01/19/2016 11:20AM

Fornatale: Have mandatories outlived their usefulness?

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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.