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|
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, NHCQualify.com 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 NHCQualify.com, 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, NHCQualify.com 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 HorseTourneys.com, 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 horseplayersqualify.com) 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.