11/11/2013 3:06PM

To play in the NHC, first you must qualify

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This past Saturday, four horseplayers won their way into the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas by taking the top spots in a qualifying contest at NHCQualify.com. Today, I want to explain a little bit more about the NHC and talk specifically about how the contests at NHCQualify.com work.

There are several reasons for the NHC’s prominence in the contest world. It is a true championship event, and it’s the one contest you can’t buy your way into – you must qualify by playing in another event first. NHC entries include travel and hotel expenses, so it’s essentially a paid trip to Las Vegas in addition to everything else.

The very first NHC was held in 2000, with a total purse of $200,000, and over the years that number has grown to nearly $2 million with the winner now walking away with a cool $750,000.

You know how when somebody says, “It’s not just the money” how that usually means, “It’s just the money”? That’s not the case with the NHC. In addition to getting an invite to the coolest party of the year and the chance to play for a small fortune, NHC contestants also play for the title of Handicapper of the Year and the actual Eclipse Award that comes with it.

It was Daily Racing Form’s Steven Crist who came up with this last, brilliant idea. As he was quoted in Noel Michaels’s Handicapping Contest Handbook, about a conversation he had with then-NTRA commissioner Tim Smith: “He asked me for suggestions on the Eclipse Awards dinner, and I said, ‘How about honoring an actual horseplayer?’ To me, that’s the greatest thing about the NHC. Whoever wins it gets a trophy at the Eclipse Awards, and the industry will be saying something it needs to say more often: ‘You, the fan, are as important to this business as the owner, the breeder, the trainer, and the jockey.’ ”

I’m going to save the discussion of the actual contest format of the NHC for another piece. Right now, I want to talk about NHCQualify.com. The format of these contests is simple – there are 12 races that will be chosen for you ahead of time. All bets are mythical, that is, the money is theoretical and exists only in the universe of the contest. You must pick one horse to bet $2 win and place in each race; highest bankrolls advance to the NHC. There is a cap on both the win and place wagers. The maximum payout on a win bet is $42 (20-1 odds) and the maximum payout on a place wager is $22 (10-1 odds).

The specific number of seats given away in each contest depends on how many participants there are. The formula is one NHC seat for every 60 players. Last weekend, there were 285 entrants, so that equates to four seats.

What does it take to finish in the top four? Well, you’re going to have to have a good day with your selections, obviously. And you’ll certainly need a little luck. In terms of final scores, they vary significantly week to week, depending on what prices come in over the specific run of 12 races, but generally speaking you’ll need about 2.25 times your starting bankroll to qualify.

The first question a new contest player might have is, What the heck do you mean by starting bankroll? That’s an easy one. In this case, your bankroll is $48 because the contest consists of 12 $2 win and place bets. If you multiply that bankroll by 2.25 you get $108.

To come up with this formula I looked at the last 10 contests on NHCQualify and averaged the qualifying scores. The exact number was $108.92. Typically to finish first in a fixed-bankroll contest, one needs more like 2.5 times the initial bankroll, but it makes sense the number would be a bit lower here since you don’t have to finish first, you just need to finish near the top.

What’s the best way to get to that target score? I’ll start off by telling you what won’t work. If you divide the projected needed final score ($108) by the number of races (12), you get $9 per race. If you try to take only $9 out of every race – by betting heavy favorites, for example – you will not win. Looking over the last few NHCQualify contests, the most common strategy seems to be to play a mix of prices that includes some favorites or shorter prices (4-1 or less) with at least two high mid-priced horses (8-1 to 12-1) or one cap horse. It’s certainly true that if a cap horse comes in, you’re pretty much going to need to have it to have a chance to qualify. Some contest players will tell you that means you should always play longer prices and never play favorites at all. I don’t agree. In a contest where all the races are picked for you (sometimes known as a “bullet” format), I think it’s okay to go with the chalk if a) you have a strong opinion about the horse, and b) you can find prices elsewhere. But that’s really a topic for another day.

The next two weekends will feature excellent chances for horseplayers to qualify for the NHC via NHCQualify. There are one-day contests on Sunday, Nov. 17, and Saturday, Nov. 23. Sign up now, get ready to do some serious handicapping, and if things break right, you’ll be all booked for Vegas in January before the turkey hits the table.

Jeff More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Fornatale: I always enjoyed playing in the NYRA/Harvey Pack contest that Harvey created in the 70s. The most important element of those contests was that it was Free for all of the customers at the track. In this regard, you mentioned previously, that the upcoming NYRA contest is very popular one. However, it costs $400 to enter. How is that encouraging the average bettor to participate? It seems to me that all of these contests are tailored to the "professional" and not to the average customer. If you want to encourage drawing people to the track, lets return to Harvey's model and make it a truly open contest. Charging exorbitant entry fees only creates an atmosphere of exclusion.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I don't really like free contests because then you get too many entries and it just becomes a lottery -- but I do love the idea of introducing a low-roller type contest ($40 buy in or so) at a place like NYRA that would be more inclusive. Feel free to write them to express your support for this idea.
mb More than 1 year ago
i feel a track hosting a tournament should have a format where all the races at that track that day are the ones in play....eg....saratoga hosts a tournament...why the hell are they hosting it, and it's a simulcast tournament...makes no sense....it should be decided on saratoga races only...and onto the bc tourney, which i love except one thing....why do they allow the races on the undercard to count.....the live money tournament is the way to go...monmouth does it also...one last thing pete....any idea why show prices are not included in the formats....i can't believe how many bombs i play that get nosed for second and i get nothing...eg....silentio in the bc mile....horse was a bomb, ran good and and in the nhc format would have gotten nada...thanks...
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I like single track tourneys too but to me, the SAR format is a great compromise where you only have to deal with a couple of additional tracks and half the bets must be made locally. The issue about the undercard races at the BCBC one is pretty straightforward: it's all about creating extra handle. As for show bets, that's a good question. . .I'm not sure why the inclusion of show payoffs is so uncommon, I'll do some research.
1971 Whippet More than 1 year ago
It's possible that a small group of players would travel to Keeneland for a contest with a $10,000 buy-in. Possible. But what about Turfway Park, whose tournament is usually held the next day? My travel, hotel and transportation to either of these is nearly $1000. Hard to recover from that.
Jon More than 1 year ago
penn national had the best onsite tourn. for years. It started in the 70"s with lots of famous people involved! Today the casinos are the only thing the track owners care about.They want racing to go away because they cant make money on racing! This is the problem!!
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
The good news is that contests are a real growth area for the sport. Did you know that something close to 15% of the total on-track handle was generated by the 180 people playing in the BCBC? $2.7million. . .once tracks really start to think about what that means, I think we'll be seeing more and more on track tournaments and I, for one, am excited about this prospect. . .
Steve Schnell More than 1 year ago
There needs to be more contests at the tracks to quality, like there used to be a few years ago... I went to Colonial Downs a few times for tournaments. Now, most of these tournaments seem to be gone. It would be nice if DRF would sponsor a tournament at each track that runs a considerable meet during the year. It would then become a true national championship, as each track could be represented, instead of just a bunch of online players.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Excellent point, thanks for commenting. There are still some great contests held at the tracks -- like the one at Aqueduct this weekend -- but I agree that the balance has probably shifted a little too much online. Online contests absolutely have their place, but more of a blend would be fantastic for everyone involved if there is a way to make it work logistically.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think the tracks hosted tournaments early on and then as they started seeing less value in paying dues to numerous organizations they dropped out of the NTRA which then elevated the tournament buy-in fee for non-member tracks. This had numerous tracks dropping the events. I agree, as a horseplayer, having live events is part of what I like, being at the track with the excitement, the buzz of the players and seeing live action can never be replaced More live event will get more people to the races at the tracks, add in more live money events to get you "out" for a decent finish will churn more handle and make it a better event for all. It has become a profit center for certain entities and the DRF has little input from what I see. Good luck!
Sinatra Jeter More than 1 year ago
The most exciting on-line tournament I ever was involved in was held at Colonial Downs. I just wish I could have been on track for those tournaments they used to have. Citgo's tournament held at ESPN was great for a few years until they lowered the win prices. And of course Godolphin was the greatest world tournament with the gold and diamonds they gave away. Hollywood Park early on held great tournaments that were not only win and place wagers. Any tournament that gives the players more option on wagering I'm all in but first I got to get on track. Turf Ruler
Sinatra Jeter More than 1 year ago
Hey Alan, Glad you are here at DRF giving your opinion and expertise on playing the NHC. Here is an idea for you. Why don't you give a history of the world of handicapping tournaments? Did it start in Vegas and the real skinny on how DRF got involved. I know it is a great idea and a real special event for the everyday handicapper to win the current format and receive the eclipse award, but when it started it was exciting as well when there was nothing in the universe like it. Turf Ruler
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
There is some very good stuff about the history of handicapping contests in Noel Michaels' HANDICAPPING CONTEST HANDBOOK and I tackle the subject in brief in my upcoming book. Actually, it's more accurate to say Harvey Pack tackles the subject as most of the history stuff in my book is in his foreword. As far as I know, contests did not start in Vegas but in Pennsylvania with a gut named Kelso Sturgeon at Penn National. Perhaps I will bust out a historical piece on some slow news week, thanks for the idea. . .
Alan Denkenson More than 1 year ago
do you know of any professional wrestlers who play horses ??
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I hear Al Snow is a real wiseguy.
Steve S More than 1 year ago
The contests to get in are a joke to say the least. No skill involved. just dumb luck. 95% of the players simply pick a 20-1 shot in every race and "hope" to score on two of them to win that daily contest. The very first contest I was in, i picked 8 of twelve winners only to lose to some lucky dope that won on 2 of his 12 longshot picks. Please don't go on about ROI or anything like that. They need to revamp the contest to award more points or money to those that ACTUALLY HANDICAP the races. I ewould gladly put myself up against anyone in a straight up handicapping contest, but not this one. Those players that pick a 20-1 shot in every race will go broke very quickly in the real world. The mini contest need to be revamped to award handicappers for picking more winners instead of those who blindly pick 12 longshots and get lucky once a year. I understand risk/reward and ROI and have successfully made a fortune using that knowledge off these same people that contribute to the pools of which I pillage each day.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
I couldn't disagree more about the contests being "dumb luck." If that were true, you wouldn't see the same people qualifying year after year. There are definitely different skills involved in picking contest horses than everyday ones, but the two disciplines are related in more ways than not. It's an interesting idea to try to come up with a contest format that involves number of winners over ROI, but I'm not sure there is that much of a market for that. And one thing is certain: that would resemble a real day at the track a lot less than the current popular contest formats. Perhaps, with your pool-pillaging prowess, you would do better in live bankroll formats like the BCBC?
EJXD2 More than 1 year ago
Was the ability to buy in to the NHC itself a one-and-done? I.e., I thought for the 2013 contest you could pay a big fee and play without qualifying. Is that not the case for 2014?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Hey Ed, thanks for commenting. If your information is correct, that's the first I'm hearing of it. I thought you always had to win in to the NHC. I will do some research and get back to you.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Just received confirmation from Keith Chamblin -- the NHC has never allowed buy-ins, only win-ins. Perhaps you were thinking of a different contest?
Steve More than 1 year ago
I believe they did offer a buy-in last year, can't remember how much (it was high) but there were no takers
mikey More than 1 year ago
Pete The NTRA sent ouy a survey asking about how the players would feel about a 10,000$$$$ buy in.This never flew.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That's certainly ambitious but if approached in exactly the right way (with qualifiers etc) I could see it working, though a slightly scaled down version might be better still.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Define "Total Purse" , the total prize pool of cash given away to the contestants or is this prize pool inclusive of all of the costs of the event which include air fare and the cost of the rooms and functions? If people think they are playing for two million in prize money that's what they should get paid. If not that could seem misleading to some. Great concept and yes, the players are as important as anyone, without them you would not have racing as we know it. Thank you.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Between the NHC and NHC Tour (a topic for a future post), there is $1,875,000 in prize money, what I was calling "total purse" in the piece. Airfare ($500 travel voucher) and hotel for players is $1,123 per player, which equates to more than $400,000 in travel awards in addition to that. NTRA is sending some 45 players who qualify through free tournaments or as part of being in the top 150 on the Tour leaderboard. Thus, total prize money and travel awards is some $2.35 million. I hope this answers your question sufficiently.