12/16/2015 9:28AM

Fornatale: Advice for NHC rookies


The National Handicapping Championship, which takes place Jan. 28-30 at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, can be difficult to prepare for, a bit overwhelming, and downright intimidating, especially for first-year qualifiers. Paul Shurman and Sean Nolan each have multiple top-10 finishes at the NHC and have important advice for new players who want to emulate John Doyle, who won the 2010 NHC at first asking.

Nolan has been playing in contests since the late 1990s, back when the biggest events were held at Sports Haven in New Haven, Conn., and Penn National (the original contest, the World Series of Handicapping). He was second to Judy Wagner back in 2001 and ran 12th in 2012 (Michael Beychok’s million-dollar win). He’s having a big year on the NHC Tour in 2015, sitting in 13th place, with wins on DRFBets and at Monmouth Park. He’ll have the maximum of two entries at the NHC.

Nolan advises against trying to win the whole contest on Day 1. “I always try to post a solid number on Day 1 and not be overly aggressive,” he said. “Both of my top finishes, I had good Day 1 scores and managed to nail a cap horse on Day 2.”

Playing from far behind can be tricky as the tournament heats up. “I just prefer to not have to reach for bombs on Day 2 because I am playing catch-up,” he said. “Even with two tickets, I will probably still play conservative on Day 1. Hitting a 5-1 shot is worth $18 with the win-place format, and they add up pretty quickly.”

He is a big believer in the power of preparation. “I like to script most of my plays the night before or the morning of the contest,” he said. “If all is going as planned, I don't really have that much work to do while sitting at the tables with my fellow competitors.”

His final piece of advice is to not obsess over the standings. “I have seen too many players get influenced by the leaderboard and stray away from their normal handicapping just because someone hits a couple of big price horses,” he said. “If you are not picking winners, it really doesn't matter what the leaderboard looks like.”

Shurman is known among his contemporaries as the king of preparation. “If you are handicapping races for the first time during the contest, you will be overwhelmed and miss things,” he said. “With races going off every five minutes or so, there is no time to be looking at past performances, race replays, or pedigree statistics for the first time.”

Shurman suggests starting with the last race of the day and working backward. “If you don't know what is coming up in later races, you have no idea whether or not a horse in an early race is as good a value as horses in later races,” he said. “By working backwards, even if you are unable to finish handicapping all 75 races or so and are forced to handicap some early races on the fly, at least you will know your options when determining whether to use a bullet.”

Shurman said your travel plans can be a factor in your success – or lack thereof. Some players might need to get the Vegas rush out of their system, while others might just need the rest. “If possible, get to Vegas early,” said the only man with three top-10 finishes at the NHC. “The NHC is a blast, but it is a grueling experience.  You are much better off if you are fairly well rested than if you get to Vegas the night before, get a few hours’ sleep, and run to the ballroom the next morning.”

A lot of players feel pressure to reach for prices that they normally wouldn’t and have a miracle run at the NHC. Shurman thinks this is a mistake.

“Don't change the way you handicap just because this is the National Handicapping Championship,” he said. “You got here handicapping a certain way, and you should stick with what you know best and what you are comfortable with. If you don't usually look at race replays, now is not the time to start. You are a good handicapper, or you wouldn’t have qualified. Use what got you here.” 

Many players set a price threshold at the NHC – they won’t take less than 8-1 in an optional race. It’s interesting that neither Nolan nor Shurman subscribes to this approach. “Although others disagree, take what they give you,” said Shurman, the 2011 NHC Tour champ. “A 3-1 that you think can't lose is not too short a price.”

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Because of the deep field, the standings will be tight. “In all likelihood, you will be happy you have that $12 later on in the contest,” Shurman said. “One dollar can be the difference between getting into the top 50 for Day 3 or making the final table. One year, I finished in sixth place with about $296 in collections but was only 20 cents out of fourth, about a $30,000 difference in prize money.”

Nervousness can be a big factor for first-year players, but Shurman said that with the right preparation and a strong game plan, it can be overcome. His advice is simple: “Don't panic,” he said emphatically. “Just because you didn't have that cap horse in the first mandatory race doesn't mean you have to fire away with cap horses the rest of the tournament.”

It’s important to remember that the NHC is more akin to 12 furlongs on the grass than five on the dirt. “It is a very long contest,” Shurman said. “Keep with your plan. If you have to adjust late, you can do so. In all likelihood, you will never be more that two decent collections out of the top 50 at any point during the first two days.”

Shurman’s final piece of advice: “Have fun!”