Joe Johnson, of San Antonio, Texas, rode the lone speed of Laoban all the way to a $10,000 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry as the winner of the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour’s “First Half,” which concluded Sunday. By pegging that 27-1 winner of Saturday’s Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga Race Course, Johnson vaulted himself to an 11th-place finish in a Free-to-Play online qualifier presented by the NTRA on NHCQualify.com, good for 2,851 points on the day and a final tally of 13,578 points on the “First Half” leaderboard. The “First Half” top five – each of whom received either a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entry worth $10,000 or the equivalent in cash – was rounded out by Gary McMaster (12,969 points), Cheryl McIntyre (12,617), Rick Broth (12,555), and Kevin Engelhard (12,199).
“First Half” totals are comprised of points earned in a player’s top four finishes, at least one of which must have come in an on-site contest, through July 31. Results became official Wednesday at the conclusion of a three-day audit period.
Johnson, 59, a gastroenterologist, amassed his score with a March 13 win on HorseTourneys.com (in a field of 290 entries) worth 3,688 points; a March 20 win on BetAmerica.com (281 entries) worth 3,631 points; a third-place finish in the July 23 live contest at Woodbine (86 entries) worth 1,908 points; and the 11th-place finish on Saturday against a field of 1,810 other entries in the final major contest of the First Half.
His effort north of the border was Johnson’s first and only attempt of the year in an on-site tournament.
“I played at Woodbine just so I could get that in-person score,” he said. “I’ve been pushing for this for some months now and it feels good to have it happen.”
Johnson also backed Laoban on multiple entries in another contest Saturday, on DRF Tournaments, finishing first and second while earning his second BCBC entry of the year as a result. With the maximum of two BCBC entries in his own name already secured, Johnson will receive $10,000 cash for his NHC Tour “First Half” exploits.
“I hate to say I had some luck because we like to think it’s all skill but things broke just right for me,” Johnson said. “It really worked out well. I was only aiming for the top five but to win feels great.”
Now Johnson will turn his attention to the overall, year-long NHC Tour leaderboard, where he sits in second with 16,616 points, just behind Engelhard, the current leader with 16,783. The overall NHC Tour leaderboard incorporates a player’s top six scores. First prize for the NHC Tour is $75,000 and comes with a trophy and the chance to play for a $2 million bonus should the NHC Tour winner go on to win NHC 18 in January. There is also a new “$3,000,000 NHC Tour Double” bonus for anyone that can complete a sweep of the BCBC and the NHC.
“Of course I’ve got to go for all of that,” Johnson said. “That’s what we do this for.”
The top 150 NHC Tour finishers earn automatic berths to the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping contest, the NHC, set for Jan. 27-29, 2017, at Treasure Island Las Vegas, provided that each individual has not already won an NHC entry. The top 20 share in a $175,000 prize pool, from $75,000 (plus a trophy and an automatic berth to NHC 19) for the NHC Tour champion to $1,000 for 20th, and the top 40 get to play for a $25,000 bonus that goes to the qualifier with the highest finish at NHC 18.
Here’s more of what we know about the rest of the top five “First Half” finishers after Johnson and whether they’re accepting a BCBC entry or taking $10,000 cash:
McMaster, of Etobicoke, Ontario, won live contests at Woodbine and Arlington Park this summer. He already holds a BCBC spot and has elected to take $10,000 cash.
McIntyre, of Massillon, Ohio, is an eight-time NHC qualifier. She has already earned four BCBC entries in 2016 (although only two can be played in her name) and will, therefore, receive $10,000 cash.
Broth, of Dunwoody, Ga., is a sales manager for an acoustical tile manufacturer. The 58-year-old made his NHC debut in January at NHC 17. He has co-owned several quality horses with trainer Ronny Werner, including Lady of Shamrock, a multiple Grade 1 winner after they sold her as a 2-year-old. Broth already held a BCBC berth he earned by winning Keeneland’s Grade One Gamble in April and will take $10,000 cash.
Engelhard, of Franklin Park, N.J., is a seven-time NHC qualifier. The 63-year-old is the current NHC Tour leader. He has accepted a BCBC entry.
On the compact “First Half” leaderboard, eight players – including elite names like Joe Pettit, Bill Shurman, Garett Skiba, Eric Moomey and Sally Goodall – finished within 1,000 points of making the top five.
The complete final “First Half” standings with scores for all 2,633 NHC Tour members that earned points so far this year can be viewed online at http://ntra.kinsta.com/wp-content/uploads/First-Half-080116.pdf.
The NHC Tour’s “Second Half” starts this weekend with a clean slate separate from the overall standings. The top five on the NHC Tour leaderboard from Aug. 1 to Jan. 1 will each be awarded a $10,000 cash prize. This weekend’s plethora of contest offerings include the two-day (Friday and Saturday) $200,000-guaranteed Wynn Las Vegas Handicapping Challenge (2 NHC spots); Saturday’s “All-Optional” contest on HorseTourneys.com (3 spots minimum); Saturday’s “Second Chance” contest (a qualifier for the 2-spot championship Oct. 1) at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas; Sunday’s Free-to-Play online contest (4 spots) presented by the NTRA at NHCQualify.com; and another Sunday contest (2 spots guaranteed) at NHCQualify.com.
For more information on the NHC and NHC Tour, visit www.ntra.com/nhc.