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Fornatale: Have mandatories outlived their usefulness?
The National Handicapping Championship is an ever-evolving beast. As the world’s most prestigious handicapping contest continues to grow, more and more changes have been made – such as the advent of the Final Table in 2014 – that have made the event more exciting and helped its popularity to grow.
In a recent article in American Turf Monthly, two respected contest players have taken a look at the tournament from the outside in and proposed a radical change – the elimination of mandatory races on the contest’s first two days.
In the piece, Mike Labriola and Noel Michaels point out the difference between the handicapping contest world of the late 90s – when it was a small, clubby scene that played out entirely in live venues – and today’s sprawling landscape that, of course, takes place largely online. At first, the typical contest formats were made up of all optional races. But then a change occurred. According to Labriola and Michaels, “Race tracks and race books in that era that began adding mandatory plays. . . When the first rules and format of the NHC were being formulated in 1999, the trend at the time toward using mandatory races was recognized by being given a major role in the new NHC.”
They also point out that part of the enthusiasm for mandatories was tied in to the idea that they’d be a key part in how the tournament could be televised, with the idea of growing its popularity. It’s certainly true that the Final Table is a much better made-for-TV vehicle for the 21st century. Labriola and Michaels praise the Final Table concept and believe that it is the place where mandatory races should be used at the NHC.
They write: “Mandatory races now are part of the drama of the final of the Final. Why do they still need to be a part of the action earlier in the tournament?”
They acknowledge that mandatories are helpful to contest administrators – and those providing contest coverage – by limiting the subset of races. They say mandatories also are meant to “serve as a handicapping ‘obstacle course,’ that makes you move from handicapping maiden claimers to stakes horses, and all levels in-between. You must do well at many tracks, and in many different types of races.”
But to Michaels and Labriola, that’s not enough of a benefit to justify limiting a bettor’s options. “What horseplayer can pick winners in every race they are ordered to play?” they ask. “If selectivity is applauded and rewarded with profits in real-world handicapping and betting, why then do we penalize selectivity in the all-important venue of the NHC by limiting players’ selectivity with an ungodly 53% mandatory races, or with any mandatory races at all, on the first two days of the three-day championship?”
The strongest point that they make is to acknowledge that mandatories provide a significant advantage for players with multiple entries – those who have earned them as individuals or play as part of handicapping “teams.”
“How fair is it when those players with five or six swings in a mandated race play against your one swing?" they ask. "Making the one change of eliminating mandatory races . . . would at least make it much less likely that your hard-earned boxcar winner, who you handicapped, will not be scored by 32 other players in the field.”
Chris Larmey, head of the NTRA Players’ Committee, points out that the trend in NHC rules is moving in the Labriola and Michaels's desired direction. “This year we’ve expanded the number of optional plays on the first two days of the contest from seven to 10 each day,” he said. “This change provides the players with more action and means that the optional plays will now outnumber the mandatory plays over the two days [20 optional versus 16 mandatory]. We think this change will be well received by players for many of the reasons mentioned in the article but the NTRA will solicit their feedback after this year’s NHC and the number of optional and/or mandatory races could possibly be revised further.”
That said, Larmey isn’t convinced that mandatories should go away. “We are not sure what the optimal mix is but elimination of all mandatory races is probably a bit extreme at this time,” he said. “The primary purpose of mandatory races is to force players out of their comfort zones. We don’t want a player to win the NHC by just playing races at Golden Gate, or just playing first-time starters, or just playing turf races, etc. This indeed may be their normal mode of playing but the NHC is a contest and not intended to mimic exactly their normal mode of playing. Instead, we want it to be a robust test of handicapping skills rather than a way to determine the best specialist.”
One thing is certain: over the years the NHC has shown a tremendous willingness to listen to players and respond in kind. So let your voice be heard on this issue. If you’re playing in the NHC, it’s easy. Just fill out your questionnaire. If you’re a player with an opinion who is not at the NHC this year, feel free to use the comments section in the online version of this article to voice your thoughts.
As the tournament scene continues to grow, it's only a matter of time before we see highly specialized major tournaments. A National Turf Handicapping Championship vs. Sprint Championship, Route Championship, etc. I hope the NHC never goes away but there are people who specialize and I'd support national specialty tourneys.
Why not split the difference in a way and mandate X number of plays per track? If, for instance, the concern is about a player betting all 12 Gulfstream races of the 18 plays each day, then make everyone play at least 2 races per 6 tracks. You don't need to specify the race; just the # of races one must play per track. Personally I have no problem w/the mandatory races and don't think it's that big a deal, considering last year there was a duo with 4 entries combined that still couldn't make it to the Top 50, so I don't think the volume approach necessarily means automatic victory.
If the NHC wants to be a true championship it should go away from mythical win/place and move to the BCBC format. I used to play every weekend on various sites but I have grown tired of the mythical format which is more about handicapping the oddsboard rather than the merits of each horse. I'm also completely against allowing multiple entries in the NHC or any other handicapping contest. For me the BCBC has the best format on the best betting races and going forward that will be my primary target as a handicapping contest player.
Great article. I agree with Chris Larmey. I love playing mainly grass racing, or just 3 tracks or so. Mandatories will make me cap a race on the Inner at Aqu, or a race at Turfway.
Format,structure,quantity of field, Heck, I don't care if it's playground rules. I pay no mind to the noise. Roll out the ball and let's compete...
how about no mandatory races and a lockdown to boot for the first two days. cap races @ 42 win 22 place and 12 show. then the best players will shine!!!!
Have to say I greatly prefer the Horse Player World Series all optional format. That being said the mandatories do privde a higher level of excitement in that every player is involved and focusing on.
mandatory races are a joke as is the whole format that is geared to children and not a true indication of the skill it takes to win in this game. with few decisions for the player to make it makes it a contest that a quick pick entrant can win
While we're on the topic of fairness, how about reverting back to the one entry per NHC member allowed at the final tournament? A large chunk of the 3,000 + members that attempt to qualify to the NHC are 'weekend warriors' and do not possess the time nor the luxury to study the races in depth on a full time basis when compared to the the usual members who fall on the top ten final list every year and no doubt, each of them have two entries (and a huge edge) heading into the big dance.
I think I been saying get rid of mandatory since we first started that why my son Chris and his buddy are coming up with a new online site coming up this year called battletothewire.com there going to try havevery few mandatory races in there contest whenever they can they got tired of hearing me but I can't play on site but it be good for real tourament players.
Although I haven't played tournaments in a number of years, I've never liked the mandatory race concept. One reason being exactly what both Mike & Noel mentioned. Those that have multiple entries have an advantage over single qualifiers. The other big problem is when mandatory races are at a track that has a rain storm whereby races come off the turf and more importantly there are numerous scratches which creates small fields and usually short prices. It becomes an impossible task if you are in the middle of the pack to make up ground when you are handicapping a 5 or 6 horse field.
My personal preference is to have the contest races all mandatory. Apparently that is a minority view. Optional races/selections should be (or can be) restricted to a set number of tracks. That could be a minority viewpoint also. I've never been a fan of the dartboard approach. I've qualified twice and finished 3rd and 22nd in the championship events and did have optional race success but did most of my 'damage' via the mandatory races that were used.