Saturday, April 6, 2019

An Idea to Improve 2-Day NHC Freebie Format Even More

The Pitch for Weighted
NHC Contest Scoring
Best Bet in Green...
Least Favorite in Red
I got a bit sentimental this morning, seeing Warrior's Club -- my key to NHC 19 qualification at 23-to-1 last year in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland -- listed to defend his crown vs. 13 others in a race that kicks off the Tour's second of 5 "free" qualifying contests.

Listed at 10-to-1 this afternoon, my boy may be compromised by a wide draw from post 13, though I believe he's at the proper level and relishes the 7-furlong Keeneland strip and can repeat 2018's win.

Even if Warrior's Club doesn't get it done, there are 11 other races to consider in the NHC Tour's interesting bid to forget "Fourgate," where, in the first 2019 freebie, a handful of players picked the No. 4 horse in all contest races and ended up winning berths to NHC 20.

Fourgate exposed the absurdity of the free Tour events, in that the value of the 5 "free" events (no entry fee, though a $50 annual Tour membership is required to play 'em) was extremely low and that it's hard to take a contest offering 5 NHC berths to 2,000+ players seriously.

The freebies are the state-lottery equivalent of a tournament and everyone sorta knows it. So why not do something like playing the same number across the board and hoping for the best?!

2-Day Format Step in Right Direction

Well, that changes this weekend, with the Tour rolling out a new two-day format where the Top 10% of finishers in Saturday's contest advance to Sunday's championship round.

It's a step in the right direction to give the free-tournament format some validity, though it doesn't automatically prevent a repeat of Fourgate as a no-cost event.

That said, paring Saturday's enormous field to about 200-250 players who'll compete on Sunday for both 5 NHC 20 berths and Tour points (to the top 10% tomorrow) makes it somewhat more rational.

The primary drawback, as I see it, is in the Tour wiping players' Saturday bankrolls clean heading into Sunday's qualifier. To me, it's inconsistent. It's the opposite of the real NHC, a three-day event where players' winnings carry over from one day to the next, making it harder, in theory, to let people at the bottom of the standings make a resounding late run by stabbing at gigantic long-shots.

A player who finishes first today and accrues $130 of bankroll on Saturday -- you know it'll be me, since it's not a direct qualifier -- vs. the 195th-place finisher at $70 is penalized on Sunday by resetting the counter to zero. It's not entirely fair.

Rather, the NHC organizers should consider -- maybe for its third free tournament -- a format where the Day 1 bankroll is carried over to Round 2, but perhaps with Day 2 odds caps cut in half to 10-to-1 for win and 5-to-1 for place, so as to both reward Saturday's best players and put a premium on picking winners in Sunday's event, and to prevent folks from coming way off the pace by nailing a few bombers that appear to have no shot on paper.

Pitch for Weighted Scoring

Another format I'd like to see -- if the NHC wants to get creative -- is a weighted contest, where players are paid a premium for their convictions in particular plays. In other words, set up a 12-race contest where players can tab XYZ horse as their best bet (with a win payout at 12-to-1) and ABC as their least-favorite bet (worth 1-to-1 odds). The place-payout cap would be half that (e.g. 6-to-1 for my best bet and 0.5-to-1 for my least-favorite horse.

In my view, it would reduce the prospect of bomber-focused players from getting lucky in 2-3 races to qualify from the NHC. It would also put a premium on finding winners, reducing the place-payout maximum to $14 from the current $22.

In today's freebie, for instance, I think Vino Rosso is a lock to win the Carter Handicap. I've selected him as my horse in the fourth contest race today, though his 5-to-2 morning line suggests about a maximum return of $7 on the winning end and probably $3 and change for the place. It's a risk if some bomber with no chance on paper scores at cap odds.

If I had the option to weight today's selection, I'd pick him as my 12-to-1 play. If he wins, I get $26 on that end, plus $14 to place). If he finishes third or worse, I get zero.

I might make Instagrand in the Santa Anita Derby as my next-best play, allotting 11-to-1 win odds to him in a bad 6-horse field; and so on down the line to my least-favorite selection -- Ocean Fury in the seventh from Santa Anita, a deep maiden special race on turf -- who'd I'd play at even-money odds. (Warrior's Club, by the way, would probably be my 9th or 10th-best play.)

I'm not sure such a weighted-selections approach would prevent another Fourgate, but in my view, it takes the real odds out of play, reduces the enormous payouts on horses like the $105 winner that few in their right mind would have bet with real money on the day Fourgate occurred, and makes players focus on picking winners and to at least think about their handicapping selections and maybe taking the freebie tournaments more seriously.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts as always. 

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