Friday, February 3, 2012

Assessing Changes to 2012 NHC Tour

NJ Horseplayer is predicated on uncovering deep value in both handicapping contests and, far less frequently (on account of my real world obligations), at the betting window.  With that in mind, Wednesday's press release from the NTRA touting registration for the 2012 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour requires a bit of reading between the lines to decipher how the 2012 season will shape for qualifying opportunities. Here's my early read, again based on incomplete information and some back-of-the-envelope math.

The $5 hike in membership to $50 is negligible, as I see it.  At the same time, the Tour is cutting the number of "members-only, free online tournament" spots in next January's NHC to 10 (from 15 in 2012).  Public Handicapper, a cost-free venue, is picking up an additional seat and will now offer two NHC spots to Tour members.  Still, 4 fewer pieces of swag against a membership fee hike is a loss, whether or not these spots are akin to winning the lottery.

Early read on 2012 NHC
The Tour is clearly emphasizing increased participation from Tour players both online and at the track, considering the top 100 players in the year-end Tour standings will be guaranteed entry to the 2013 NHC Finals; no longer just the top finisher.  The Tour also more than tripled the regular season standings-based purse to $250k, with the winners of the first- and second-half season standings winning $50k each, and the year-end standings leader winning $150k  -- double what 2011 Tour Champion Paul Shurman won -- based on a member's top 6 scores (1 must come from a live, in-person event; i.e. on-track, live-money contests).  The NTRA's press release suggests that scoring points during live-money events will be a must, though there are only a handful of tracks that seem to have solidified their tournament schedules this early in the year.

Assuming the Tour will again publicize a $2m purse and keep the NHC at a target of 500 players, and citing figures on the early 2012 calendar posted to the NHC Tour's website, will play a major role in 2012, granting 120 NHC seats.  This is not publicized on Qualify's website, but an unofficial quick tally of the Tour calendar puts the figure at around 25% of Championship spots.

What is known, however, is that the February round of qualifying tournaments on, at the least, will cost $50 more than 2011's comparable early qualifiers to enter (now $150 per), though 15 NHC seats will be up for grabs (up from 10 per qualifier last year).  I have mixed feelings about this, as $100 is usually my online contest cap, and I still think the Tour is askew in coaxing more money out of its steady customer base, rather than holding the line on contest entry fees to encourage greater participation in the throes of a methodical rebound in the U.S. economy.  As it is, had trouble getting players for its qualifying tournaments at the end of 2011, so I fail to see the logic in a fee increase in 2012.

Combined with the 64 seats to be awarded through Ellis Park's, the preponderance of NHC seats awarded through online tourneys somewhat contradicts the Tour's press release emphasizing participation in live, in-person tournaments.  NHC Qualify and Horse Tourneys account for 66% of the 280 seats up for grabs that are now listed on the Tour calendar.  Add in another 6 (1 through DRF Bets, 2 through XpressBet and 3 through and you get nearly 70%.

The biggest shortcomings, as I see it, especially as a New Jersey-based Tour player, are the decline in tournaments at Monmouth Park (there were fewer seats awarded last year to the NHC on account of the track's uncertain ownership, which continues into 2012) and lack of nearby in-person tournaments.  I have to automatically throw out the midweek tournament at Saratoga in August (citing the $1k entry fee and that I'd need to take vacation time from work to participate), so based on the early calendar, there are only 8 NHC seats, right now, being rewarded within a reasonable drive of Central NJ -- 2 in the Monmouth SSC in April (assuming I qualify in this or next month's play-in), 3 in a $400 weekend-long tournament at Belmont on June 23-24 and 3 in a $400 weekend-long tournament at Aqueduct on November 17-18.  If you count Suffolk Downs (about 5 hours away) as "reasonable", then there's another 3 seats, but that's a reach.

Again, this is an early read of how the 2012 NHC Tour is shaping up.  The availability of online tournament venues is an obvious plus (especially for those select few with a limitless bankroll), save for the implicit $50-per-tournament increase in qualifying events at NHC Qualify.  The award of 100 NHC seats via the yearly standings is an interesting wrinkle that is sure to increase participation in handicapping tournaments, and no doubt players should appreciate the half-year payouts to the Tour players leading the 1H:12 and 2H:12 standings.

The downside as I see it, however, is that the emphasis on on-track tournaments is a nice, but somewhat misplaced concept in that, for some of us, there may only be 2-3 such events per half year in which to participate -- an obvious detriment to the weekend contest player (i.e. NJ Horseplayer).  New Jersey players, constrained by a state law that mandates use of the arcane state-run ADW, have very limited access to NHC seats, something the NTRA should be using our membership fees to battle more vigorously, if at all.

I'll do my best to reassess the situation in the weeks and months ahead, and am hopeful that the NTRA will offer a more-candid view of its thinking in organizing the 2012 schedule and prepping for NHC 14.


  1. Bill,

    I would be curious on your thoughts on the fairness of the tour concept. To me, it seems like a pyramid scheme. Basically, 5,000 average joe horseplayers are charged $50 for the right to play in one contest. As you note, there aren't many within driving distance for many of us.

    So, while expanding the automatic qualifiers to 100 tour members sounds nice, this really benefits maybe 500 of the 5,000 tour members who can afford to play in 6 to 25 contests - for each half of the year! Who has that time or money?

    Not to mention, most of the top 100 will be qualified anyways. So what this amounts to is a $250,000 freeroll for those who can play in 20 contests every 6 months!

    Worst of all, this does not grow the NHC at all. At best, this gets back to the $2m that was promised in 2011, but not delivered on.


  2. Excellent thoughts, Craig, and keep them coming.

    I think the Tour would benefit from greater transparency (i.e. in terms of membership count, annual balance sheets, how much it spends to run the tournament and for peoples' transportation, lodging, etc.) in how it funds the tournament and issues like its own takeout, but that the annual fee is not onerous. The $50 grants access to 4 contests, actually, though the chances of winning one of the 10 seats in events where there'll be 10,000+ entrants is (as I've written in the past) admittedly akin to hitting Power Ball.

    Otherwise, I sense the Tour has a misguided notion of itself as equivalent to World Poker Tour, where you have far more "professional gamblers" who do nothing but play poker for a living. I see the handicapping contest circuit as different from the set who bets daily at the track; they're not necessarily one in the same - i.e. I don't go to Monmouth during the week and best PARX simulcasts, and the guy who does likely is not playing in the SSC). I could be wrong, but this would validate your point about needing to play in 25 contests a year and the implication that many of us have neither the time nor the bankroll to play so often, an obvious detriment to scoring a spot in NHC.

    No matter what either of us thinks, however, everything comes down to good handicapping. If I recall, winning an NHC Tour event is worth 3,000 points (online or on-track), so based on needing 4,309 points to crack 2011's Top 100, it takes at least one tournament win and a Top-5 finish in another event to have a legit chance of scoring an NHC berth. It's not entirely out of the realm and may not take a limitless bankroll to achieve. (BTW: 13 of the Top 100 in the standings last season did not qualify for the NHC; since NHC 13 had only 480 or so, maybe the Tour decided it's time to reward those left out who had outstanding seasons.)