LAS VEGAS--The granddaddy of them all is only in its 19th year. Then again, handicapping contests for horseplayers have mushroomed in a lightning-fast way that is the envy of the whole racing industry.
Consider how the National Horseplayers Championship has grown here in Las Vegas. With more than 700 entries and nearly $3 million in prize money, it is now too big to be contained in just one massive ballroom at Treasure Island. The NHC has really come a long way from its modest start in 2000 at the MGM Grand.
“We had 140 people,” said chief operating officer Keith Chamblin of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which runs the contest. “We did it right there in the book. Almost from that moment on we knew we had something special.”
Designed to crown the nation’s best horseplayer – complete with an Eclipse Award – the NHC has become what Chamblin calls it the U.S. open of handicapping. It is such a tough contest that there has never been a repeat winner.
“It’s really hard,” said Ray Arsenault, 65, the defending champion from Canada who is a middleman in the business of shipping freight. “You are going against 700 of the best handicappers out there. They all got there by being good one day or many days. The stars have to align. The horses have to run for you.”
What sets the NHC apart is that there is no buy-in. The more than 570 handicappers – some like Arsenault earned two entries apiece – had to qualify by winning events over the past year either at racetracks around the country or in on-line competitions.
“My goal was definitely to go to Las Vegas,” said Kyle King, 30, a math teacher who went heavy on analytics to win a live-money tournament last summer at Hawthorne near Chicago. “I had a goal of how many dollars I thought I needed at the end of the tournament. I happened to meet my goal on the second day.”
The NHC is a grind. It calls for each entrant to make mythical $2 win and $2 place wagers on 18 races Friday and 18 more Saturday, including eight mandatory races each day. The top 10 percent then qualify for Sunday morning’s semifinals, in which each player handicaps 10 races of his or her choosing. From there the top 10 finalists compete Sunday afternoon using seven pre-selected races for the $800,000 first prize.
“It really is a marathon, and there are a lot of tired people at the end of this event,” Chamblin said. “We hear time and time again how grueling it is to look at eight different racetracks every day. Those who do very well here typically look at almost every race and look for that diamond in the rough that perhaps no one can find.”
What becomes obvious over the three days is that there is no single secret to success. For every player here at the NHC, there is a different method to the handicapping madness. For King it is thousands of metrics that he pushes through a statistical prism.
“A lot of horse racing is understanding the math of it,” he said. “Slowly over the last six years I have written some proprietary coding to help me predict horse racing – 30,000-plus lines of code that I was just doing as a side hobby. It’s certainly not perfect yet, and I’m not sure it ever will be. But I’m working to make it a little better.”
For last year’s winner it is old school – to a point.
“I just came to the coffee shop where I do all my handicapping,” said Arsenault, who winters in south Florida and summers near Toronto. “I print out the past performances (3-4 days in advance) and do my day’s work. I also use Post Time Solution software packages Black Magic and ValueCapper. But I go through the sheets and pick the horses and look at the software and see if it agrees.”
If it all sounds intimidating to the average horseplayer, Chamblin gets it. That is why he said the NTRA is working on what might be called a way to handicap the handicappers.
“We’re going to introduce a ratings system similar to golf, tennis and bowling,” Chamblin said. “So you won’t be playing against Ray Arsenault. You’ll be playing against others like you who are maybe novices. Hopefully that’ll break down the intimidation barriers.”
And if that does not entice a gambler to test the waters of playing the horses, how about betting on the bettors? Treasure Island has posted odds for each contestant to win the NHC. Two-time runner-up Roger Cettina (20-1) is the favorite followed by 2014 winner José Árias (25-1), four-time finalist Duke Matties (30-1) and 10-year qualifiers Mark Richards (30-1) and William Shurman (30-1). With a nod to the historic failure of champions to repeat, Arsenault is 75-1.
“I feel good,” Arsenault said. “I’ve got to be prepared. Vegas is a tough place for me to really concentrate, because I don’t sleep a lot there. I do get up and meet my buddy in the sports book around 4 o’clock, and we do about 4-5 hours of studying. You can’t walk in there and expect to do well without doing your homework. Unless you’re very lucky.”
Racing notes – with a few opinions added
In an effort to remove whatever may be stodgy from this column, the notes normally seen here will now include my opinion on each. Let’s see how it goes.
- Catholic Boy (8-5) is the morning-line favorite to win the Sam F. Davis Stakes, a Kentucky Derby points prep at 4:52 p.m. EST Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs. He is 30-1 in the Wynn futures to win the Derby, but I am more intrigued by Todd Pletcher’s colt Vino Rosso (3-1), a two-time winner as a 2-year-old. Owned by Mike Repole, he is by Curlin out of a Street Smart mare. Vino Rosso could be another one of those February-and-March Florida specials from the Toddster – just like Always Dreaming was last year.
- Bolt d’Oro (10-1) remains the favored individual horse for the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Never mind that. Check out the difference in prices between the KDFW and the Wynn. Enticed and Firenze Fire are each 30-1 on the morning line posted by Churchill Downs for this weekend’s betting. But here in Las Vegas they are each 75-1. Caveat punter.
- Australia’s star mare Winx will appear at the Group 2 Apollo Stakes, but she will not race in it. Say what? Because her regular jockey Hugh Bowman is serving a careless-riding suspension, Winx was scratched from her 2018 debut Saturday in the Apollo at Randwick Racecourse. But Racing New South Wales is allowing her to line up against four stable mates from trainer Chris Waller’s barn in what amounts to a glorified version of gate schooling between races. It is really just a ruse designed to extract an admission charge from a portion of the public that may be fooled into thinking it is getting its money’s worth. Let’s be frank. There is no horse down under that will threaten Winx’s 22-race winning streak even when she resumes supposedly real competition in the coming weeks. She is a great closer that can catch anything except an international flight. Let me know if Winx races at Royal Ascot in June. Then we will have something.
- The Breeders’ Cup will be expanded next fall with the addition of the $1 million Juvenile Turf Sprint. Do we really need this? I long for the days when the Breeders’ Cup was, well, one day. Sprint, Juvenile Fillies, Mile, Distaff, Juvenile, Turf, Classic. That was it. Want to throw in the Dirt Mile and the Filly & Mare Turf? Fine. Make it a nine-race card. But any more stakes that require a wordy title make the Breeders’ Cup look like the NCAA Tournament play-in games in Dayton.
- Chase is now allowing credit-card funding of advance-deposit wagering accounts. Nothing like clawing into the 21st century. ADW accounts are still verboten in Nevada, so I will take the bank’s word for it.
- Eighteen U.S. horses including West Coast and Gunnevera were among the 136 nominated to next month’s Dubai World Cup. My first thought was that the Dubai Racing Club news release said the race was still be worth $10 million. When asked last March if he would see the Pegasus World Cup’s $16 million and raise it to restore his race to be the world’s richest, Sheikh Mohammed told CNN, “Definitely we will do that. We want to be No. 1, and I am meeting with my people to be No. 1.” Yo, Mo. What happened?
- Saudi Arabia announced a $17 million event to be called the King Abdulaziz Horse Championship. We don’t know when it will be. We don’t know specifically where. We don’t know if it’s one race or more than one. We don’t know if it’s turf or dirt or open company or even if it’s for thoroughbreds or Arabians or show ponies. But slap that $17 million on there, and it becomes a shiny object. This goes to my Kate Upton Rule of Journalism. Saying that you will ask her out on a date is not news. When she says yes, then you have some news.
- Secretariat’s exercise rider Charlie Davis, 78, died Wednesday after dealing with lung cancer. He became a well-known face during the Triple Crown year of 1973 with what jockey Ron Turcotte called “a true horseman’s touch.” With Davis’s passing, Turcotte is the last survivor from the main team responsible for Secretariat’s success.
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition covers the National Horseplayers Championship. National Thoroughbred Racing Association COO Keith Chamblin and Keeneland-based racing executive/horseplayer Jim Goodman are the guests. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.