Instead of the usual raw feel of a desert winter, the more than 460 participants in this year’s National Horseplayers Championship will be greeted by searing, triple-digit temperatures and a smaller, seven-figure prize pool.
No matter. Once inside Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, they will hunker down in the typically climate-controlled environment of the sprawling Event Center, where they can watch 53 races televised from across North America on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
While shorts and T-shirts may replace jeans and long sleeves, the biggest change in this year’s NHC is not so much the six-month COVID-19 postponement as it is the size of the purse. Because the pandemic wiped out so many in-person qualifying contests — and the money that would have come with them last year — the nearly $3 million up for grabs in 2020 has been reduced to about $2.1 million.
“We lost a significant portion of the calendar year,” said chief operating officer Keith Chamblin of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which puts on the NHC. “We didn’t host (an on-track contest) from March through the rest of the year, other than a couple tracks that came back late in the year.”
That is why the first prize was reduced from $800,000 to $700,000 and the second prize from $200,000 to $150,000. The top 10% of all NHC participants will still get at least $10,000 each, but because there were fewer qualifiers, that means about 55-60 will cash in rather than last year’s 72.
“There were a lot more online qualifiers for this year,” Chamblin said. “That resulted in more money from those contests but fewer participants.”
Since it is all too clear the pandemic is not over, neither is its impact on this weekend’s contest. Masks are required for indoor gatherings at Nevada casinos, and the NHC is no exception. Social distancing will also be encouraged in a manner that might seem counterintuitive — until it is explained.
“We’ll have about twice as many tables set up than in previous years to allow players to space out and provide more social distancing,” Chamblin said. “Unless players request to sit together and have permission from everyone at the table, seating will be limited to five people at a table.”
Because of this one-time move from winter to summer, the NHC also has a new menu of racetracks. Instead of places like Aqueduct and Santa Anita, the can’t-miss meets at Travers and Del Mar will be available for the first time. So will Ellis Park, Monmouth Park and Woodbine. NHC players will also have Golden Gate Fields and Gulfstream Park on their menus as they normally do in the winter.
That does not necessarily mean that the big races at Saratoga will be declared mandatory plays for NHC competitors. That decision is left to a committee consisting of Steve Alford of Caesars Digital, former Daily Racing Form writer Noel Michaels, Jim Mulvihill of the Colorado Horsemen’s Association and Eric Wing of HorseTourneys.com.
“While it’s a blockbuster card from Saratoga with five Grade 1 races, we could potentially have some prohibitive favorites in a couple of those races that won’t make them quite as appealing from a contest player’s standpoint,” Chamblin said. “You have Essential Quality in the Travers, and Gamine could go off a heavy favorite in the Ballerina. I think the panel may select other mandatories.”
To make their choices on each race, NHC competitors will also find themselves this week in a transition to digital software designed by a Minnesota company.
“It’s been developed over the past year by Sportech,” Chamblin said. “It will result in all of the contest play occurring on 40 self-service terminals. There will also be 20 manned, pari-mutuel windows for live-money wagering only outside the contest.”
Chamblin said the plan is to eventually give players the choice of using those terminals or their personal devices to make their selections. But not this weekend.
“The goal beginning as soon as 2022 would be for you to be able to play from a mobile platform or tablet device at your table,” he said. “We think that innovation will be very popular with players.”
The new software means real-time scoring will also be shown throughout the contest on video boards in the Event Center.
What has not changed is the tournament format. Nearly all the seats were earned through NHC Tour contests held across the country in 2020; no one could buy an entry directly. The only way to get in at the 11th hour is through a last-chance tournament at Bally’s on Thursday for the final 15 spots in the main event.
Once again the average player paid about $3,500 to compete in qualifying tournaments held at racetracks that required in-person attendance — at least in the 2 1/2 months before the pandemic took hold. To qualify online, it cost about $7,500. Many horseplayers who believe there should be more of a balance may be saying “I told you so” to the NTRA.
“Among the many goals of the NHC are to promote thoroughbred racing and drive interest in pari-mutuel wagering,” the NTRA said in a statement last year. “One of the best ways for us to accomplish these goals is through the promotion of on-site contests. The price for a spot is offered at a lower cost to on-site providers to encourage them to offer contests to players, thus creating more opportunities for players to qualify for the NHC and win additional prizes.”
For the competitors, the fiscal and mental cost of getting to the NHC is just the start. Once the tournament begins Friday morning, players are given mythical bankrolls of $144 each. They must make an imaginary $2 win-place wager on a single horse in each of 18 races Friday, including eight mandatory selections made by tournament organizers. The process repeats itself Saturday.
Win-place payouts posted by the tracks are what determine the scores. To avoid a fluky long shot from swaying the entire tournament in the blink of an eye, payoffs are capped at 20-1 ($42) to win and 10-1 ($22) to place.
Once the bankrolls are computed after Saturday, the top 10% carry their totals into the semifinals Sunday morning, when those survivors may choose 10 races on their own. Then the top 10 remaining from that group compete at the final table Sunday afternoon with seven mandatory races chosen for them. The bankrolls are not reset at any point, so building a lead is important.
The difficulty of the NHC is borne out by the fact that there has never been a two-time winner. Defending champion Thomas Goldsmith qualified to come back this year, nearly 1 1/2 years removed from his victory in the last month before COVID-19 took over everyone’s life. Seven other former winners — Scott Coles (2019), Ray Arsenault (2017), José Árias (2014), Michael Beychok (2012), Steve Wolfson (2003), Judy Wagner (2001) and inaugural winner Steven Walker (2000) — also made it.
The eventual winner will not only earn the Eclipse Award as the top horseplayer in North America but will also qualify for the 2022 NHC. It is a quick turnaround for that event, which will be held Jan. 28-30, a more familiar time for the contest. Bally’s will be the host again next year for the third year in a row and the eighth time overall.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode will originate from the National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas. A panel of competing handicappers will discuss the tournament postponed by COVID-19. “Saratoga Live’s” Maggie Wolfendale Morley will preview Saturday’s $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo will handicap weekend races at Saratoga and Del Mar. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.