01/22/2015 5:30PM

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.