Anyone who tuned in to the much-acclaimed HBO premiere of "Luck" on Sunday night -- much like NJ Horseplayer, who watched it two times -- came away highly entertained but, naively perhaps, a bit squeamish about life at the track, where the new series revealed some seedier sides of thoroughbred racing.
On the other hand, and very few people may know this due to the lack of television and print-media publicity, but DRF.com's reports from the 13th Annual National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island in Las Vegas portray an altogether different side of the story, recapping not only what proved to be high drama to the very end...a nail-biting competition between 480 handicappers vying for a $1 million top prize, but also tremendous class, sportsmanship and humility shown by the subjects at the two-day tournament, held on Friday and Saturday.
Michael Beychok (above, courtesy of DRF.com), of Baton Rouge, LA, took down the NHC in the last contest race by a nose with a 3-to-1 shot from Golden Gate, finishing with a final score of $238.60 on his plays -- a mere $1 ahead of runner-up Dave Flanzbaum (below, also from DRF.com).
Congratulations, in the first place, to all contestants who qualified for NHC 13 (a futile effort for me in 2011) and also to those who took home prize money, but especially to the top finishers for surviving what had to be a gut-wrenching two days of handicapping, and displaying a level of professionalism in the post-game. The top two finishers displayed an extremely cordial, professional and unassuming tone that came off as the complete reverse of much-ballyhooed World Poker Tour shows found all over cable TV.
Watching the juvenile conduct (i.e. sunglasses, backward hats and blank stares) at an event like the WPT or the conduct of select characters portrayed in Luck could make those outside the thoroughbred handicapping circuit falsely assume the racing game is strictly degenerate. To the contrary, in my two years on the NHC Tour and as primarily a weekend player with a family and life far richer than wagering contests, I have found other players to be an extremely focused, studious and upstanding group in love with the sport, with players engaging extremely well socially and sharing ideas, whether at the contest betting windows or in online contest chats. There is a tremendous level of mutual respect on the handicapping contest circuit.
The two videos above, and the thoughts shared with DRF by Day 1 leader Nolan White (a relatively new contest circuit player, who referred in questioning to lessons learned from his "Granddaddy") portray a much more affable yet competitive niche of the industry that needs to be publicized more than NHC 13 drew this weekend. Maybe I missed it, but outside of brief references on HRTV's post-script to Sunday's racing, the event seemed grossly under-covered by the racing media. No on-site updates from TVG or HRTV, no ESPN (which finds deathly snowmobile jumping contests far more saleable). Only DRF.com seemed to be a resource for information. Kudos to DRF.com.
Piggybacking Mike Watchmaker's thoughts about NHC 13 in Monday's DRF, now is the time for the NTRA and NHC to search for a TV outlet or production team that can package some human-interest programming focusing on what is now a big-money tournament (see Steve Crist's interview for interesting perspective on the NHC's evolution). People watch others "hand-fish" for catfish in murky Bayou waters, so why not the human interest of a big-money handicapping showcase?
Whether TVG (which on Friday night aired a yawner of a show touting the merits of exchange wagering), HRTV or ESPN-37 become the host network for such an event, I would argue that any brand-name TV coverage would do wonders not only for the handicapping contest circuit, but in improving the perception of the thoroughbred industry itself. This is something the entire industry should support.
The casual viewer or racegoer needs to know that there is excellent intellectual competition in the racing game, outside of the races on the track and machinations in the back stable or in betting parlors, that goes beyond the perception of thoroughbred racing as a mustier business with an unseemly culture.
Surely the industry could get a much-needed shot in the arm from a fictional racetrack-based series such as Luck, but the industry needs to collectively cultivate and inspire fans to recognize there's far more to the Sport of Kings. The NHC is an excellent vehicle, in my view, to achieve such interest, and the NTRA and NHC should attack this aggressively in the run-up to NHC 14 in January 2013.
See you on TV next year...wink wink!