A First Timer’s Look at the NHC

Craig Spencer former jockey

By Craig Spencer

On January 27-29th I was lucky enough to be a guest at the Treasure Island Casino to participate in the 18th National Handicapping Championship.  I have not played a lot of tournaments and was lucky to win a seat on New Years’ Eve off of a qualifier on nhcqualify.com.  So my buddy and I headed to Vegas in hopes of coming home $800,000 richer.

It’s quite an event with so many like-minded handicappers enjoying spending time in an environment that caters to the horseplayer like none other.  We are the target audience that week and no stone is left unturned.  The NTRA does a top class job in organizing this event.  The accommodations, buffets, and dinners are top notch.  I will be back and I will be better prepared.  Now onto the events in the contest.

I had spent the couple of weeks prior to the NHC going over every first time starter to have made their debut since early December at all of the available tracks (eight in total).  I would make “trip notes” on ones that I thought ran better or worse than their running line might indicate.  If their race seemed like the running line would represent their abilities well, then I didn’t bother.

I had made around 90 notes on these horses and had gone back to see how any that might have made their next start had performed to see if my eye was good at identifying value.  I was quite pleased with the results.  Twenty-two had made their second start, four of them with “negative” trip notes, meaning that the performance wasn’t as good as the running line might suggest.  Examples included  “appeared to close well but the pace was extreme upfront and they finished the last quarter in near 27 seconds and this horse had everything go his way getting up the rail and still wasn’t good enough to finish better than a well-beaten third.”  All four of those horses had been reasonably well backed and all finished fourth or worse.

I had five runners that I thought ran deceptively well that didn’t perform that good in their next start.  I had three that ran well but ran into trouble in their second start to finish worse than second but none of them were beaten over three lengths in their second start.  It provided me some confidence that my notes were of some value.  I had four that finished second at good to great odds and six that came back to win paying $90, $66, $38, $24, $14, and $12, so I could see that I had a potential advantage.

I will say two things about these trip notes. First, I see very little value in watching a very experienced horse’s last race looking for trip problems.  I don’t weigh my decision on one race and will toss a race with any indication that it was abnormally poor.  I don’t need to watch the race to see it and one race will not have an effect to my opinion of an animal significantly.

Also I think people who do a lot of replay watching might get to be very good at it, but mostly they are looking for excuses and forget about other items in a race.  An example would be watching a replay and noticing a horse has nowhere to run down the lane so the jockey takes hold and gallops them to the finish line.  They forget that the horse had a perfect ground saving trip up until they ran into a wall of horses.  It is much more likely that the trainer will give instructions to go wide to avoid trouble next start and most of the time that ground loss will make it so they have too much to do and cost them even more energy to be lost than the lack of room did in their prior race.  However, for second time starters a lot can be learned from how they perform in their first start.

Second, after watching a ton of races over a few weeks I worried that I might be getting too forgiving, looking for reasons to like a horse.  I would suggest you spend less than 30 minutes before taking a break, clearing your head, doing something different so you can start again fresh watching the rest.

After entries came out for the weekend and they trickled in, which was painful, I pulled a list of all second time starters and looked at when they made their debut.  If it was outside of the window of time I had watched the replays or at a different track, I went back and watched those horses and made another 25 notes on these horses.  I also had run my data through my tools for the entire first day and had handicapped every race with a main and alternate selection before I left home.  We didn’t know until Thursday morning what the mandatory races would be on Friday and I would be traveling on Thursday so I wanted to be prepared.  Mission accomplished.

Day One of the NHC

Well, my buddy and I stayed out a little later than we should have on Thursday night.  I knew better and will not make the same mistake again.  But I took my list of horses and sorted them by main contenders’ morning line odds (after putting the mandatory races on top).  I had made some notes on ones I had to use and ones I wanted to watch the line on.  As the day progressed and morning line odds got obliterated, I realized as I marched down my list that many of the races had gone off that were a bit lower priority on my list and that I had passed on 3-4 winners already.

I cashed two place tickets for $9 bankroll going into my last alternate race.  In that race I had a Louisiana Bred maiden who had run a very game second in debut at Golden Gate in an open Maiden Special field.  I thought I’d get 4/1 or better on the horse but he was going off at around even money.  I told my buddy, I think I am going to change my ticket to this Yes It’s True first timer who had some decent works and whose trainer didn’t suck too badly with Firsters.  Being the devil’s advocate he is and to make sure I thought about things, he said, “Are you sure you don’t just want to cash, get a little momentum, and start tomorrow with $15 or so and change your tactics a bit?”  I thought about it and decided he may be right.  Well the Golden Gate shipper may have beaten the ambulance to the finish line, but it was a close photo with the ambulance.  The Yes It’s True first timer opened up a clear lead and held on to win and pay $131.  It would have given me the $64 maximum score (they limit the scores to 20/1 to win and 10/1 to place, or $64 as the most you can get off one selection).

Day Two of the NHC

I was dejected but vowed to at least not repeat Day One on Saturday.  I re-organized, spent a little less time at the [casino] tables and more time reviewing my selections with a lot fewer races on my list to play.  I sorted it by post times and categorized the races as “Mandatory,” “Use,” and “Watch the board.”  I played my “mandatory” and “use” races immediately (but still watched for odds and made some adjustments/cancellations on them if the odds didn’t make sense) and then knew which races were going off next.

I did quite a bit better with $129 in contest points on Day Two to get to $138, just $42.60 shy of making the cut to play on Day Three.  That one decision not to change my ticket on Friday cost me a chance to make some noise on Sunday.  I was able to use a trip note second timer that I scored a max payout in the contest on Saturday along with the correct second place horse who a Facebook buddy also had a trip note on, to cash an $880 exacta payout.  I also hit the pick 5 at Laurel for just under a grand, so it turned into a profitable weekend nonetheless.

Final Day of the NHC

I have no clue what would have happened on Sunday.  I played in the consolation contest, which the NTRA sponsors for the non-cut making players, such as myself, to play on Sunday morning.  You must play 10 races out of 36 races available before 12:30 pacific time, the same format the players making the cut play to determine who makes the final table.  I spent very little time preparing for that as there were quite a few social opportunities Saturday night and the chance of beating a field of 400+ non-advancers seemed pretty small, so my buddy and I enjoyed more of the Treasure Island that night.  Had I been in the main contest on Sunday, I would have likely spent a lot more time studying and came up with many different selections than the ones I used in the consolation contest where a couple of max horses are almost a necessity to beat that many players for one prize.  If you’re not first you’re last in that contest.  I did hit a $20 horse at Laurel making his second career start and a half sibling to $1.2M earner International Star.  I probably would have had that one in the big contest had I qualified, as there were many other positives on that horse.

Live and learn.  If you have never been to the NHC, it’s well worth the time to try and get qualified.  The experience is one that I will never forget.  I will be back and, as a second time starter, I will fare significantly better next time I am there.


  • Craig Spencer is a former jockey who competed for 12 years.

First or Second Time Out? A Good Trainer Knows the Answer

 By Art Parker

 The best horse players pay attention to trainers, at least to a small degree. Some players look beyond the initial statistics and general information. Some, like me, try to keep up with a great deal of information looking for an edge.

If you sit around the table with your buddies at the track discussing the next race someone is going to say something like, “Yeah, and this guy does pretty good with his layoff horses,” or something along those lines. 

A response you may hear to that statement may sound like this. “That’s right, and he wins at a 14% rate with those types.” If you listen to the conversation you would first hear a broad general statement and then one validating it by a specific claim. But, is there more to it?


Good trainers that excel at certain types of races make plans to win; they don’t just fill out entry slips and hope for the best.

Let’s examine one of the frequently discussed categories of trainer performance – debut runners. Unless you are equipped with a great deal of information, and you get what can be confirmed as a true overlay, these races probably deserve a pass. I must admit that the intrigue is something that makes horse racing the great game that it is and the strong desire to figure out a tough race with several firsters (career debut runners) is something to be admired. That’s right, admired. I salute anyone who will read and study hard to figure out an impossible race as opposed to the mindless man who sits and pulls the handle of a slot machine.

It is more than knowing a certain trainer scores with debut runners more often than his competition. The questions are how and when does he do it?

Trainer Reade Baker

Trainer Reade Baker

Let’s take a very good veteran trainer like Reade Baker at Woodbine. Here is some raw data on Baker, according to my unofficial stats: In the last three years at Woodbine he has notched 189 wins and 23 of those were first time starters. At the end of the 2011 Woodbine meeting, Baker, (according to BRIS) had a win rate of 10% when he sends a rookie to the gate. Better horse players are pretty much limited with that information I have just given you, but they have an advantage over others with it. But when can we feel even more confident about betting this trainer (or others) when he has a debut runner?

The first thing is to distinguish his runners by age. Of Baker’s 23 debut wins in that time frame, 16 of them were two year olds. That’s a big piece of information because the babies are not running the first couple of months of the season and, the number of two year old races doesn’t significantly increase until August or September. Baker is an outstanding trainer, but he doesn’t set the woods on fire with firsters age three and older.

Okay, now you have Baker on your mind when the two year olds start showing up at the gate. Is this all you need? Most guys will say yes, but the answer is no.

Baker’s training pattern varies little with a debut 2 year old winner. Almost always, these victories are preceded with the last several workouts (usually the last 4-5) taking place 6 to 7 days apart with the last work coming 5 to 7 days before the race day. And, you can expect a minimum of two gate works in the last 4 to 5 workouts.

Good trainers that excel at certain types of races make plans to win; they don’t just fill out entry slips and hope for the best. A trainer like Baker will have a pretty good idea when his trainee should be ready. He gets condition books well in advance and makes a plan to run. That is one reason the days of training are important; it is all part of the plan. Good trainers do this. Bad trainers do not. 

Oh, there’s a little more. Almost half of Baker’s 2 year old debut winners were owned by the Bear Stables. And, all but a pair of the Bear Stables’ debut winners wore blinkers. The utilization of blinkers on Bear Stable runners is far more prevalent than on all other Baker horses in the same category. That tells me that the Bear Stables are expecting quick results to recover their investment in livestock, and it tells me that Baker wants to make sure those runners pay attention, and they are more likely to show early speed.   

Unfortunately, most players approach second time starters with less intensity than debut runners. Wouldn’t it make sense to know a trainer’s winning move when his horse goes to the gate a second time, especially if the horse did not win his debut outing? It makes sense to me. In fact this is a category that gets ignored a great deal by players and those that provide information. There’s plenty of winning tickets to be cashed on second timers and we need to look no further than our Canadian trainer. Baker visited the winner’s circle in the last 3 years with 19 second timers. Of Baker’s 189 wins in 3 years, 42 of those came from horses in their first or second career start.

But here is the key to Baker’s second time starters…only one was a repeat winner. If you look at Baker’s second timers you want to focus on those that lost in their debut effort. The training pattern is pretty much the same with workouts spaced 6 to 7 days apart. Almost always, Baker returns to the gate with his second timer 20 to 30 days after the initial race. Baker usually keeps his runners in the same class for their second outing. If he doesn’t win the first time out, then he evaluates the performance and starts the process to win the next time.

I’ve never met or talked to trainer Reade Baker and probably never will. I can say the same for hundreds of horsemen that I follow. If you look deeper into past performances and charts, you can start to see things that 99.9% of the players never see. Yes, it takes some time and dedication. But, it is critical for a player to gain an advantage somewhere in the handicapping game.

Keeping up with trainers at your favorite tracks will help you get an advantage, plus it makes the game a lot more fun. We have the opportunity to find and develop our skills as horse players and taking advantage of that opportunity can give you an advantage…something that poor mindless fool at the slot machine will never have.

-Art Parker is the author of “Keeneland Winning Trainer Patterns” published by All Star Press.