berths. Entries cost $200 for those who haven’t qualified through the series of Friday contests. Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke, Ontario, is hosting a two-day event Saturday and Sunday with a $330 (Canadian) entry fee and three NHC spots. And there is the NHC Tour Travers Day contest that is free to Tour members and also has NHC berths to the top three.

There is also a $50 buy-in pre-qualifier at Del Mar on Sunday for the meet-long finals on Sept. 5 that gives away five NHC seats.

After Labor Day, the schedule slows down considerably, but there are still some high points.

Fairplex Park in Pomona, Calif., has its popular series of tourneys starting with its Friday offering on Sept. 10. The entry fee is $340 with $80 of that used as a live bankroll, but there is a reduced online early-bird fee of $320 if you register by this Sunday. See fairplex.com for details. That contest also runs Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, and Fairplex also has two-day weekend tourneys on those corresponding Saturday and Sundays with a $300 entry fee. The Friday tourneys award two NHC berths with the Saturday-Sunday contests offering three apiece.

The other major tourney next month is the Super Derby Showdown Handicapping Tournament on Sept. 25 at Louisiana Downs. The entry fee is $275 with $60 of that used as a live bankroll. The top five finishers earn NHC berths, along with airfare and hotel accommodations, plus the champion also earns a trip back to Las Vegas next February for the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans.

◗ NHC features stories, and a link to previews of all upcoming qualifying tournaments, are available at http://www1.drf.com/nhc/2010/qualifiers.html