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.