05/11/2016 10:53AM

Fornatale: Horseplayer's choice - NHC or BCBC?


In many contests, like next weekend’s Preakness Betting Challenge at Santa Anita, the top finishers receive both National Handicapping Championship seats and Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge seats. In others, like the June 4 Pick Your Prize event at Monmouth Park, the top finishers choose between an NHC seat and BCBC seat.

The NHC and BCBC have for several years now been the two most important and prestigious contests. While there are other exciting events that attract great fields with big money on the line, the NHC and BCBC have the biggest combination of prestige and cash.

Some online commenters have suggested the typical choice of a BCBC seat over an NHC seat indicates that the BCBC has taken over as the most important contest event. This is overstating the case. While the BCBC is undeniably awesome for reasons I’ll explore in a bit, the NHC is still the richest contest event, the one weekend of the year where the horseplayer takes center stage, and whose winner is rewarded with an Eclipse Award, a symbolic gesture by the industry to honor all horseplayers.

“I don’t care about that stuff, what about the Expected Value,” a gambling-oriented horseplayer might ask, and that’s his prerogative. When you look at it from a value perspective, the BCBC does shine. It’s one of the only times all year a player can play into a pool where more gets paid out than goes in, and the seat has a real-world cash value of $10,000, not to mention the added equity of an expenses-paid, VIP trip to the best weekend of racing all year. Furthermore, the BCBC seats are transferable; NHC seats are not. More on that in a minute.

In addition to the cash value of BCBC spots and the unique racing experience they provide, there’s something psychological going on with the choice between the two seats. For one thing, the number of NHC seats being limited to two is a factor, especially this early in the year. Many regular players assume they will get qualified for the NHC somewhere along the line, probably the maximum of twice. If you’re going to get in twice anyway, and additional NHC qualifications aren’t worth anything, why choose the NHC seat over the one worth $10,000 cash? Players might choose differently in a Pick Your Prize event scheduled in early January, when NHC seat-winning opportunities are scarce. But for most of the year, there are simply fewer opportunities to qualify for the BCBC and there’s no way a BCBC seat can go to “waste.”

The other piece of the puzzle is that if you do well at the BCBC, you’re going to win an NHC seat anyway. In 2015, 15 NHC seats were added to the prize pool. So by picking the BCBC spot, you’re getting all the perks of playing at the BCBC and still drawing live for a seat at the table to win your share of $2 million at the NHC.

The precise value of an NHC seat is up to each particular player. Some would have you believe that for a player who didn’t compete for Tour prizes, the equation is as simple as taking the amount of money paid out at the NHC finals and dividing it by the number of participants. But that doesn’t factor in the NHC experience. You’re getting free travel and a four-night stay at the hotel holding the coolest horseplayer party of the year. Every year I see players show up to the event who aren’t qualified just so they can be a part of it. There’s also the shot of an outsized cash award for first ($800,000) and an Eclipse Award that is priceless. There is an emotional value to the NHC that cannot be quantified with simple math. In "The Winning Contest Player," Paul Shurman told me, “The NHC isn’t about value: It’s about being the best. When you get out there and you’re in that room with all those people, you’ll understand, and you’ll want to be back every year.”