My Favorite Type of Handicapping Tournament

By Ross Gallo

Las Vegas sportsbook contestA few months ago, I wrote an article in this space extolling the virtues and camaraderie of handicapping tournaments.  I truly believe that most horse players from expert to novice would find enjoyment in playing in a tournament online, or even better, attending a tournament at one of the numerous venues around the country.  While I enjoy tournaments of all types and formats, I obviously have my favorites (and others not so much) and reasons why, so I’ll try to convey my thoughts to you as best I can in the ensuing paragraphs.

After recently competing in the NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship for the 9th time, and coming home empty handed for the 7th time, I would say that anyone interested in playing handicapping tournaments should try to get there at least once.  The tournament is the biggest one we have and the only one that the player MUST qualify for during the year.  It is a wonderful experience in Vegas, but extremely difficult to win.  I’ve often said to many of my fellow, veteran players, “If we were all immortal and each played in the NHC every year for 100 years, you MIGHT have a repeat winner or two at the very most.”  Of course I’ll never be able to prove that theory, but you get the idea.

I would wish for every player to enjoy being at the NHC as many times as possible, but it is a tough tournament.  The hypotheticals, tournaments that keep track of mythical win dollars or win and place, can often times turn into dart throwing contests at longshots.  When you have 500 players in a room and they hang up a $50 horse that 40 people have (and you’re not one of them), your mindset changes, and depending on the timing, your mindset may HAVE to change.  This is the format of the NHC and many other online and live tournaments.  Please don’t get me wrong, I am not against these tournaments.  I’ve won plenty of them, and plenty of money along the way.  They’re fairly simple to play for the most part too, but as far as my personal preference goes, they are not my favorites.

The NHC Tour isn’t a tournament per se, but it encompasses every NHC qualifying tournament of any kind, and players accumulate points for high finishes along the way.  I feel it is a much better barometer of who the best player is in any given year than the two day NHC.  I was lucky enough to finish second during the inaugural year of the NHC Tour and I would encourage anyone with the time and means to pursue the dollars the Tour has to offer.  You need to be versatile because any and all formats are in play.  The only problem with pursuing the Tour is that it can get VERY expensive if you’re in the hunt for the top prizes.  You feel compelled to travel around chasing points, and with airfare, hotels, cars, entry fees etc, there aren’t that many players out there with the time and the money necessary to be able to compete for the top.

And this brings me to another key point.  I will not point fingers at anyone, but I will caution you to be aware of the lack of value at some tournaments out there, live and online.  Getting to the NHC or doing well on the Tour are great accomplishments, but there are tournaments now that give away just spots and no prize money.  I find it very hard to rationalize putting up money with no chance at a return even if I win the tournament.  Other tournaments are keeping an extremely high percentage of the entry fees.  My advice is to play freely, but depending on your priorities, tread lightly when value is not there.

I understand why some of these tournaments are keeping so much of our money.  NTRA qualifying spots are expensive and they feel they need to pass that expense onto the players.  The landscape has changed over the last decade.  It used to be that if you got 200 players to your venue to play a tournament, they would pound handle through the windows and the venue would make money.  Now with rebates everywhere, most players are on the phone or online making their wagers.  The handle isn’t there, so if you have a mythical event with three spots given away, you’re stuck between $10-16,000 before you start.  So who pays?  We do of course.

My favorite tournaments by far are “real money” events.  They almost universally give back 100% of any entry fees and you get to keep any accumulated bankroll as well.  In addition, this type of tournaments generate handle for the host venue, because your tournament wagers are live money and going into the mutuel pools.  If the format is well thought out, this handle can make the tournament at least a break even for the host and many times even turn a profit.  The benefits of real-money tournaments are felt by the players and the venue.  My reasons for loving real-money tournaments go beyond being beneficial for everyone involved, which is fantastic by the way.  What attracts me is that you are much more in control of your fate in these tournaments.  Generally, you can play everything within the races, including vertical wagers.  With exactas, trifectas and sometimes superfectas involved [all of those are vertical wagers], huge paydays can be had, and the feeling that you’re never out of the tournament is not an illusion.

In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge tournament (BCBC) at Churchill Downs, I was in the hunt going into the Classic, but I was still on the outside looking in as far as qualifying for the NHC.  I really liked Flat Out and bet $3,000 to win on him.  He ran horrible, but fortunately I gave both Drosselmeyer and Game on Dude more than a punter’s chance.  So, as I only really liked #2,3,8; I also bet $500 to win on the 3 and the 8 at close to 20-1 odds each and a $20 exacta box 2,3,8.

I spent a few other miscellaneous dollars, but win, lose or draw I was still going home with $8,000.  A huge difference than if I was playing in a hypothetical tournament, where I would most certainly be going home with air.  Anyway, Game on Dude ran to his name as he was hounded by Uncle Mo and put him underground, and Drosselmeyer came flying home to complete my tidy exacta box.  Now my $8,000 was $22,000, I grabbed the last qualifying spot and picked up another $7,000 in prize money.  I wasn’t the grand prize winner, but the weekend sure ended up worthwhile, and some last race magic finished the deal.

Again, if I was in a mythical tournament, chances are good I would have been eliminated going into the last race of the day. Patrick McGooey the winner of the BCBC event, had just over $7,000 going into the Classic, a full $6,000 behind me.  All he did was step up and bet it all to win on Drosselmeyer, collecting a cool quarter of a million dollars, counting the winner’s check!  How’s that for real-money magic?  Oh yeah and brass cojones, to boot!

As you can see by the wagers I’ve described above, this particular real-money event is a high-end, $10,000 entry fee.  There are others such as Del Mar at $5,000 and Keeneland at $2,000, and Santa Anita at $1,000 (plus a rebuy). Those events are for the expert players with a decent bankroll.  If you are in that category I couldn’t recommend these tournaments enough.

There are some lower-end, real money tourneys out there in the $100 to $500 range, so check the schedules and make some phone calls.  Find one that’s right for you.  Again, I’m not knocking any tournament with any format.  Of course some appeal to me more than others, but if you want the best bang for your dollar and you’re not too intimidated by putting your contest dollars through the windows; try real-money tournaments.  They really are the best for you the player and the host.  Happy hunting [winners] in whatever format you choose.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.


  1. Kevin Geary says

    Great article! I have not played a live money tournament yet but will try it now that you have spoken so highly of them. I have been to the nhc championship once in 2009 and you are right, it was an unbelievable experience. You are correct that it gets expensive to try to qualify and with a wife and 3 kids time becomes a real issue. I play a few tournaments a year and hope to go back one day. Just found this site when there was an article written by Rich Nilsen in horseplayer magazine. Keep up the great work with the articles. Kevin Geary

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