12/28/2016 1:26PM

Young turf Bialek slides into NHC

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Racing is often described as an older man’s game, and a look around many contest rooms does give some credence to that view. But there are exceptions. Tony Zhou, who is having such a great year on the National Handicapping Championship Tour, is only 33. And consider the resume of Eric Bialek, who, at just 25, has now qualified for the National Handicapping Championship in all four years he has tried to qualify, his most recent coming out of a DRF Tournaments event.

“It’s a big chance to hang with friends and horseplayers in a cool setting,” Bialek said, “and it’s also a chance to walk away with a nice check. It’s hard not to want to get there every year.”

This year, he left it until pretty late. He was on the cusp of qualification via the back door of the NHC Tour.

“My goal on Friday was to finish in the top 10 percent and get my NHC seat that way,” he said of the all-in qualifier where Robert Ferguson, Robert Moore, Laura Arth, and Traci Richards all earned seats as well. Tenth-place finisher Edwin Synowiecki will likely get in via tour points.

Bialek, an engineer by trade, is very organized and systematic when it comes to his contest prep. He starts by making a spreadsheet which he uses to analyze not only the horses in each race but the races themselves.

“When I made my sheet, only two races had a ‘wide open’ note,” he said.

Based on that, and the fact that there were many logical horses at short prices, he predicted that a score of $80 would be enough to win. That allowed him to plot a course on each of the two entries he was playing.

“I purposely played one entry with the horse I liked most regardless of price, and on the other I mixed in logical price horses throughout but mostly towards the end.”

Bialek recognizes the complexity of devising a strategy for all-in contests, where all picks must be in before the first race. “It prevents people from stabbing at the end and that’s a good thing,” he explained, “but it’s a double-edged sword because if you’re close at the end sometimes you’ll want to change your pick to avoid being blocked.”

Bialek watched the races with his dad on Friday at Hawthorne, where he plays a contest ambassador role. “It’s my favorite place to play because Hawthorne deliberately time their races not to conflict with the other tracks,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the contest races conflict with each other."

He was feeling good halfway through the contest, when one of his entries was in seventh and the other was in 20th. He still needed help late and it came in the form of Untapped at Fair Grounds and Got It at Gulfstream. Expecting the scores to be low like he did, he was okay using both short-priced favorites on his first entry. His second entry had longer prices covered so he had two ways to win. When both favorites won, he was headed back to the NHC -- through a direct qualification, no back door needed.

It was a great example of how looking at the big picture of the contest in advance informed his strategic decisions late. A lot of old-school tournament players would have hesitated to use chalk in both those spots on the same ticket.

His streak of NHC qualifications almost ended two years ago. Bialek endured several close calls throughout the 2014 season, but was once again in decent position to qualify by finishing in the top 150 on the tour. He had one more chance to get a score if he took a last-minute flight from his native Chicago to San Diego, where he played two tickets in the Surfside contest.

Even heading into the last race, things weren’t looking too good for him. He’d backed four winners overall – solid enough – but he’d split them among his two tickets. Bialek played a 24-1 shot, Verraco, on one of his tickets.

This was no stab. Bialek’s fair-value price on the colt was 6-1 based on speed figures and the fact that he was unexposed at a mile. Verraco came through for Bialek and the rest of his backers, prevailing by a head after a stretch duel and paying $49.20.

Bialek has established a knack for snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat. That’s a talent that should stand him in good stead at next month’s NHC where he’ll attempt to become the youngest champion in the history of the event.