Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Point of the Matter

If there is one, the upside to finishing three-quarters of a length from winning berths to both the 2016 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) and the $382,000 "The Big One" at Laurel Park this September is that I am now the proud owner of 2,341 points in the NHC Tour standings.

By virtue of a 7th-place finish in the Preakness Day NHC qualifier through, I picked up enough "Tour points" to draw within arm's reach of the Top 150 in the Tour standings, at least at this still-early stage of the 2015 NHC season.

Horseplayers belonging to the NHC Tour can qualify for the $2 million-plus national championship in Las Vegas each January by winning an NHC-sanctioned qualifier, or by accruing enough Tour points in a season to land inside the Top 150 in the Tour standings.

Tour points are awarded for finishing in the top 10% of a tournament's standings and allocated by an Excel formula too difficult for me to describe, but that basically rewards about 3,000 points for first place and graduated down, taking into account the number of individuals (not total entries).

The 280-player tournament I recently played awarded Tour points down to 28th-place, while the NHC Tour's "free" online tournament featuring 1,700 players pays down to 170th.  Tournaments at a racetrack pay a 25% points premium compared with online tournaments, encouraging members to play handicapping contests at their nearby racetrack.

Photo courtesy of
Let's Go Arts blog

NHC Tour Points Reward Quality...

Ken Jordan, of nearby Farmingdale, NJ, qualified for (and ultimately won $250,000 as runner-up in) the 2015 NHC through what I'll dub the points "back door," playing well enough throughout the 2014 season and then accruing enough Tour points in a late-season NHC qualifier to win a seat in Vegas this past January.

No matter the avenue, every NHC Tour player's goal is (or should be) to reach Vegas for a shot at the $750,000 top prize and to play against the top players in North America at the 3-day national championship, hosted by Treasure Island.

So, as consolation for one of my selections (14.5-to-1 long-shot named Gemmabeto in Race 5 at Santa Anita on May 16) getting nabbed by 2 others 50 yards from the wire in a nondescript $20,000 maiden claimer (a horse none of the six folks ahead of me in the standings had played), I now have a decent amount of points to at least need to consider the prospect of working my way up to the 7,500 points or so needed to get to Vegas through the back door.

The easiest way for me to return to Vegas for a second-straight season will be an outright win in Saturday's upcoming tournament at Monmouth Park, where the top 5 finishers receive packages to the 2016 NHC.  However, another 2 top 10-type finishes could net me enough NHC Tour points to sniff the Top 150 in the year-end standings.

...and Quantity...

Generally speaking, the NHC Tour points route to Las Vegas is far more difficult for part-time players to attain, since the leaderboard is rife with full-time players who in some cases have already won the maximum 2 spots to the NHC but buy multiple entries to several tournaments and subsequently play handicapping contests to win points for $175,000 of cash awards to the Top 20 in the standings at year's end, including $75,000 and a 2017 NHC berth for the winner.

To be sure, one player I tracked in last year's points standings played in around 80 NHC qualifiers last season, compared with 12-15 that I estimate I played in 2014.

Presumably, a big bankroll and lots more free time than I can afford are needed to load up on points, but I understand and support the concept of rewarding full-time players who pay more into the system and financially support the NHC more than yours truly.

In reality, however, the notion of cracking the Top 20 is impossible for Tour members like me (unless I do extremely well and/or get lucky in the scant number of qualifying tournaments I play), is a tad far fetched, and so I typically play every tournament to win, rather than accrue Tour points.

...but Devalue Monmouth Park's Winter Simulcast Series

With that in mind, from a budgetary perspective, I got to thinking about perhaps my absolute favorite tournament, the 4-part Simulcast Series Challenge (SSC) at Monmouth Park each winter and how the NHC Tour points scoring system essentially devalues on-track tournaments of the type that use multiple rounds of play to determine a champion.

For background, the Tour counts each player's Top 6 scoring events throughout the season to determine the scoring champion.  Of those, 1 event must be a "live" tournament at the track, while the other 5 can come from online tournaments (or a second or third "on-track" qualifier as well).

The mandate of one on-track tournament score is, in part, to encourage business at NTRA-member tracks, such as a Monmouth Park, which benefits when players in its NHC qualifying tournaments are wagering real money into the actual betting pools and creating so-called "churn" -- a favorable proposition to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and its member tracks.

The alternative for an NHC Tour player is to sit at home and play a tournament online through or another non-NTRA venue, where no money is placed into the betting pools (players pay, for instance, a $155 fee to play in a tournament where no cash prizes are paid or money is bet into the pools) but, rather, tournament outcomes are based on mythical $2 win-place wagers.

In this scenario, entry fees go to the tournament host, who has operating costs and pays double the fee (around $7,500) to NTRA to buy the NHC "seats" to Las Vegas to award as contest prizes.  NTRA-member venues, such as Monmouth Park, pay half the rate.

Proposal for a Workable Solution to Protect an NTRA Affiliate

I contacted NHC Players' Committee chairman Christopher Larmey to express my concern that the SSC is scored only as an 80-player contest instead of considering that there were around 800-900 paid entries at $200 each across the four rounds (players are allowed to buy 2 entries per event).

One can theorize that only 100 individuals each bought 2 entries to each of the 4 SSC qualifiers, thereby making the 800-900 entry figure appear grossly inflated, but several people I know (myself included) only buy 1 entry per SSC qualifier.   So, if I had to guess, across all four rounds of contests leading up to the SSC championship, there were somewhere between 300-400 unique entries.

Edward Lambert, the 7th-place finisher in the SSC Invitational on April 25, won only 772 Tour points for finishing in the same spot in the standings as I did in my 280-player contest on Preakness Day.

And, unlike simply forking over a $155 entry fee as I did to enter the HorseTourneys contest, Lambert had to make it through nearly 200 entries to the January 12 SSC pre-qualifier just to make it to the SSC Invitational, comprised of the top 20 finishers of each of the 4 qualifying rounds invited to play in late April for 1 of 2 berths to the Vegas championship.

By comparison -- 1 tournament for $155 and 2,341 NHC Tour points, vs. 2 tournaments for at least $400 of entry fees and a mere 772 NHC Tour points in what is without question a harder format.

On paper, and setting aside that the SSC pays some meaty cash prizes (with a 0% takeout on entry fees) to the Top 10 finishers in each leg of the SSC, it gets me thinking that the SSC is a riskier, less-valuable cost AND points proposition.

"Monmouth (Park) has a great schedule of contests this year with all sorts of formats and opportunities for players," emailed Larmey. "The sort of variety is exactly what we are hoping to promote and we certainly don't want to do anything to discourage Monmouth from continuing to provide such great opportunities to Tour players."

Monmouth Park offers the most
on-track tournament seats to the
2016 National Handicapping
I expressed to Larmey and will reiterate to the Players' Committee when rules are drafted or reconsidered for next season that the Tour needs to at least return to the system whereby NHC Tour points are allocated based on the total number of entrants throughout the SSC Series, similar to when I finished 13th in the 2013 SSC Invitational and earned 1,000+ Tour points since 300+ entries were factored into the scoring methodology.

My concern is that SSC on-track tournament players such as Edward Lambert got shortchanged and may contemplate NHC Tour points values in determining whether to compete on-track; in this case, at Monmouth Park, where contest organizer and marketing manager Brian Skirka has clearly stamped the Oceanport, NJ track as North America's leader in on-track NHC qualifying contests, offering nearly 30 spots (of 600) to Las Vegas in January 2016.

Monmouth Park, in my view, should be able to leverage this stronghold to protect the SSC, which is as close as any tournament I have played as the National Handicapping Championship itself, melding the need to analyze several dozen races from multiple simulcast tracks in a 5-hour window down to 10 or so contest plays, but (contrary to the NHC itself) at the same time managing a live-money bankroll that goes into the real mutuel pools in a quiet winter racing season where there's no live racing in Oceanport (an implied benefit to the NTRA and an NTRA-member track).

The fact that 2015 NHC champion John O'Neill and 2015 NHC runner-up Kenny Jordan (who, coincidentally, as I understand from a friend qualified for Las Vegas by scoring enough Tour points to barely finish in the Top 150 in the year-end points standings) practically dominated Las Vegas in January signals the value of their handicapping experience garnered from the difficult Simulcast Series Challenge.

I would encourage the NHC Tour Players' Committee to revisit the scoring of the SSC, since sitting today around 300th (of 5,000 members) in the Tour standings I'm thinking I would have been better off from a points-building perspective just sitting out of the January, February and March SSC qualifiers and entered an online tournament sponsored by host that's not an NTRA member or contributing money into the real parimutuel betting pools of North American racetracks.


  1. First. I'm betting $20 bucks on you to win it all at the NHC this year. Secondly, as far as I can tell, the requirement to have earned at least some points at an onsite event has been waived, discontinued. Looks to me like one simply gets their points anyway they can. Anyway, thanks for the read, and take care!

  2. Dan, you're better off donating that $20 to charity, LOL.

    I hope you're well out on the West Coast, and send my best to your family.

    I double checked and the 5 online/1 on-track scoring is still in effect, according to #5 under the official rules: "Tour Schedule and Scoring."

    I'm going to do some analysis and publish a piece as time allows about the benefits to the track of hosting on-track tournaments. At Monmouth's yesterday, for instance, I'm estimating that the 219 entrants (of a crowd listed at 8,055), or about 2.5% of the total, accounted for 8%-10% of the $550,000 on-track handle. That's significant.

    Where the Tour misses the point, IMO, is the quantity vs. quality perspective. Not to diminish their handicapping, because they're excellent handicappers, but the Moomeys, Kinchens, Shurmans and even us Cmoros and Holobowskis of the world can play multiple entries to every online qualifier on Earth every weekend and not a cent goes into the parimutuel pools, which SHOULD be part of NTRA's thought process. On the other hand, Monmouth (or Portland Meadows out by you) benefits when dopes like us fork over real cash into the real betting pools. Larmey and the Players' Committee, in the case of SSC, need to realize that on-track tournaments, whether multi-round qualifying like the SSC or not, are of enormous benefit to the title sponsor of the NHC (the NTRA).

  3. Hi, Bill,
    I re-read the rules and I understand that to maximize one's accumulated point total one must earn some points at an on-site event. But I just don't see where it says, like it has in past years, that it is required that some of one's total point accumulation MUST be earned on-site. In past years it was very clearly spelled out. I'll have to get clarification from Michelle.

    We're all doing well out here in frontier land. Here's to us rollin the wagons onward to the TI come January! Twenty bucks on you to win at 100:1 odds is a risk I'm willing to take.

    That would be something if most contest money actually made it into the track's pool. I'm with you all the way, get much more of the money used on contests into the host track's pool, seems a win/win....

    Take care over there,

    1. Thanks, Dan. Shoot me an email at some point if you don't mind for my contact list: