Horseplayers gather in Vegas to decide handicapping champion

NHC_2018
The 20th annual National Horseplayers Championship runs from Friday through Sunday at Treasure Island, Las Vegas. (Ron Flatter photo)

Las Vegas

The Kentucky Derby. Royal Ascot. Del Mar.

A racing fan’s bucket list has more than a few usual suspects. But when that fan becomes a seasoned bettor, then the National Horseplayers Championship moves to the top of that list. The problem is trying to explain that to the uninitiated.

Candidly speaking, a ballroom at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino does not seem to be any match for two particular minutes in the Louisville spring or Her Majesty’s ride or the junction of turf and surf. Yet in its 20th year this weekend, the NHC has become not only an $800,000 brass ring but also the best schoomze fest that racing has to offer.

“This tournament is not really about the value,” horseplaying author and fellow podcast host Peter Thomas Fornatale said this week. “It’s about the experience. It’s the coolest horseplayer party of the year.”

A total of 522 players and 668 entrants (some players have two entries) will compete Friday through Sunday for $2,863,000, including an $800,000 first prize. Every seat in this annual championship is earned by successfully playing in live bankroll tournaments throughout the year at racetracks and on line.

“What makes this tournament great is the fact that you have to qualify to get in,” said Fornatale, who is covering his sixth NHC for the “At the Races” radio and internet show. “The fact is not only are you competing for this huge amount of money but also for an Eclipse Award.”

Retired auto worker Chris Littlemore of Whitby, Ontario, returns from Canada to defend his 2018 championship. Six other former winners are also in the field. So are full-time professional gamblers Chuck Grubbs, who finished first last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, and David Gutfreund, the winner of the year-long NHC Tour. Each would earn a huge bonus by winning this weekend; Grubbs $3 million, Gutfreund $6 million.

“I got lucky,” Grubbs told VSiN last fall after his BCBC victory. “You know what? I’m going to reap the benefits of it.”

That means having a seat at one of the tables for a fifth trip from his Kentucky home to the Las Vegas tournament. Grubbs placed 38th last year, his best NHC finish. He plans to use the same strategy that helped him win three months ago at Churchill Downs.

“I’m going to narrow each race down to three or four horses, and I’m going to bet the best value,” he said. “I’m not going to bet more than one or two favorites if I bet any favorites at all, and that would be if it’s a mandatory.”

That means one of the mandatory races chosen by organizers from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which runs the NHC. Unlike live bankroll tournaments, the NHC format creates more of a value chase with the eventual finalists trying to make the most of $212 in imaginary money.

Every player must make a $2 win-place bet on a horse in each of 18 races Friday, including eight that are declared mandatory. The same thing happens Saturday. Those bets are graded using track odds.

The players who have the top 10 percent of the mythical bankrolls then qualify for the semifinals Sunday morning, when they must make 10 more $2 win-place bets on races of their choosing.

After that, the top 10 players are seated on a big stage for the finals Sunday afternoon, when they make their picks on seven mandatory races that will determine the winner of the $800,000 first prize.

It is a grind that every player handles differently, especially when it comes to where and when to study and bet and, yes, shmooze.

“I’m very sympathetic to those who don’t want to spend a lot of time in the ballroom if you’re truly in it to win it,” Fornatale said. “I understand why poker players at the table have the headphones on. You want to create your own vibe and your own environment.”

“I know I’m not going to be outworked,” Grubbs said. “I’m going to lock myself in my room at Treasure Island at 7 o’clock on Thursday night, and I’m not going to come out of there until the next morning.”

That is the loneliest part of the weekend. Otherwise it is like an annual convention full of faces familiar to one another, and a renewal of old friendships – and rivalries. In other words, there comes a point when even the handicapping hermits must emerge from their hotel rooms.

“If you’re there for the experience, there’s no two ways about it,” Fornatale said. “Spend as much time in the ballroom as possible.”

And for the superstitious among the competitors?

“Knowing horseplayers,” Fornatale said, “if they start to do well in one seat they’re going to want to sit there the whole time.”

Racing notes and opinions

Already the winner of one Kentucky Derby points prep, Knicks Go (5-2) is the morning-line favorite to do it again, this time in the $250,000 Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at 5:25 p.m. EST Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. The winner of the Breeders’ Futurity last fall at Keeneland, Knicks Go is also 40-1 in Derby futures at William Hill and figures to be among at least four horses bringing early speed in the 8½-furlong race. Five Star General (4-1), the gelding Well Defined (8-1) and Going For Gold (20-1) also figure to want the lead. Todd Pletcher-trained So Alive (5-1), a colt that is 2-for-2 on fast tracks, figures to chase the pace as he did winning an allowance at Tampa Bay last month. Godolphin has two horses in the race – mid-pack New York runner Kentucky Wildcat (9-2) and maiden winner Cave Run (6-1). Sired by Tapit out of a Ghostzapper mare, trained by Tom Albertrani and ridden by Joe Bravo, Kentucky Wildcat is the pick here. At 125-1, he may also be worth a play in William Hill’s Derby futures. My tickets Saturday will also include $460,000 West Point Thoroughbreds colt Still Dreaming (15-1), So Alive and Five Star General.

Two Bob Baffert trainees – Game Winner (6-1) and Improbable (8-1) – are the top individual choices on the morning line for this weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager. The 23 horses in this second pari-mutuel pool also include Instagrand (10-1), the Jerry Hollendorfer colt that still does not have a next race set, and Hidden Scroll (12-1), Bill Mott’s flashy colt that by 14 lengths in the slop two weeks ago when he made his debut on Pegasus day. The “all others” choice of any 3-year-old other than the 23 listed is the 5-2 morning-line favorite. The KDFW pool opens at noon EST Friday and closes at 6 p.m. EST Sunday. Full details are at the Kentucky Derby website.

The Saratoga summer will begin a week early after the New York State Gaming Commission approved new dates for the coming New York Racing Association year. There will still be 40 days of races, but they will be spread over seven weeks from July 11 to Sept. 2. Instead of a six-day week with Mondays off, Saratoga cards will run Wednesday-Sunday with Mondays and Tuesdays off. NYRA said this was to give builders more time to dig into the building project at Belmont Park, which will include a new arena for hockey’s New York Islanders. But the guess here is that once everything is built on Long Island, the new calendar at Saratoga will not be changed.

Darren Weir, one of Australia’s best-known trainers, was suspended from racing for four years after federal police say they found buzzers in a raid last month on his stables near Melbourne. Weir, 48, was arrested and charged with having the four illegal shock devices, which are used by jockeys to jolt horses. Weir did not dispute the charges, allowing racing officials to hand down the suspension quickly at a Wednesday hearing. He still faces possible criminal charges. Some owners have already transferred their horses from Weir, who had more than 600 in his care before the arrest. He is best known for saddling Prince Of Penzance’s Melbourne Cup victory in 2015, when Michelle Payne became the first woman to ride a winner in the now 158-year history of the race.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. It will also appear Saturday and Sunday during this weekend’s National Horseplayers Championship. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition centers on the NHC. Horseplaying author Peter Thomas Fornatale talks about the types of strategies likely to be used during the competition. Bookmaking legend Roxy Roxborough discusses Kentucky Derby futures and the impact of legal sports betting on horse racing’s future. There is a preview of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby prep – the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs – and the feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse starting with “N.” The RFRP is also available at providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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