01/22/2014 3:05PM

Big money on the line at new-format National Handicapping Championship

This year's National Handicapping Championship will be contested over three days at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas.

The 15th annual National Handicapping Championship will be held Friday through Sunday at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas. Nearly 500 players will compete for $1.5 million in prize money. The winner will receive $750,000 and be crowned the 2014 Handicapper of the Year at next year’s Eclipse Awards.

The NHC is the one contest where players can’t buy in – your spot must be won in a qualifying event. This is the first year where players were allowed two qualifications. Overall, there are approximately 78 dual qualifiers and 417 single qualifiers for a total of 495 entries (these numbers are subject to change depending on how many spots are awarded at the Last Chance Contest at the Treasure Island on Thursday). The field includes an array of former champions from both the NHC Finals and NHC Tour, including last year’s winner, Jim Benes. All eyes will be Brent Sumja, the reigning Tour winner, who will be playing for a bonus of a whopping $2 million in addition to the $750,000 grand prize for first.

The field is an impressive-looking group, ranging in age from 23 to 77. There are industry types, a few professional gamblers, and a whole lot of racing fans looking for the score of a lifetime. For some of the group, it’s a family affair with five sets of brothers and at least four husband-and-wife de facto “teams” competing. Of the brothers, Bill and Paul Shurman are of particular note as they have qualified 23 times between them. Of the married couples, Kevin and Nicole Cox might be the ones to watch with interest. With four entries coming out of the Cox household, they are the mathematical favorites going in at about 120-1.

[Get comprehensive, real-time coverage of the NHC]

Here’s how the tournament works. Gone is the two-day format and the controversial double-bet rule, which many players felt introduced yet another element of luck into an already heavily luck-dependant format.

This year’s NHC will be a three-phase operation. The first phase consists of Friday and Saturday, where players must make 15 $2 win-and-place bets each day, eight on mandatory races selected by a committee and seven on races of their own choosing drawn from the following list of tracks: Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. There is a cap on prices: the win cap is 20-1 ($42) and the place cap is 10-1 ($22).

After two days of play, the 50 players with the highest bankrolls will go on to a third day, where scores will carry over (the remaining players not in the top 50 will compete in a consolation tournament). The contest pays down to 50th, so if you’re still around Sunday, congratulations, you’ve finished in the money in the NHC. This cut down to 50 is probably the most controversial element of the new format. As one player said “I don’t know that I like the new format better than the old one. If the 51st person would have had a great third day, why doesn’t he get the same chance as the 50th person? It seems kind of arbitrary to me. It’s happened before where people come from nowhere after Day 1 and won the whole thing.”

The top 50 will continue to play on in a 10-race contest consisting of three mandatory and seven optional races over approximately 3 1/2 hours. From that point, the top 10 players (including ties) will advance to phase three, a “final table” format that will consist of five mandatory races. It’s a setup that is certain to create a lot of tension and drama. Players have been in favor of the final table, especially the opportunity it provides to have the NHC potentially become good television, like the World Series of Poker.

One fun way to follow the drama will be to play along at home. For the first time, NHCQualify.com is offering a “Play Along with the NHC” contest, offering the mandatory races in a bullet format. As much as $13,500 in prize money will be given away. The true fun of the contest is for a player at home to compare themselves to the players in Vegas. It also gives an excuse to pay closer attention to the NHC leaderboard and follow the event as if it were a poker or golf tournament. For more information, check out www.NHCQualify.com.

Another way to stay abreast of what’s happening will be to check back frequently on DRF.com. There will be updates there throughout the tournament and also via Twitter @loomsboldly.

Somebody’s going to be at least $750,000 richer come Sunday night. All that’s left is to sort out who it will be.

Richard More than 1 year ago
Too bad the tournament doesn't involve a lot of distance races and turf races, since not too many people know how to handicap beyond six furlongs. Just like MOST trainers can't train beyond a mile.
Dan Cronin More than 1 year ago
NCAA called they are going to let Alabama has 4 entries in the BCS next year.
1971 Whippet More than 1 year ago
Will we be able to see a leaderboard and/or player selections as the races come up? I'd enjoy watching several players selections in real time.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
I firmly believe the new deal to be able to follow and play along @ home will greatly help the EXPOSURE BIG TIME!!!...Happy Hunting to All!!!...
michael More than 1 year ago
Man, this format seems like crawling through the desert, no pun intended, and hoping to find an oasis. And then being lucky enough to be the only one drinking, it's a slow drawn out format. Not sure how exciting that would be.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Seems to me it would be easy to produce into very exciting television in post -- no one's talking about airing it live!
michael More than 1 year ago
Coukd be, hope so. Assuming your pop was the excellent DJ on radio Peter. He was an awesome personality to listen to growing up.,We miss him.
Randy Atkins More than 1 year ago
yea I agree...as a professional I only handicap certain types of races with a certain group of horses....so I'm doin' a lot of passing...tournament play would not be good for me
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
Another thingy......I don't like the Mandatory Race setup ... Why?? Because I have played the racing game for 50 plus years in Southern California only....I have no knowledge of the East Coast set up... Let a handicapper do his own races and his style and knowledge of handicapping
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
The idea is that in order to be the best, you have to go outside your comfort zone. However, there are plenty of Cali only contests you can play if you'd prefer. Thanks for commenting!
WWW More than 1 year ago
Lenny is obviously a handicapper. Peter, in order to make money, you need to follow the horses, know their histories, biases, trips, trainers, jockeys, etc. That is what makes a good handicapper. "Going outside your comfort zone" is another way of saying "guessing".
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
2 entries is wrong i agree...it's should be ONE'S merits
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Only thing I object to is the 2 Entries I think every player should have one entry (NO ADVANTAGES ) a straight up Winner takes all
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
In the comment thread on my blog, I address this issue -- I have no problem w the two entries as all have equal chance to earn and they're going to happen regardless (shills).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everyone who's qualified knows how they got there. Maybe they played numbers, maybe they looked to their second or third choices. The only thing that matters is that they entered a contest, finished high enough to get to Vegas; a brief vacation, unless they expect to win. But the sour grapes? Really? Be in the middle of it one time....then tell me about the longshots, the luck, etc. It can be a lot of fun. Don't dump on those who get to be there.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
As I've written many times, the folks who take time to write in the comments section of a contest piece how they hate contests, might as well call me up to tell me they don't want to talk to me. . .
TOP CAPPER1 More than 1 year ago
TWO entries is an unfair advantage in a contest.
Steve More than 1 year ago
78 dual qualifiers and 417 single qualifiers adds up to 573. I think you mean 339 single qualifiers + 78 dual qualifiers (156 entries) = 495 Total Entries
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Math was never my strong suit!
Donnie Jones More than 1 year ago
I think it means they qualified by way of two tournaments, not two times to play in the national handicapping tournament.
Merrill More than 1 year ago
Two entries, but only one entry can continue on to the final 50. If both entries qualify to top 50.....only one is good, and the other is only good for consolation. However, if both qualify..................Bonus of $2500.