01/26/2007 1:00AM

Eeny, meeny time


After having to be a bit creative – to put it diplomatically – in choosing the eight mandatory races for the first day of the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, the selection committee had the opposite problem Friday when it came to the races for the final day of the contest on Saturday.

After reviewing the Saturday cards at the six prime winter signal tracks used in the NHC – Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita – the committee of Michael Wayne, assistant manager of Bally’s race book; Eric Wing, Senior Director of Media Relations for the NTRA; and myself – came up with 14 prospective races. Too many races to choose from was a nice problem, but it was a shame to have to discard six races that fit the profile of a mandatory race. Tough calls, but someone had to make them. In the end, we couldn’t help wonder, did we make the right choices?

The first prospective mandatory race eliminated was race 2 at Santa Anita, the Sunshine Millions Oaks. As wide open as this race was, this decision came down to a timing issue. The scheduled post for the Oaks was 12:20 p.m. Pacific time, which was just one minute after the scheduled post for race 7 at Aqueduct, which we felt we had to include because it was the only race on the Aqueduct card that met our tough mandatory race standards. We had other races at Santa Anita to include so the Oaks was tossed.

Timing concerns were also the reason why race 7 at Oaklawn was removed from consideration. This very competitive optional claimer was scheduled to go off just four minutes before race 8 at Fair Grounds, a tough claiming route that was the one race at Fair Grounds we wanted to use. Since we had another race at Oaklawn that met our requirements, that track’s seventh race was eliminated.

Race 3 at Golden Gate, a claiming sprint for females, appealed to us at first, but on further review, it was eliminated because it just wasn’t as deeply a competitive race as others.

We had five races from Gulfstream as candidates, but of course five races from one track is too many and would provide an unfair advantage to contestants from the east. The first Gulfstream elimination was race 5, an allowance route on the turf. We were firm on including race 3 from Gulfstream, a mind-numbingly difficult claiming race. We were fairly light on claiming events for mandatory races. That was okay, as we had an ample number of claiming races for Friday’s mandatory races. But that made keeping race 3 even more important. And since Gulfstream’s race 3 was also on the turf, we decided that made race 5 redundant.

The other Gulfstream race eliminated was race 9, the Sunshine Millions Fillies and Mares Turf, and this was the most difficult decision we had to make. The Filly and Mare Turf was a perfect race. It had a big, well-matched field where almost anyone could win. But we decided we could not have more than three of the eight mandatory races from Gulfstream. And since we also had three other turf races as mandatory candidates, we had to let this one go. At least the NHC contestants could use this race as one of their optional races.

The final decision was choosing between race 8 at Golden Gate, an allowance sprint for females, and race 9 at Santa Anita, an allowance route on the turf. We opted for race 9 at Santa Anita, partly because if we were offering three races from Gulfstream as mandatory races on Saturday, it would be better to offer two from Santa Anita instead of only one. Also, with a scheduled post time of 4:25 p.m. Pacific, 16 minutes later than the scheduled post of Golden Gate’s race 8, Santa Anita’s race 9 was closer to the end of the NHC, which will conclude with Santa Anita’s 10th and final race.

In the end, we were happy with our eight mandatory races for Saturday: race 3 at Gulfstream; race 6 at Gulfstream (a potentially loaded 3-year-old maiden sprint with many well-bred first time starters); race 7 at Aqueduct; race 5 at Oaklawn (an allowance route); race 8 at Fair Grounds; race 10 at Gulfstream (the Sunshine Millions Classic, the biggest race in the country on Saturday and every bit a handicapping challenge as the Filly and Mare Turf); race 7 at Santa Anita (a competitive starter allowance race on turf); and race 9 at Santa Anita.

With these mandatory races, the selection committee feels that whoever is crowned the NHC winner Saturday evening will have earned it.