Brisnet Betting Guide Exclusive by Peter Thomas Fornatale
This column appears in this week’s edition of the Brisnet Betting Guide.
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If the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) were a human being, it would be old enough to drink. This past weekend marked the 21st edition of the NHC, held at Bally’s in Las Vegas. The event awarded $3 million in prize money with the winner, Thomas Goldsmith, netting $800,000 for his efforts. He’ll also receive an Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year.
The NHC has evolved over the years and continues to do so. With this milestone birthday in the books, now is a good time to reflect on some of the things the event does really well, and also to highlight a few areas where I believe improvements can be made.
Let’s start with the positives.
Five Things I Like About the NHC
1. You Have to Win to Get In
The NHC is the only handicapping contest out there where you can’t buy your way in. You must win your way in through a qualifying tournament. This creates a special atmosphere at the event because for the vast majority of the folks playing, they already feel like winners just by showing up. And for many, a weekend in Las Vegas is a prize in and of itself.
2. The Camaraderie in the Room
This is related to the first point but I’ll take it further here. I still believe the NHC is the best horseplayer party we have. In part because you have to win in, but also because, simply put, it’s the closest thing we have to a horseplayer convention. Lifelong friendships are made at the NHC, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with old friends as well as make new ones. It’s fantastic to get to spend time with so many like-minded individuals in a world where when you tell people you’re a horseplayer, average squares are likely to look at you like you have some sort of problem.
3. The Format Levels the Playing Field
The fact that the wagering at the NHC involves mythical money as opposed to real dollars means that a much larger group of players can win – and that’s a good thing. When the money is real, there is a massive bias to players with big bankrolls, who can risk $25,000 on the final race, as Brad Anderson did at the BCBC. Anderson knew that wager was a great bet and if he lost, it would be a bummer, but that money wasn’t going to haunt him. The blue collar player has no shot in that event unless he or she has an unhealthy amount of gamble in them. At the NHC, a guy like Day 1 leader A.J. Benton, who in real life works 90 hours a week doing three jobs, can stand toe-to-toe with a millionaire for whom the money doesn’t mean anything. That’s a good dynamic that ensures the NHC remains a “handicapping contest,” not a “betting challenge.”
4. Publishing the Plays
This is a new development this year and I love it. Releasing the plays will allow players to educate themselves about the different ways players at the NHC worked their way into the money. It will also increase transparency. This will provide a deterrent to those looking to break the rules, and will also help with enforcement.
5. The Recognition of the Horseplayer
Could the NHC be a better deal for horseplayers? We’ll get there in a minute. But even with my concerns stated below, the NHC does a good job recognizing horseplayer achievements at the event, whether it’s through the Eclipse Award meant to honor all players, the big signs at the event acknowledging the former champions, the Champions Dinner on Sunday night, or the NHC Hall of Fame – the closest thing we have to a Horseplayers Hall of Fame. In a game that too often ignores players’ contributions, these things make me happy.
OK, now on to some areas for improvement.
Five Things about the NHC I’d Like to See Improved
1. Online Qualification Should Be a Better Deal For Players
The cost to the players of seats in the online contests is, simply put, crazy high. The NTRA sells its average on-site seat for $3,406 and for the seats on Horseplayers.com the cost is $8,000. That cost for an online seat gets passed along to players and in my view makes the online qualifiers something to be avoided for all but a select few. There was a time when having a significant difference in these numbers made sense, in part to promote on-track participation, but the divide has gotten too large. I acknowledge that it’s a complicated issue but if the NTRA/NHC wants to have players’ backs, this cost should be reduced.
2. The Final Table Needs to Be Televised
I love the idea of the Final Table, but to me, the existence of a Final Table can only be maximized with a video element. That said, I also believe that the current Final Table format could be much more made for TV. Drama could be manufactured in a few ways, improving the gameplay of the tournament as well. One way would be to include a live-bank element at the end. This would lead to more movement and bolder swings. Another idea would be to have eliminations – the player with the lowest bankroll after each race gets cashed out. Lastly, there should be more races at the Final Table. It feels rushed and too slow at the same time as is.
3. Make the Bets Real
I’m in favor of keeping the NHC a fixed-bankroll event, but even if it was just $2 win-place going through the windows, that would be a nice gesture. Better still if a way could be found to make each bet a real $20 win-place. This accomplishes several things: more money churned, more people walking away with money on the weekend, more consequences attached to stabbing, and, possibly, that money amassed could convert to your live bankroll and a new and improved Final Table.
4. Don’t Have Mandatories on the Second Part of Day 2
At this year’s contest, having the late mandatory races that came up with longshots turned the tournament on its head. This hurt the people who had spent two days grinding to make the cut, and it hurt arguably even more the people who genuinely liked the bombs that came in. At that point, many people picked those winners only as desperation “Hail Mary” plays, as opposed to actually liking the horses. The solution is easy – have the last mandatory with half the races yet to run on Day 2 (taking away a few mandatories on Day 2 would be a good idea as well).
5. Revamp the Tour
I’m not a fan of the NHC Tour. For one thing, it’s convoluted and confusing. I covered it for years and would still struggle to explain it to a lay person. I believe that as constituted it is a benefit for older, richer players who can sacrifice the value of the online events in favor of a cool horseplaying achievement (no judgments, by the way, and I know there are exceptions). But I’d like to see a Tour that awards play in on-site events that far more resembled a golf or tennis tour than what is currently in place.