Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Q&A: McKay Smith, Tournament Director

NJ Horseplayer readers by now understand my passion, even as predominantly a weekend player still learning the ropes, for thoroughbred handicapping contests and my futility in reaching the National Handicapping Championship.

Perhaps thrifty, but my real-world obligations (see my profile for an explanation) do not afford me the opportunity to pony up a few grand to cover travel and entries to NHC qualifying contests at tracks across the U.S. like professional players (and my handicapping is not to that level yet anyway), so I focus largely on online competition.  Residing in New Jersey does not help matters either, as horseplayers in the Garden State are limited to a few on-track contests at Monmouth Park, and prohibited from numerous opportunities on outside ADWs like TwinSpires and DRFBets. is a great hub for a player like me, as I have written in the past.  There's little need to rehash my reasons, but gives me a low-cost shot at not only trying to improve my play on the handicapping contest circuit, but to qualify for the NHC in Las Vegas without breaking the bank.

Readers can debate the merits of this proposition, but I simply like the product, and reached out to McKay Smith, Operator and Tournament Director, to recap 2012 and give broader thoughts on the handicapping contest circuit.

NJ Horseplayer: Before discussing's 2013 initiatives, put a bow on the 2012 tournament season. I know you offer seats to the Horseplayer World Series as well, but by my unofficial tally, some 15% of all qualifiers to the 2013 National Handicapping Championship in January 2013 will have qualified through  That's an impressive number!

McKay Smith
Tourney Director,
McKay Smith: It’s been a busy year, for sure.  We’re done with NHC qualifiers for this qualifying year, and we ended up moving a total of 74 seats, which was right at the goal we committed to trying to move for the NTRA.  I’m not sure where the total number of NHC players is tracking, but it’s probably going to be around 450 or so, which would make about 15 percent of the field from HorseTourneys.  On the HPWS side, we’ll probably end up moving between 100-120 entries to that event before we’re through with qualifiers in February.  We also ran qualifying contests to a number of other events this year, including Boyd Gaming’s Orleans March Championship and Gold Coast Summer Classic, the Wynn’s major event and Treasure Island’s contests.  It’s a lot to fit in.

We’re very pleased with how things have gone in our first full year since launching in August of 2011.  During that time, we've been able to introduce a number of what I hope players would consider very player-friendly features and initiatives, such as running virtually takeout-free feeders to our NHC Qualifiers, introducing our Pick & Pray format (which has been very popular) and returning any breakage entries directly back to players. 

But probably what I’m most happy and proud about is the fact that from an operational standpoint, we've had no issues whatsoever since we ran our first contest in August of last year.  Not even a blip with the website (knock on wood).  It’s Murphy’s Law when it comes to running websites of any kind, so I think that our track record over the last 14 months has proven that we are an operation that the players can rely upon, and that we made some correct decisions in how we built our system to begin with in order to ensure the greatest degree of stability.  That’s half the battle right there.  We've made incremental improvements to the website during this time and will continue to do so moving forward, with an eye toward continuing to improve the customer experience.

NJ Horseplayer: Is there additional brand value to you, or Ellis Park, if, say, one of your qualifiers wins NHC XIV?  

McKay Smith: Oh, absolutely.  We’d like nothing more than to see the winner come from our group of qualifiers.  When I was the tournament director for NHCQualify, I believe we had two NHC winners come from the site, and both times it resulted in a shot in the arm for business.  Having a winner come from our site opens up a number of marketing opportunities.

NJ Horseplayer: How has NHC Tour member response been to your site's tournaments, in terms of functionality, cost and player capacity/participation?

McKay Smith: Very good, I think, especially because we are the only site that runs low-cost feeder events to our main NHC Qualifiers.  We had several players this year that actually qualified through $15 or $20 feeder events with no additional investment.  Think about that--$20 to qualify to the NHC.  Yes, it’s absolutely possible.  The fact that our feeder events have basically zero net takeout means that those events represent terrific value for players and are events that anyone seriously pursuing the NHC should be taking advantage of on a regular basis.

NJ Horseplayer: I couldn't help but notice recent adjustments to your tournament entry fee structure for NHC pre-qualifiers heading to 2013.  Is this a harbinger of change for your 2013 venue, and what prompted these changes?

McKay Smith:  Yes, we’re making some changes for 2013 with our feeder structure and main NHC Qualifier entry fees and payout ratios.  We’re moving toward main NHC Qualifier fees of $240 per entry, awarding a NHC package per 40 entries.  This is a fairly major change from the $140/entry and 1 per 60 setup from this year, although we did run a lot of qualifiers at $195/entry and 1 per 50 earlier in the year.

There are two main reasons for this change.  Number one, the reduction in the cost of the main NHC Qualifiers (from $195 to $140) that we introduced in August didn't produce the result that we’d hoped.  From a gross perspective, the amount of entry fees raised actually went down, which resulted in fewer NHC spots being awarded.  It doesn't do the players any good if we lower the price—which results in more players required to move a NHC seat---if that doesn't result in actually moving more NHC seats.  The data was pretty emphatic in showing that this wasn't the right move.

Number two, the other main NHC qualifying site,, runs qualifiers at the 1 per 60 ratio.  I felt it didn't make a lot of sense for us long term to offer the same ratio—the players should have more of a choice.  Moreover, we run so many feeder events that I felt that an entry won from a feeder event should be “worth” more to the player.  

So for instance, under the new setup, we’ll only need 120 entries participating to award three NHC spots, rather than 180 entries required under the $140/1 per 60 setup.  It’s important to note that the “value” proposition doesn't change—this is just an adjustment in ratio.  Essentially, I’m betting that it is going to be easier to move 120 entries per event rather than 180 in order to move three NHC seats per event.  The goal is simply to move more seats to the players. If this new structure doesn't work out, we can always return to a more middle-ground.

The players should be happy that we have decided to include a $500 travel reimbursement in the package next year, which many players have asked us to do.  We’re also required to cover a qualifier’s hotel stay at the NHC venue next year, so that will also be included.

NJ Horseplayer: In 2013, will offer a similar number of NHC "seats" as in 2012, and will there be any alteration of your schedule (i.e. Wednesday-Friday pre-qualifiers, weekend qualifiers)?

McKay Smith:  At this point, yes, that’s the plan.  We’re looking at approximately the same amount of NHC inventory next year.  On the feeders, the plan is to run two formats: a $26 feeder awarding one $240 entry per 10 entries participating, and a $52 feeder awarding one $240 entry per every five entries participating   We’ll run those just about every Wednesday-Friday, with feeders run on weekend dates when we can fit them in with our other commitments.

NJ Horseplayer: Has the NHC Tour enforced changes that will reflect on your customers' experience or rewards, and as a key player in the industry, will you as an operator find more parity (in terms of cost per NHC seat, etc.) with NTRA-member contest hubs? (Editor's note: We asked this question under our understanding that non-NTRA contest venues pay double the fee per NHC "seat" as members.) 

McKay Smith:  While the NHC Tour plans for next year haven’t been completely finalized by the NTRA, I don’t anticipate any major changes that would affect participation in our qualifiers.  As far as parity goes, for the most part all qualifying sites (both on-track and online) are on a level playing field and pay the same $6,500 per spot to the NTRA.  To my knowledge there are only a couple of NTRA member racetracks left that are able to purchase spots at a cheaper rate.

NJ Horseplayer:  From a broader "handicapping contest" industry perspective, I'd like to turn to your thoughts on the progression of the NHC Tour and whether 2012 marked improvement (whether in terms of process, communication between contest venues and avoiding scheduling conflicts) over years past.

McKay Smith:  Certainly the NHC Tour helps our efforts.  Anything that can keep the customers playing in events after already qualifying can only help us.  On scheduling, we work very closely with Ken Kirchner and to try and overlap as little as possible.  Ken and I have a long-term working relationship as he was actually my boss for nearly seven years when I was at the Breeders’ Cup-NTRA.  So that part is easy.

NJ Horseplayer:  Moving forward, what changes, if any, NHC-wide can players expect in 2013, and what kinds of ideas were you able to promote to the Tour leadership to "improve the product," so to speak?

McKay Smith:  I don’t want to speak for the NTRA as we leave NHC Tour matters in their hands.  Our job is to execute against whatever they decide, although I certainly have their ears.  I know they are thinking of a couple of changes that could have some impact on the program in general.  It’s not an easy job planning for the NHC Tour; it’s very tough to please everyone.

NJ Horseplayer:  In your opinion, will on-track contests go more by the wayside in light of the emergence of online handicapping contest hubs such as, where players from all U.S. states (and Canada, if I'm not mistaken) can play?  Or have the tracks found sites like yours a complement to the gaming industry?

McKay Smith:  I certainly hope there won’t be a decrease in the number of on-track events.  On-track contests should be the bedrock of any handicapping championship program both now and in the future.  On-track is where new players are harvested, far more so than from online events.  On-track events are critical for exposure and for getting new people involved.  In fact, the majority of the suggestions I've communicated to the NTRA have centered around ways to increase on-track participation.  If the tracks don’t do well with contests, the program suffers all-around.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that it is difficult for any one on-track event to draw numbers like they could say, 10 years ago.  Part of that is the simply the proliferation of available events and is one of the inevitable consequences of the expansion to 500 players in the NHC finals.  

Moreover, it’s a difficult pricing puzzle for the tracks and for the NTRA.  On the one hand, the NTRA needs to raise a certain amount per spot in order to pay for the $1.5 million-plus purse, but on the other hand, you have to make it a realistic financial proposition for the tracks to hold events and cover all of the costs involved and still be able to award attractive prizes such as cash.  Gone are the days when the racetracks looked at qualifying events primarily as customer-affinity events whereby they were happy to break even or even lose some money.  No doubt that the on-track sites have become far more bottom-line focused, especially with the economic downturn over the last few years.

Some players may be aware that I was the primary administrator of the NHC from 2004-2006.  Not necessarily from a pure policy standpoint, but more the day-to-day handling of the tracks and players.  It was during this time that we introduced to the scene, so I have intimate knowledge of the online vs. on-track debate.  Understandably, there was more than a little trepidation on track management’s part regarding how online contests would impact the NHC program and their live events.  It was a real issue that we had to navigate.

I think the tracks acknowledge the need for online contests in order to maintain and grow a program like the NHC.  Without question, online contests have inherent advantages over live events.  E.g., they are obviously more accessible, involve far fewer costs for the players (no travel, hotel stays, etc.) and are cheaper to administer, just for starters.

However, on the flip side, online contests simply cannot deliver the kinds of tactile experiences that truly develop a contest handicapper.  Ask any of the prominent players what they enjoy most about contest play, and to a T they will reference the social interaction and camaraderie of the on-track experience.  Playing live among their peers, whooping it up and sharing war stories, witnessing the energy in the room when the winners are announced and checks are handed out—those are the things that stick.  It’s those experiences that make one want to pursue the now plethora of options that they have access to throughout the year.

So really, in my opinion, that’s the key question moving forward: how to maintain a balance among available options that will grow participation but at the same time preserve the critical on-track experiences that makes people fall in love with contests in the first place.

NJ Horseplayer: In the same light, do you find Tour members "picking and choosing" more with their contest dollars, especially with the growth of the handicapping contest industry? And how does the economy play a part?

McKay Smith:  For sure.  As I mentioned, the players have far more choices now than they did years ago, and it stands to reason they have less disposable income now than when everyone was making money hand over fist in the market.  That’s one of the reasons why we think it is so important to offer low-cost options in the feeder events on a regular basis.

NJ Horseplayer: Finally, since my handicapping has yet to get me there, can't I just buy an NHC seat from you 

McKay Smith:  No, but you can buy an entry to “The BIG One” at EllisPark next Labor Day weekend!  

If anyone hasn't already seen, we’ll be running a major on-track event at Ellis Park next August 31-Sept. 1.  The estimated purse is $300,000 (based on 50 entries) and we hope to award NHC spots to the top 10 finishers.  

The contest will be limited to only 55 entries, with five of those available at this time on a buy-in basis for $10,000 each.  This is the ultimate in a “high-expectation” event, as nearly 20% of the field will walk away with a nice chunk of cash and an NHC spot.  Qualifying events to “The BIG One” begin at HorseTourneys on January 5.  Players can go to for more information.

NJ Horseplayer:  Thanks, McKay, and best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2013 to your family and organization!

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