06/26/2014 10:41AM

Tournaments 101: The NHC

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This article is the second in a series that will focus on the basics of tournament play. The series, which also includes videos, will cover topics including how to get started, tools and strategies for success, and details on the top tournaments. This series is targeted at newcomers, but veteran contest players can learn something as well.

The most prestigious handicapping tournament in the world is the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, commonly known as the NHC. It is a true championship event, and it’s the one contest that you can’t buy your way into – you must qualify by playing in another event first. This creates a special vibe, not just at the NHC tournament but at qualifying tournaments across the country all year long.

The first NHC started with a purse of $200,000, and over the years that number has grown to $2 million and could increase further as soon as this year. However, it’s not just the money that makes the NHC special. 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 Eclipse Award that comes with it.

The contest is held each January at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The format has evolved over the years. At present, it’s a three-day event. On each of the first two days, players must make 15 bets, a blend of eight mandatory and seven optional races in the $2 win-place format.

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The idea is that a mix provides the best test for handicappers. They can’t just pick the races in which they are most proficient; they must know how to look at dirt sprints, turf routes, and synthetic first-time starters alike. They also need to choose the right races to play in. What are the right races? The ones in which longshots are most likely to come in.

At the end of the second day, the top 50 players advance to a final day of competition, while the rest stay around for a consolation tournament. On the third day, the final 50 players, whose scores carry over from the first two days, play 10 optional races. The switch to all optional races at the start of Day 3 allows for more movement on the leaderboard, because in a mandatory race a significant amount of the players could have the same cap horse.

At the end of the first 10 races of Day 3, the top 10 scores advance to a final table. These players, whose scores again carry over, play seven mandatory races, with picks being announced just as the gates open (a change from 2014).

Given the unique experience it provides as well as the chance to win big money, at least one appearance at the NHC should be on every handicapper’s bucket list. But here’s the thing: once you attend, you’ll want to go back every year.