01/30/2012 12:25PM

NHC Thoughts


Impressions of last weekend’s 13th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island on the great Las Vegas strip:

It just couldn’t have gotten more dramatic at the end of the NHC – actually, yes, it could have, but we’ll talk about that in a second – with the last race in the contest, Saturday’s ninth and final event at Golden Gate, deciding the outcome in a way that would have been too over-the-top for even Hollywood.

Michael Beychok, who was chasing front runner Dave Flanzbaum, took Glorious Dancer in the finale. Flanzbaum told me he saved his final elective bet for this race and took Royalism. Glorious Dancer got up in the very last jump to win by a lip, while Royalism finished fast to be third, beaten less than a length. After hovering around 5-2 for much of the way, Glorious Dancer’s odds drifted up a bit late and she wound up paying $8.20 to win and $3.80 to place (don’t forget, the NHC is a win-place contest). So, Glorious Dancer desperately getting up in the last stride, her odds drifting up just enough late in the betting, and Royalism just running out of real estate, enabled Beychok to nail Flanzbaum by one lonely dollar and take the $1 million first prize. Flanzbaum didn’t exactly walk away empty handed. He took second money of $150,000. Still, Flanzbaum suffered an incredibly tough beat for $850,000, and it was impossible not to feel as bad for him as happy for Beychok. For the record, Flanzbaum showed as much class and dignity in defeat as Beychok showed graciousness in victory, which is to say, a lot.

The one problem I had is it took quite a while even after the official sign was posted at Golden Gate for Beychok to officially be named the NHC winner. There was a raucous celebration at Beychok’s table immediately after Glorious Dancer got up. But a few minutes later when things calmed down a bit, Beychok admitted that while he thought he might have caught Flanzbaum, even he really didn’t know for sure. No one did.

Here’s why: Beyond the rightful accounting of the top few contestants immediately upon conclusion of the contest (there is a thorough accounting later on) there is an NHC policy of not providing updated standings through the final few races of the contest. I understand why some think this is the way to go. Proponents of this philosophy maintain that this prevents the end of the contest from becoming an exercise in dart throwing, where some folks chasing the leader will take nothing but bombers in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. But – and this is strictly my opinion – I disagree with this update blackout.

For one, while no one wants to see a contest like the NHC turn on a ridiculous longshot, for that to happen, and thus justify the update blackout, a contestant has to be in striking position, he has to have saved enough elective plays for the end, and he has to be willing to sacrifice a better finishing position and payday. Most importantly, a contestant can take as many 20-1 shots late in the contest as they like, but that doesn’t mean any of them will win or finish second. In fact, the update blackout really doesn’t prevent contestants from “throwing darts” late because players, especially those laying around 12th to 20th, are going to do exactly that, not necessarily in the hopes of winning, but in the hopes of getting a significantly larger piece of the purse. And let’s not forget, this NHC was decided on a low 3-1 shot.

To me, the late update blackout is akin to not knowing if your NFL team needs a touchdown or a field goal to win. And from an aesthetic standpoint, much of the electricity of Saturday’s wild finish was lost in the 25 minutes or so of waiting before Beychok was declared the winner. That is because no one knew for sure where anyone stood through the last four contest races.

Speaking of late the contest, Beychok deserves a lot of credit for being as close to Flanzbaum as he was considering the number of plays each had made. After the last mandatory NHC contest race (Santa Anita’s 8th) and with four optional races to go, Flanzbaum told me he had one elective bet left. After the contest was over, Beychok told me that when there were still five optional races left, he still had four elective bullets to use. In his words, his elective plays late “bombed.” Glorious Dancer was his only winner, and the only other money he collected was $7.40 when Schofield Barracks finished second at Santa Anita.

I admit I wondered of this NHC would lose something being the first to be held in a ballroom instead of a race book, a move necessitated by the fact that the NHC field was 60% larger than it was last year. No race book can hold 480 contestants comfortably. But Treasure Island did a great job. We had the second floor of the facility, and in addition to the main ballroom, there was a smaller ballroom set up for family and friends of contestants, or contestants who just wanted to be in a smaller room. That was an especially nice touch. In the main ballroom, there were a total of 18 huge screen projection televisions along the ceiling line, meaning there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Tables were set up for eight players each, and worries about contestants being cramped proved unfounded. There were 16 manned windows up in front of the room, all of them contest windows and a good portion also being live betting windows. And a huge plus were the 12 SAM machines dedicated to the contest along a side wall. All of this kept congestion at the windows to a minimum.

If there is one quibble, it is that there was more noise coming from the podium this year than in any previous NHC. Most of the announcements were well intended, providing information that was meant to be helpful. But much of it was redundant stuff that was obvious to anyone looking at a tv screen. And some of it, such as the introduction of people who had no connection to the contest whatsoever, was an intrusion. Contestants are shooting for $1 million. They shouldn’t have a constant din interrupting their concentration. But on the whole, Treasure Island did a fantastic job and deserves a tip of the hat.