by Steve DeCaspers
Approximately 500 horseplayers will compete this week for $2.5 million in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Several hundred of them are “dead money,” with limited contest experience, just trying to enjoy the weekend. Several dozen of them are serious contenders, best-of-breed tournament horseplayers who have the knowledge, abilities and temperament to take down the $800,000 top prize. One of them is looking to cap a historic year by winning a $2 million bonus. And one of them is looking to recover from a last-place finish in the 2015 NHC, where a combination of poor handicapping and a large audience led to total humiliation.
That last one is me.
What follows is the story about how I got back to the NHC and what I’m going to do with my shot at redemption. If you want to read about my experience last year (as well as some basics on the NHC and tournament play), here is the preview and aftermath. To recap, in 2015 I made 30 mythical win and place wagers over two days and saw none of them hit the board. Out of 606 entries, only seven posted a zero score, and three of them were no shows.
Worst To First…
In order to get in the proper mindset for this year’s NHC, I have sought inspiration from two sources: First, I’ve read about famous “Worst To First” sports teams, such as 1999 St. Louis Rams and the 2008 Boston Celtics; second, I’ve studied the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” where George Costanza, reasoning that every decision he has made in life has been wrong, resolves to do the opposite of every single instinct he has.
What I realized is that unlike Costanza, I’m not faced with an incurable affliction. I had two days of bad handicapping. Am I alone in that? Of course not. Also, I realized that several of the last-to-first teams already had most of the pieces of the puzzle in place, they just made one or two key adjustments and success followed from there.
I’ve resolved to change one tactic about my week in Vegas that should have a large impact: I decided to participate in the “Last Chance” tournament at Treasure Island on the day before the NHC. Although winning a second entry into the NHC would be nice, the true objective is to get warmed up for the main event. Last year, I rode a bike through Red Rock Canyon the day before the tournament and the first play I made in the NHC was my first bet on a horse in 2 weeks. I’m not making the same mistake again.
Long Road Back to The NHC…
My journey to the 17th NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship began with an email I received on the Wednesday after American Pharoah’s historic Triple Crown triumph. The NTRA Moment of the Year was a double-edged sword for me: I was thrilled to have been in attendance at Belmont Park that day, but I was also embarrassed and devastated that my failure to use American Pharoah in an internet-based handicapping tournament had cost me a spot in Vegas.
The NHC Qualifying tournament that I played was hosted by www.horsetourneys.com, and featured upwards of 300 players vying for 3 NHC berths–not an easy task. The tournament format was a Pick & Pray™, which required players to make picks in 12 designated races, with all selections finalized before the first race of the sequence. I recall spending a lot of time determining my selections for the hyper-competitive races that morning, but I honestly didn’t think very hard about my pick in the Belmont Stakes, which was the final race of the sequence. Tournament Strategy 101 says that you simply don’t take 3-5 shots, so I selected Keen Ice and headed out to the track.
The story from there is a typical tournament heartbreaker: I failed to play the Triple Crown winner, who paid a total of 6.30 to win and place, and I missed third place (and a spot in the NHC) by 6.20. Given that there aren’t going to be many days when you out handicap 295 players, I wondered if I had squandered my best shot to qualify for Vegas. But then I got that email from the NTRA, telling me that I had scored 2743 points for my fourth-place finish. Honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about, but decided to investigate.
The NHC Tour…
The points were part of the NHC Tour, a year-long competition among the thousands of players competing in NHC Qualifying events, either at racetracks around the country or online. Although only the top 1-2% of finishers in each tournament earn an NHC seat, the top 10% earn NHC Tour points. Although you can score points in as many tournaments as you want throughout the year, standings are determined by players’ best six scores (in order to mute the advantage for high-volume players). As I learned more, my interest grew. There were
39 players who qualified solely on points this year. I’m one of them, thanks to four other top 10% finishes I posted in online qualifiers, which earned me 8732 points and a 138th place finish.
The NHC Tour has gained popularity and visibility over the past several years, thanks to a combination of factors including increased media coverage and a dramatic competition among some high-profile tournament players for the top prize. It’s not as huge or mainstream as the poker phenomenon of several years ago, but similarities do exist, with Jonathan Kinchen, Eric Moomey, Brent Sumja, Ryan Flanders and Tommy Massis becoming familiar names (and fascinating personalities) to the horseplayer community. Best of all, the consistent performances by top players highlight the fact that handicapping is a game of skill, where hard work and unique insights can pay off, either in tournaments or at the pari-mutuel windows.
My 2016 Strategy…
Those several top 10% finishes that I posted–against many of the same players I’ll be facing this week–fuel my belief that I am capable of strong performance at this year’s NHC. Remember, the NHC is like a golf tournament, with a cut after Day 2 down to –you guessed it–the top 10%. There are three things I will have to do to achieve that goal:
• Embrace The Target Score Strategy. I will be using a “target score” strategy to pursue my top 10% finish. Last year, the player in 60th place out of 606 entries posted a score of $140 points, meaning he had converted his starting bankroll of $120 (30 $2 Win-Place bets) into $140, or 116% of bankroll. A rule change this year has increased the number of bets over the first two days to 36 $2 Win-Place bets, meaning the starting bankroll will be $144. Multiplying that by last year’s 116% means that my target top 10% score is $167. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.
• Break The Losing Streak. I was truly shaken by my performance last year and I can’t get that 0-for-30 streak out of my head. Rationally, I know my desire to post an early score–no matter what the price–is wrongheaded. Yet I don’t know how many more zeros my fragile emotional state can handle.
Fortunately, two major changes in the tournament format may actually help me with this issue. First, the NHC moved to a Thursday thru Saturday schedule (as opposed to Fri-Sun), a change that will rightly focus the third-day championship rounds on higher-quality Saturday racing. However, that means that Day 1 is comprised of far less competitive Thursday cards, with shorter fields and fewer wide-open races. Additionally, there is the increase from 15 to 18 required plays. The strategic implications of these changes are clear: faced with more required plays and less competitive racing on Day 1, I must lower my price threshold. This frees me to play a 5-2 shot that I love early on, because there simply aren’t enough full, wide-open fields to wait for later in the day (where I’d reach for longer prices). Ultimately, this increases my chance of posting an early score and calming my frayed nerves.
• Get Jonathan Kinchen Out of My Head. The Alpha Dog of the NHC Tour has had an incredible year. I was there when the star was born, sitting at a table adjacent to Jonathan at last year’s NHC. He placed in the top 12 with both of his entries, while I committed handicapping malpractice with one entry. He then became a media sensation, so I heard him frequently on the DRF Players Podcast and the Steve Byk Show. Heck, I had to read about him two days ago in the TDN! I also faced him in a live-money tournament at Hawthorne, where I was quite impressed with how I had turned my $300 bankroll into $1200 midway through the day. That feat seemed far less impressive when I checked the leaderboard and saw that Kinchen was in first place with $18,000.
Kinchen is so in my head that when I saw “Kin, J” on the upgrade screen at the O’Hare gate while I was waiting to board an American Airlines flight on Tuesday, I wondered if I was flying with the NHC favorite to Vegas.
Jonathan’s great for the game, but he’s bad for my psyche–I will be finding a seat in the ballroom as far away from him as possible, and avoiding the live coverage of his tournament performance by the NHC Twitter-azzi.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow along. The media coverage will be bigger than ever. Twitter is your best bet, and you can search under #NHC and #NHC17, or follow some real pros on the NHC Social Media Team, including:
@TracksideJennie – Jennie Rees
@TripleDeadHeat – Keith McCalmont
@GrandSlamSocial – Molly McGill
@UA_RTIP – University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program (Joe Longo)
Also, you can get great coverage from on-site media & publicity folks, including:
@loomsboldly – Peter Fornatale, Daily Racing Form contest editor
@Steve_Byk – Steve Byk, At the Races (Sirius 220, XM 206)
@YourFriendJimbo – Jim Mulvihill, NTRA Communications
@Toots_NYC – Joan Lawrence, NTRA Communications
Lastly, feel free to follow my pursuit of NHC redemption @stevedecaspers
Steve DeCaspers is a former staffer at The TDN. He lives in Chicago with his wife Bethany and their dog Popeye.
Editor’s Note: With an eighth-place finish in Wednesday’s ‘Last Chance’ tournament, DeCaspers earned a second entry in the NHC.