Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Irrational Exuberance

April is generally a quiet period on the weekend handicapping contest circuit in the NJ Horseplayer camp, largely on account of annual (the last 3 years, anyway) futility in qualifying for the prestigious Simulcast Series Challenge Championship at Monmouth Park, but also since so many contests are logistically or financially (if I want my wife and kids to still like me) out of reach.

Tournaments like the Grade One Gamble (a $3,000 entry fee) at Keeneland on Sunday, April 22 are out of my geography and weekend horseplayer's finite budget.  I'm not, well, invited, to The SSC Invitational on Saturday, April 28 because my handicapping stunk in the three winter qualifiers.  Meanwhile, as a New Jersey resident ("Thanks, Legislature!"), I am prohibited by law from playing for National Handicapping Championship-based contests available at places like XpressBet and TwinSpires.com

Handicapping contest circuit in
growth phase, or nearing maturity?
The next NHC-oriented "live" money option is the Preakness Day Handicapping Contest at Monmouth on Saturday, May 19.  In the meantime, a glut of online tournaments are popping up on DerbyWars.com and HorseTourneys.com, but these -- and what I would consider a low turnout to this past Saturday's NHCQualify.com tournament -- got me thinking...

Is the handicapping contest circuit in the throes of an irrational growth cycle or already mature en route to decline?

I am no veteran of the circuit, but even in just years as an NHC Tour member it's clear that the industry is growing by leaps and bounds...almost too fast.  Probably a good thing for some who constantly crave contest action or with infinite bankrolls, but based on my own experience so far in 2012, and working in the financial services industry, Alan Greenspan's thoughts about the Dot-com heyday are ringing in my head.  

This past weekend alone offers a great example of the horseplayer buffet, and how the circuit is exhibiting signs of so-called irrational exuberance that the former Fed Chief addressed in the late '90s: 
  • 33 mostly well-subscribed cash and points-based incentive tournaments on DerbyWars.com
  • 2 NHC-oriented and 1 other tournament on HorseTourneys.com on Easter Sunday
    • Only 70 people played in the $40 NHC "feeder" event and about 130 in the $195 tourney for three guaranteed NHC spots (though I'm curious how many paid the full $195 fee to enter; I won entry to one of these last month through a $20 "feeder" tournament, and these feeders are an affordable way at a shot to the 2013 NHC) 
  • 2 tournaments on HorsePlayersQualify.com -- a feeder site to the Horse Player World Series
  • Saturday's NHC-based event ($110 entry fee) on NHCQualify.com
  • Onsite tournaments at Treasure Island in Las Vegas and Lone Star Park
Surely I'm omitting (accidentally) some, but the above is already a lot to wrap one's head around!

The arsenal of tournaments is surely confounding, and the downtime of my "stay-cation" this week (kids' spring break) got me revisiting why I got into the handicapping contest circuit as a hobby in the first place -- and why I bore you with my unsolicited thoughts: intellectual competition and to qualify for the NHC in Las Vegas, plain and simple.

A site like DerbyWars is certainly enticing to those players who enjoy "contesting", but I have been spreading myself too thin playing in their bevy of tournaments.  I'm signed on for two on Wednesday, but in all likelihood will take a big step back in competing there once I tap out my dwindling cash account and/or points; the ready access also can fuel a compulsion I would much rather avoid, and (much as I like and continue to endorse DW) candidly, the lack of NHC ties is a detriment.  With a finite bankroll, I especially need to hone in on select NHC-focused events.

With only 200 of 360 available spots purchased this past Saturday, I would argue that NHCQualify.com may need to scale back its $110 entry fee even more (it was $150 earlier this year), considering how saturated the online circuit has become and that part-time/weekend players like me can go to HorseTourneys.com and qualify for an NHC play-in for a $20 or $40 contest fee...and on a more user-friendly contest interface.  

By no means am I panning any of these contest sites.  To the contrary, I think it's wonderful that handicapping contest players like myself now have a wealth of opportunities to play, whether they be for cash, notional prizes or one of the 500 seats to the 2013 NHC.  However, with seemingly low barriers to entry to the handicapping contest industry, all stakeholders -- especially the NTRA, presumably, as overseer of horseplayer-related issues -- should heed the lessons learned from other industry growth cycles marked by a period of overaggressive growth because, eventually, consolidation (i.e. decline) will follow.  

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