By Noel Michaels

John Conte is back in the National Horseplayers Championship finals, and with him back in the mix, there are 10 past NHC winners that have already punched their tickets to Las Vegas for the 2018 main event.

Conte, the longtime public handicapper and winner of NHC X in January 2009, was one of three players to earn a spot in Las Vegas at the Meadowlands NHC Qualifier on Saturday, Oct. 7.  Conte finished third of 120 entries at the Meadowlands with a real-money final contest total of $2,518 based on win, place, or show bets on the races from Belmont, Keeneland, and Gulfstream.  He earned the majority of his tournament winnings on a single bet when he nailed a $40 win wager on Pep the Champ who returned $126.80 in Race 6 at Gulfstream.  Conte’s bet returned $2,536 (real dollars, no cap), and gave him a giant lead. He then held on to most of his total and led by a large margin before ultimately sliding to third late in the contest.

“I picked that horse on the spot because I thought he had a shot,” Conte said of his winning 62-1 shot. “When I bet that horse it was like 20-1 or 22-1, but you gotta be lucky in these contests and his odds went up. I had $175 at that time, so I went and bet $40 on him and it worked out.”

Conte, from Oceanside, NY, has qualified for the NHC on five prior occasions and cashed twice. He will be making his first trip back to the NHC since January 2015 when he added to his $500,000 in NHC career earnings by garnering another $10,640 in prize money that year with a 42nd-place finish.

“I just wanted to get back to ‘the show’. I hadn’t been there in a couple years, and you know how hard it is to get into the NHC,” Conte said.  “I had a such a big lead and then I sat, sat, sat and they pecked away but I held on to a spot.”

The two players that beat-out Conte at the Meadowlands and also qualified for the NHC were the contest’s eventual winner H. Mitchell Schuman, who racked-up a $3,024 real-money total, and runner-up Bill Rendino who finished with $2,880.  Schuman, who also finished fourth while playing multiple entries, earned first prize money of $9,680 (plus another $1,815 for fourth). Rendino took home $4,840 for second, in addition to his contest bankroll and the NHC qualifying spot.  Payoffs went down to tenth place.

Mitch Schuman, of Brightwaters, New York, has been extremely hot so far during the NHC Tour’s second half after qualifying in late August at Monmouth and now earning his second spot at the Meadowlands. Schuman’s 9,842 second-half Tour point total currently places him second on the Second-Half NHC Tour Leaderboard, and has moved him all the way up to 17 in the Overall NHC Tour Leaderboard standings with 14,387 points.

Schuman is no stranger to the NHC finals.  He is one of the all-time most prolific players in the event with 12 prior qualifying appearances. The 2018 NHC finals will make it a lucky 13 years, and Schuman’s 10th in a row.   Schuman is the seventh all-time leading NHC finals point earner with 1,427 points scored in his 12 appearances dating back to 2004 when he qualified for the first time at the Bettor Racing OTB in South Dakota.  He comes off his best ever finish in the NHC main event this January when he earned $19,200 in prize money for his 17th-place finish.

Bill Rendino of the Bronx, third at the Meadowlands, also earned his second NHC qualifying seat this year after earlier qualifying at Monmouth. Rendino has also been a successful tournament player over the last decade, having made NHC finals appearances in 2008, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017.  His highest finish to date was in January, 2017 when he earned $7,950 in purse money for 57th place.

“Those two guys are good handicappers and they’re always right there,” Conte said of both Schuman and Rendino. “These guys were chasing me and they had lumber not splinters if you know what I mean. They both had money on their cards and they were really betting.”

Conte, meanwhile, becomes the 10th prior NHC winner to have qualified for the 2018 main event, following nine others who have already punched their tickets including Judy Wagner (the 2001 winner, qualified this year at Surfside Race Place), Stanley Bavlish (2007, double-qualified at, Richard Goodall (2008, double-qualified twice at Surfside), Brian Troop (2010,, John Doyle (2011, Del Mar), Jose Arias (2014, double-qualified at Surfside and Santa Anita), John O’Neil (2015, Monmouth), Paul Matties (2016, Monmouth), and Ray Arsenault (2017, double-qualified at Del Mar and as NHC champion).

These past champions each will be vying to become the first-ever repeat NHC winner.  While it is only a matter of time until that feat is accomplished, these former champs have been accumulating various impressive tournament accomplishments along the way.  For example, Jose Arias, John O’Neil, and Paul Matties have always been double-qualifiers since winning their titles, and Richard Goodall has qualified every single year since winning it all in 2009 for a total of 14 years – soon to be 15 – at the NHC.  Goodall, Judy Wagner, and Paul Matties are the 3rd, 6th, and 15th-highest scorers in the history of the NHC.

Stan Bavlish and Brian Troop have also been regular yearly qualifiers to the NHC since the years they won, and both are amongst the event’s top 40 career scorers.  Both players took turns knocking on the door to becoming the NHC’s first repeat champs.  Troop reached the NHC Final Table in 2015 before ultimately finishing 9th and adding $52,000 in prize money to his career total.  Bavlish then equaled the feat the next year, reaching the NHC Final Table and finishing 9th to the tune of $52,000 in prize money in 2016.

Of the seven surviving past NHC winners that remain, at least four are still active tournament players, and presumably still seeking a qualifying berth in NHC 19 in February, 2018.