By Noel Michaels

Four in a row. Can he make it five?

The annual NHC Last Chance/First Chance Tournament on the eve of the National Horseplayers Championship main event in Las Vegas has long been a handy final-hour opportunity for players to win their way into the NHC, and through the years there have been many players who have taken advantage of what the Last Chance Tournament offers by qualifying the day before the official start of the national finals contest. No one, however, seems to have mastered the art of the Last Chance quite like longtime handicapping tournament great Mike Labriola, who stands out above all others as the king of the NHC Last Chance Tournament.

Labriola, a 68-year-old retired workers comp investigator for the U.S. Dept of Defense from Richmond, Calif., has qualified to the NHC an amazing four years in a row at the Last Chance contest. Not surprisingly, he will once again be in the field for this year’s NHC Last Chance/First Chance Tournament, which will be held on Thursday, Feb. 6 at Bally’s Las Vegas.

Qualifying for the NHC at the Last Chance has always been sort of a dubious distinction. Some players use the Last Chance tourney as a way to try to earn a second entry. More often than not, however, players use the Last Chance contest for the purpose which it was intended. If the entire annual NHC qualifying schedule has come and gone and one, and you’re still not in, it offers one last excellent opportunity to do so. Every year scores of players show up in Las Vegas to take one final – often futile – swing to get themselves qualified for the NHC.

For Labriola, however, the efforts mostly have been far from futile. He’s qualified a total of five times at the NHC Last Chance, including each of the last four years. As a matter of fact, the contest has become such a boon for him that he almost never plays in regular qualifying contests throughout the year anymore. He instead chooses to sit back and wait to make his last stand in Las Vegas on the eve of the NHC.

“Two factors have rendered me semi-retired from handicapping tournaments,” said Labriola, a 12-time NHC qualifier dating back to 2001 and the winner of dozens of tournaments in the pre-NHC tournament era going back to the 80s. “What changed?  First, now there are more and better players, for sure.  Secondly and most important, on-site events are now primarily real money contests. To me, that’s not a format that determines who is the best handicapper and best at picking winners. Real money contests test your betting skill not your handicapping skill. It’s just not my strong suit. It’s good for high rollers who don’t have money concerns. Having more financial ammo than the poorer player next to you is inherently unfair. It is what is. It’s just not what it was.”

Since real money contest formats are favored by tournament hosts and operators as a way to churn cash and bump up handle, traditional win place-style contests have largely been pushed by the wayside, except of course at the NHC and the NHC Last Chance.  In the NHC era, Labriola has won his way to Vegas by winning win-place formatted tournaments at the Surfside Race Place, Fairplex, Reno Hilton, North Dakota OTB, Autotote Connecticut OTB, and more. That’s why Labriola chooses to fire his shot by traveling to Las Vegas and waiting for the day before the start of the NHC to earn a berth into the finals.

“Success at the Last Chance is indeed a ‘horse for course’ thing for me,” Labriola said. “I prefer the old style win-place format, and it has a good qualifying ratio, which definitely helps. I’m very confident there based on past accomplishments, and I like the tracks they use.”

This year’s NHC Last Chance/First Chance is an even better-than-usual qualifying opportunity for players seeking their first or second berth into the 2020 NHC. The NTRA recently announced an even stronger prize structure to the upcoming NHC Last Chance/First Chance on Feb. 6, with 10 guaranteed 2020 NHC entries in addition to 3 guaranteed berths into the 2021 NHC finals for those already double-qualified. Those total of 13 spots are guaranteed up to the first 240 entries, with one more qualifying spot to be offered for every 20 entries beyond 240, which could result in 20+ qualifying seats being offered in the Last Chance, depending on the turnout. The Last NHC Chance/First Chance contest will cost $500 to enter, and offers 2020 on-track NHC Tour Points in addition to qualifying berths.

“I recommend playing the Last Chance,” said Labriola, who earned a qualifying berth into the NHC Last Chance Tournament by winning an online Last Chance/First Chance qualifier on late in the year.

“For me and others from the Left Coast it’s a quick trip,” Labriola said. “It’s not perfect. If you qualify at the Last Chance it makes success at the NHC much harder because it leaves you with no preparation time for the NHC like the other finalists who’ve qualified earlier. Plus, you need to go to Vegas and have four big days in a row instead of three, which is difficult enough already. It’s possible at age 30, but near impossible for those of us on the senior circuit!  However, even if you tank at the NHC, you still get to hang out with buddies for a bit in Las Vegas, so it’s a win/win.”