01/22/2015 6:30PM

NHC: Inside look at how mandatory contest races chosen


Have you ever wondered what goes into the process of selecting the mandatory races at the National Handicapping Championship? I always have, and Wednesday I had the chance to sit in on the meeting where the mandatory races were decided.

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The race selection committee consists of DRF National Handicapper Mike Watchmaker, DRF advertising director and longtime NHC emcee Eric Wing, and Tony Nevill, director of race and sports at Treasure Island. They were kind enough to allow be to be a fly on the wall during the selection process. We met outside the National Thoroughbred Racing Association office and I was led on a journey that reminded me of the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas,” as we wandered through the bowels of the Treasure Island, past various office nooks and catering spaces, until we found the desired quiet conference room.

The meeting began with a discussion of the weather -- but this was no small talk. The increasing likelihood of Friday showers in New Orleans led the group to decide that Fair Grounds turf races would be excluded from consideration. Wing suggested that the group had the opportunity to choose at least one race from each of the seven participating tracks as a mandatory, a prospect that Nevill and Watchmaker found appealing.

Then the group dove in to a discussion on the individual race cards, moving from east to west. Wing or Watchmaker would begin, simply listing races -- as few as one or as many as five -- that might make a good mandatory. Then the other two would do the same, with the goal of finding consensus.

Watchmaker and Wing had clearly already taken a deep dive into the past performances, and they came to the table with some strong opinions and definite ideas about the races they wanted to pick. Nevill clearly knew his racing, too, but during the meeting he seemed more concerned about the big picture of how the races would fit together. He was also the mediator when conversations between Watchmaker and Wing -- two sharp old-school handicappers with strong opinions -- got a little heated.

Some of the discussions were lightning fast -- the group chose the seventh race at Golden Gate as the one in literally 10 seconds. Other discussions were prolonged, with Wing and/or Watchmaker making impassioned cases for why certain races belonged or didn’t. Considerations generally were, but not limited to, field size, the race being competitive (i.e., there were many contenders in the field), the race favorite not being prohibitive and/or being beatable, and a race not having too many first-time starters. That last point will at some point be a blog post of its own.

The most interesting discussion revolved around which Oaklawn race to choose. Wing initially wanted to use the ninth race, a big full-field of 3-year olds. But Watchmaker dug in his heels because of the strength of favorite Holy Boss.

“I don’t mind using a race with a short-priced favorite if he has real holes,” said Watchmaker. “But I don’t see the holes. He’s a lay over.”

Then there was discussion about possibly using the second race over the fourth, but in the end it was agreed upon that the Karl Broberg favorite in the fourth, Prairie Gold, was more beatable than the Broberg favorite in the second, She’sabrees. The group’s dissection of the Oaklawn card, where there were other possible mandatory races even beyond those three, took up roughly 30 minutes of the 60-minute meeting.

The timing of the races was also a consideration -- obviously the group strove not to pick races that were on top of each other. Still, Wing didn’t consider timing of the utmost importance.

“I only consider it insofar as not wanting to inconvenience the players and staff by having two races too close together,” he said. “We do not try to purposely have a race an hour or anything like that. We just want the best, most challenging, most bettable, most fun races possible.”

It was clear that all three committee members took into consideration a desire to cover a wide array of tracks, distances, surfaces, and classes.

“Ideally we'd like the mandatory races create a veritable microcosm of American racing,” Wing said. “Field size and competitiveness are two key objectives.”

Here’s what they came up with for Friday:

Tampa Bay Downs, Race 4 -- 11:08 a.m. Pacific

Gulfstream Park, Race 5 -- 11:28 a.m.

Oaklawn Park, Race 4 -- 12:52 p.m.

Aqueduct,  Race 7 -- 1:14 p.m.

Fair Grounds,  Race 7 -- 2:24 p.m.

Santa Anita,  Race 5 -- 3 p.m.

Golden Gate, Race 7 -- 3:45 p.m.

Santa Anita, Race 7 – 4 p.m.

I came away from the meeting impressed by the thoroughness of the job that Watchmaker, Wing, and Nevill did. They’re clearly a good team with the best interests of the horseplayers at heart. Now the 2015 NHC participants have just one problem: They have to find the winners.


Scott Buck More than 1 year ago
good luck to all at the NHC championship!!!
Scott Buck More than 1 year ago
tamparace4-"discreet reason" gulfstreamR5-"call me crazy" oaklawnR4-"practice tee" aqueductR7-"la bella valeria" fairgroundsR7-"pyrite gold" santa anitaR5-"a little luckier" goldengateR7-"sudden sunday" santaanitaR7-"kukaluka" good luck to all!
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
I cant say i agree with not having races with lots of first timers as mandatory races. knowledge of breeding is also a handicapping tool and should not be penalized in favor of other methods. Personally i hate those boring claiming races with 12+ horses that take turns beating each other.to me that's a lottery race..but it seems that those are always picked.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
I thought the same thing. They seem very interested in trying to get these guys to have to deal with all factors of handicapping, so why not firsters? Probably can't find it this time of year, but a race with 10 first time starters would be very interesting. What trainers try to win first out and which ones just want to get a race in, what sires win early, workout patters by different trainers, etc.
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
Hi Peter interesting stuff :) "and a race not having too many first-time starters. That last point will at some point be a blog post of its own. ' I look forward to that piece, as 'first time starters' is an angle I look for in a race. Enjoy the weekend and I'll stop by to say hello. SR Vegas
Steven Simonovic More than 1 year ago
Holy Boss is a layover from the 12 hole? We shall see about that!
a m More than 1 year ago
Mandatory races are the dumbest idea ever and actually penalizes strong handicappers. One of the qualities of strong handicappers is avoiding races where you don't have a strong opinion. Forcing people to play crappy races just because there have full fields shows how little the people that run the NHC understand about what it takes to be a successful handicapper.
Jeffrey Munson More than 1 year ago
Totally, agree, in a few years they will make this change. The number one or two factor in "skill as a horse player' is which races to play, and which races to pass, period end of subject. So for the committee to chose HALF of a tournament players races is ludicrous. Let the player decide ALL of his plays and may the best player win. Just my opinion.
a m More than 1 year ago
I agree with your opinion 100 %. I looked at some of these mandatory races and I wouldn't play them with Watchmaker's money.
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
a m and Jeffrey , interesting thoughts. There is handicapping tournaments that don't have a mandatory selection criteria. (Breeders Cup Challenge comes to mind) And many participate and are successful . But with that said, to get to this NHC tournament each contestant had to select a scheduled qualifier, that had ALL MANDATORY races. So it's a criteria they are accustomed to and very successful at. Good luck to all 608 qualifiers this year ! SR Vegas
a m More than 1 year ago
SR, That's basically true-- there are a number of real money tournaments that don't require mandatory races-- but it doesn't mean it isn't a faulty approach. There's no reason any longer, based on where technology has progressed, to stay with this antiquated approach. Players should be able to pick their races as well as place a value on each race-- not all races or opinions are equal. In other words, if someone wanted to use one race and put all "20" units on it, he/she should be able to because that's what a real handicapper does.Of course, no one would put all their eggs in one basket like that but I could definitely see many sharp players focusing on 5-6 plays only in a single day. That said, the format is the format so good luck to all the players.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
There are bankroll contest and then there are picking winners contest. This is the latter and everyone has known this since qualifying started. I don't see the big deal.
Ernie Arnold More than 1 year ago
I hope these players get free PPs...lol
Ernie Arnold More than 1 year ago
I hope these players get free PPs...lol