01/24/2016 9:40AM

Watchmaker: National Handicapping Championship adopts 'Jonathon Kinchen' rule


The 17th Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship begins Thursday at Treasure Island on the Las Vegas Strip. And I wish every horseplayer could have the experience of just being at the NHC if not actually participating in it, because it really is an event with electricity quite unlike anything else.

Yours truly has had the good fortune of being involved in a small way with the NHC from the start. That said, I can say without hesitation that the format change two years ago (which I had nothing to do with) of extending the event to three days and introducing the Final Table of the top 10 contestants after the semifinal phase took an already great event and made it exponentially better.

In a continuing effort to make the NHC as best as it can be, there were a few rules tweaks this year of note. For starters, Days 1 and 2 of the contest (Thursday and Friday this year; the experiment last year of running the tournament through Sunday has been shelved) will have eight mandatory races (races all contestants must play) and 10 optional plays, three more than in years past.

Instead of the top 50 contestants after Day 2 moving on to the semifinals, a number which sounded good but was really kind of arbitrary, the top 10 percent of entries after Day 2 move on to the semifinals, which is more equitable. In addition, instead of purse money being paid back to a certain number at the end of the tournament, it will now be paid back to the top 10 percent of finishers.

Contestants in the NHC can, if they earned them in qualifying, play two entries. One other notable rule change this year is a contestant who completed the semifinal round with both of his or her entries high enough to qualify for the Final Table may now carry both of those entries into the finals.

I suppose one could call this the “Jonathon Kinchen rule.” Kinchen had a Secretariat-like NHC last year in, remarkably, his first full season of tournament play. He had both of his entries qualify for the Final Table, but previous rules allowed him to take one of those entries to the final table.

Kinchen stayed hot through 2015, running away with the Daily Racing Form NHC Tour. That was a nice payday in itself, but it also put Kinchen in position of winning the $2 million bonus offered to a Tour winner who comes right back and wins the NHC. With a NHC first prize of $800,000, Kinchen is shooting for a $2.8 million score this week. And with the way he has taken the tournament world by storm, no one should put it past him.

The closest I ever came to competing in the NHC (as a DRF employee, I am not eligible) was in an adjunct NHC media tournament for charity in 2002. There were four media teams, and I was designated to be captain of one of them (the three other captains shall remain nameless so as not to embarrass them). Three of the teams were conventional, consisting of the media types you would typically think of. The fourth team was Team Penthouse. Yes. That Penthouse.

None of the other media captains wanted anything to do with Team Penthouse. I don’t know if they were afraid of getting badly beaten, or were afraid of girls. In any case, I jumped at the opportunity to be the captain of Team Penthouse. Aside from having to spend time with two attractive Penthouse Pets, there were no expectations and zero pressure. These Pets admitted they knew nothing about horse racing or handicapping, and in fact had never attempted to handicap before.

Well, I had a good tournament. I lapped the other four captains, and finished right about in the top 10 percent of the NHC in general. But the Pets, handicapping for the first time, were freakish. One would have finished in the top 10 of the overall tournament, and the other finished ahead of me.

As strong as my showing was, especially in comparison to my conventional media colleagues, I was still mercilessly ribbed for being beaten by two Penthouse Pets.

Oh, you want proof? Here you go: