01/29/2015 1:11PM

Fornatale: NHC Tour kicks off season amid rule changes

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The 2015 National Handicapping Championship Tour kicks off this week with an online contest on NHCQualify.com. The tour is a year-long competition in which players accrue points in NHC qualifying events both online and in person throughout the year. Prizes are awarded to the top five finishers at the year’s halfway mark, and the top 20 finishers receive cash at year’s end – at least $250,000 will be awarded. For the year-end awards, the best six scores are used, as long as one of them was earned in an on-site qualifying event (otherwise, five scores are used). The top 150 players on the tour who haven’t already qualified receive berths to the NHC. Individuals can purchase their $50 registration for the 2015 NHC Tour by clicking here.

The role the NHC Tour has played in the growth of the National Handicapping Championship isn’t easy to quantify, but it’s real. It’s one of the reasons the total purse between the NHC finals and NHC Tour grew to more than $2.5 million this past year.

In past years, a top-heavy scoring system in tour events to get enough points to qualify meant very few people in the top 150 hadn’t already punched their tickets to Las Vegas. In 2013, only 22 players got in via this route. In 2014, this dynamic changed. A new scoring system for tour points was introduced, designed by NHC Players’ Committee Chairman Chris Larmey and including input from other players and committee members. Players finishing in the top 10 percent of contests were rewarded with significant points rather than just the top few finishers. This opened up the tour as a qualifying possibility. A total of 41 players got into the finals via the tour, including a remarkable five of the final table of 10 and the top three overall – John O’Neil, Ken Jordan, and Matthew Ransdell.

Some players worry that by allowing so many more players into the finals, the prize pool gets diluted, but this isn’t necessarily true. The quest for the top 150 fuels increased tour participation, meaning more money is coming into the NHC purse as more and more seats are added. Without all those players chasing the tour 150, there would be less money given at the NHC, not more. In this way, the tour 150 rule pays for itself.

The idea that players should qualify straight on rather than get in a sort of back door has a certain romance, but it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. The tour 150 rewards consistency, and that only seems fair in a game in which a vast amount of luck typically is the No. 1 factor separating a finish in the top 10 percent from a finish in the top 1 percent.

For the first time in 2015, the top 20 finishers on the tour will earn the right to compete in their own contest within a contest at next year’s finals.The top finisher among those 20 gets $25,000 – in addition to any other prize money won at the NHC – and an automatic berth to the following year’s NHC. The overall tour winner will get an automatic entry for the following year as well.

One area in which tour scoring went too far in 2014 was tied to field size. In the past, contestants playing in large fields weren’t awarded significantly more points than those playing in shorter fields. Last year, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, with players receiving outsized rewards for finishing in the top 10 percent of large fields. A better balance has been struck for 2015.

Here are the other important changes:

** Players can subsidize their $50 tour memberships with exclusive discount packages from Daily Racing Form on past performance subscription packages – 15 percent discount for first-time tour members and a 10 percent discount for those renewing.

** For 2015, the smallest tournaments will get about half to two-thirds of the points awarded in the largest tournaments.

** Players who win tournaments will receive a 25 percent winner’s bonus.

** Points will be awarded to all players who finish in the top 10 percent (not just the top 30 as in 2014).

** A tournament’s size will be determined by the number of entries, not the number of unique players, with that number capped at twice the number of individuals.

** Participation points are gone.

These new rules, as well as the incredible performance of tour qualifiers at NHC 16, should have the effect of increasing participation all the more. This should lead to more growth in every sector of the contest-playing world.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “The Winning Contest Player” by Peter Thomas Fornatale

Saturday contests

Saturday’s NHCQualify.com contest costs $165 to play. From four to six NHC seats will be awarded, depending on participation.

Over on DRFQualify.com, up to four $3,500 seats for the $100,000 Santa Anita Betting Challenge will be awarded. The entry fee is $80.

Both contests will use an all-mandatory, 12-race, $2 win-place format.

Here are the races:

4:08 Oaklawn 5th (12 horses, $6,500 claiming, one mile, dirt)
4:20 Tampa 9th (10 3-year-old fillies, listed stakes, one mile, 70 yards, dirt)
4:34 Gulfstream 9th (11 horses, listed stakes, two miles, turf)
4:39 Oaklawn 6th (10 horses, $25,000 claiming, six furlongs, dirt)
4:50 Tampa 10th (14 fillies and mares, Grade 3 Endeavour, 1 1/16 miles, turf)
5:20 Tampa 11th (12 3-year-old colts, Grade 3 Sam Davis, 1 1/16 miles, dirt)
5:30 Santa Anita 5th (12 fillies and mares, $40,000 optional claiming, 6 1/2 furlongs, turf)
5:38 Gulfstream 11th (14 horses, $20,000 claiming, 1 1/8 miles, turf)
5:50 Tampa 12th (10 fillies and mares, first-level allowance, one mile, turf)
6:09 Oaklawn 9th (nine fillies and mares, $30,000 claiming, six furlongs, dirt)
6:30 Santa Anita 7th (nine horses, Grade 2 Arcadia, one mile, turf)
7:00 Santa Anita 8th (10 3-year-old fillies, Grade 1 Las Virgenes, one mile, dirt)

It’s a nice slate of races, highlighted by four graded stakes. The spacing looks good. There are four from Tampa, three races each from Oaklawn and Santa Anita, and two from Gulfstream Park.

To sign up now, click here for NHCQualify and click here for DRFQualify.