12/22/2016 12:30PM

Useful advice for first-year players in the National Handicapping Championship

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The window to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship via DRF Tournaments is halfway gone. With the holidays over the next two weekends, opportunities to qualify before the end of the year are limited, though there is a $300 buy-in contest on Dec. 31. Horseplayers looking for action over the holidays should also note there is a full slate of feeders on Monday, the traditional opening day for Santa Anita’s winter meeting. Players looking to win into the $2.5 million NHC will have a few more opportunities on the first few weekends of 2017.

With the NHC just weeks away – it takes place at Treasure Island in Las Vegas from Jan. 27-29 – this seemed like a good idea to write my annual piece designed specifically for first-year NHC players.

The first piece of advice is an oldie but a goodie, from professional horseplayer Mike Maloney: “It’s a good idea to get out there early to get that Vegas rush out of your system.”

Maloney learned this lesson the hard way one of the years he qualified, staying up late playing every track available.

“I have trouble walking by a racebook when the lights are on,” he said.

Then he went back to his room and started looking at the next day’s Daily Racing Form.

“I had no shot,” he said. “I treated it like it was just another day at the races, and it’s not. If you’re going to compete with those guys, you’re going to have to prepare properly.”

Preparation is something that unites the best contest players. Just ask the patron saint of first-year NHC players John Doyle, who won the 2010 event at first asking.

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“I did all my prep work ahead of time,” he said. “That let me spend the two days making final adjustments. It seemed to me like I had more stamina than a lot of the field.”

There are some who take preparation to the next level. They’ve already started taking notes and creating track profiles at the eight contest tracks: Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Gulfstream, Laurel (added this year), Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and Tampa Bay.

But it’s important to note that if trip notes and track profiles aren’t part of your typical handicapping arsenal, don’t start worrying about them now. Paul Shurman, a self-described nut for preparation, explained why.

“Don’t change the way you handicap just because this is the National Handicapping Championship,” he said. “You got here handicapping a certain way, and you should stick with what you know best and what you are comfortable with. If you don’t usually look at race replays, now is not the time to start. You are a good handicapper, or you wouldn’t have qualified. Use what got you here.”

In terms of the actual work, I would recommend going through the cards and quickly eliminating races you’re unlikely to play. Maybe you don’t like short fields, or don’t play Golden Gate, or can quickly see there’s a favorite you don’t want to beat. Take the remaining races and organize them in a spreadsheet so you can track them through the day in time order.

One popular idea is to work backwards through the day. Shurman is the first guy I heard mention this idea.

“If you don’t know what is coming up in later races, you have no idea whether or not a horse in an early race is as good a value as horses in later races,” he said. “By working backwards, even if you are unable to finish handicapping all 75 races or so and are forced to handicap some early races on the fly, at least you will know your options when determining whether to use a bullet.”

From there, it’s time to have a game plan. Maybe you want to enter some ideas for horses you might play in that spreadsheet.

“I like to script most of my plays the night before or the morning of the contest,” said Sean Nolan, who has finished in the top 20 three times. “If all is going as planned, I don’t really have that much work to do while sitting at the tables with my fellow competitors.”

Speaking of those other competitors, they are the best and worst thing about the event. The best in the sense that you’re in a room full of individuals who share your passion for racing and handicapping. It’s no exaggeration to say that lifelong friendships have been made in that room. And the people you meet can make you a much better horseplayer.

“Before my first NHC I had 1 1/2 friends in racing,” said last year’s tour champ, Jonathon Kinchen. “Now I have more than 50, and a lot of them I met through tournaments. I have learned so much from the guys I’ve met.”

But the crowd does have a downside. It can be intimidating, especially when a crazy 30-1 hits in one of the first few races and you don’t have it.

“I don’t let that bother me,” said Kinchen, “at least not if it’s some impossible-to-have horse. I figure if they’re picking horses like that there’s no way they’re going to be there at the end.”

Doyle commented on this as well: “You’re going to hear a lot of screaming, and you’re going to think half the room has every 20-1 shot that comes in. Don’t worry about that.”

Doyle should know. On the first day at his first NHC, two players went way ahead of the field. Doyle saw the exasperation on the faces of other players, but he just kept plugging along, sticking with his plan, and he was the one who got the money in the end.

Perhaps when it’s all said and done at the 2017 NHC, someone reading this article right now will follow in Doyle’s footsteps.