Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ready To Take NHC Flight

Thursday's announcement of Friday's 8 "mandatory" races for the prestigious National Handicapping Championship (NHC) swiftly made my qualification for NHC XVI more an immediate reality.

The only thing separating me from a shot at the estimated $800,000 top prize is a safe flight to Las Vegas this evening, good handicapping/horse selection, and health and some breaks in the course of running for the horses that determine my contest fate.

Avoiding bad sushi and alcohol poisoning would probably help, too.

Photo courtesy of
I was pretty patient up until this week and just went about my routine -- work, family, coaching, school board, etc. -- considering that I had more than four months to sit on the concept of competing for big dollars against some of North America's top handicappers and horseplayers at Treasure Island this weekend.  In between that time as well, not a day has gone by without thoughts of the family of my fellow Del Mar qualifier by way of New Jersey, Steven Nico, who unexpectedly passed away around Thanksgiving.  I carry his spirit with me to the NHC.

So, how to prepare for a contest where I will play 30 of about 150 carded just the first two days of the NHC alone?!

Just Stay The Course

In general, my process is pretty organic.

I will not shift strategy from how I normally play, leaning toward playable but undervalued long-shots, nor am I overwhelmed by the number of races each day (about 70-75 from 7 U.S. racetracks).

After wrapping up work on Wednesday, I mapped out the chronology of races on the Friday and Saturday cards, considering the NHC entails 15 selections (mythical $2 win-$2 place bets) per day -- 8 mandatory, 7 optional -- as a primer for which races look more playable than others, and so that I do not get distracted by trying to analyze and watch every single race.

Simply put, I need to find and be disciplined in handicapping/playing 7 races in my wheelhouse.

On first blush, I am a little more inspired by Saturday's races, since turf sprints and Santa Anita's downhill turf course are my strongest suit and likely to be my optional plays (5 total).

I am less enthused, but unperturbed, about Friday's mandatory card (Saturday's isn't out yet), featuring deep fields (9-12 horses) but bottom-level claimers from Tampa (Race 4) and Oaklawn (Race 4), plus tracks like Aqueduct (Race 7) and Santa Anita (Race 7) prone to scratches.

The four other "mandatory" (meaning that all 600 or so contestants must play) races are Gulfstream 5, Fair Grounds 7, Santa Anita 5 and Golden Gate 7.

Tonight's homework on the flight is locking down my top 2-3 choices for the mandatory races. Otherwise, I plan a relatively organic approach for my 7 optional race plays, likely focusing on my most familiar winter tracks -- Gulfstream, Tampa and Santa Anita.

Over the last two weeks, I managed a few after-work online tournaments to build confidence approaching the NHC and won 4 of 9 on, while finishing second in another and third in two more.  Sure beats 0-for-9 with lots of last-place finishes.

The difference in beating 9, rather than 599, players is night and day, but each victory provided reassurance that playing out-of-favor horses (including one with an 8-to-1 morning line that was sent off at more than 20-to-1) can translate to contests of a grander scale.

Too Many To Thank

Speaking of grander scales, I need to thank a host of people for making my NHC qualification possible, first and foremost wife Kathy and kids Kaitlyn and Shane -- my three-pronged foundation, who support my passions (plural) without complaint and are living reminders that a bad contest day is a minuscule part of life's grander picture.

Otherwise, and in order of impulse, not importance:

  • First and foremost Terry Flanagan, who introduced me to the NHC circuit and whose friendship and guidance improve my standing as a person and horseplayer. 
  • My contest circuit crew at Monmouth Park, including Steve Fitzpatrick, Paul Zerbst and Ray Wallin, all of whom (among others) reached out to me in the last week or so with nothing but positive vibes, including Ray's flattering blog earlier this week.  It's great to know that I have wide-reaching support from the Garden State.
  • Tony and Lorraine Holobowski, my parents and horseplayers in their own right, for far too many reasons to name here, but namely for everlasting support and encouragement of the notion of sometimes taking chances and not living with regret or fear of failure.
  • The Tinton Falls community (too many to name), where great friends, mentors and fellow racing enthusiasts, including Chris & Diane Skurat, Pete Karavites, Paul Ford, Coaches Dan and Steve and DJ Frankie P, either ask me how the contest circuit's going, or let me ramble on several topics of interest, but namely racing.  Each will be with me in spirit at the NHC and build my confidence in going toe-to-toe with mostly professional handicappers. 
  • Steven Nico, a kindred spirit whose passing I continue to mourn and whose spirit I hope to channel.  Lucy Nico reached out to me this week with her support, and I hope my blog readers will keep her and the Nico family in their prayers this weekend, for Steven's absence from the NHC is a big void for the circuit.   

Where To Track NHC Updates

Since people have asked, I am aware of no live TV coverage of the NHC, but the subject might be discussed sporadically on TVG and HRTV (315 and 316 on our FiOS system at home).  

Other sites to track include the NTRA's NHC Tour homepage and the Daily Racing Form's DRF Live.  If I recall correctly, each will post "post-game" video with tournament leaders, for instance, and the day-end leaderboards, so those are probably the best sources of updates.

I'll try to blog from Vegas if possible and use Twitter from time to time (@NJHorseplayer).


  1. I agree with your crediting me, and as such I expect a cut of your winnings (pre-tax of course).

  2. Best Wishes Bill. May the horse(s) be with you. Okay I'm not a Star Wars geek but wanted to use that line sometime in my life. lol.