The Evolution of the NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship (NHC)

NHC star and NTRA’s Players Committee member Ross Gallo takes a comprehensive look at the history of the National Handicapping Championship.

The Beginning
Once upon a time, near the end of the last century, a group of horse racing dignitaries* that included my brother Randy Gallo, Steve Crist and Mandy Minger of the DRF, and professional handicapper Dave “The Maven” Gutfreund among others, gathered in a room at The Orleans in Las Vegas.  This distinguished group would go on to lay the groundwork for what would become the National Handicapping Championship (NHC), a tournament like no other that was designed for the players.


NHC generic logo The basic idea was for racetracks and OTB facilities around the country to host handicapping tournaments that produced four qualifiers.  These tournaments would pay back 100% of all entry fees, and the qualifiers would receive an all-expenses paid trip to the NHC finals in Las Vegas to participate in one big money final tournament.  At long last, we the players, the backbone of the industry but invariably treated as the ugly step-child, had something created with just our interests in mind. This premise was very appealing to horseplayers on a financial and ego basis.  With only about 200 spots available in the early years, qualifying was quite an accomplishment, and to this day the NHC is still our only tournament that you must qualify for to play in.


That first tournament offered a top prize of $100,000, which was great, but payoffs only went down to 10th place.  This pales in comparison to where we are now (which I’ll be covering soon), but still more than decent money.  I’d like to relate a story from that inaugural event, that is an illustration of how having our own national championship immediately changed the psyche of everyone involved.  Maury Wolff is a friend of my brothers.  He is/was one of the most respected horse handicappers in this country, and has made a great living in this game.  He qualified for that first NHC, but he wasn’t a tournament player per se and the $100,000 wasn’t going to change his life.


Maury had a dismal first day, I think he had $15 or something close to that, and at dinner that night I asked him if he was disappointed.  He replied, “I can’t express to you how little I care about this tournament.”  Well, on day two, Maury had one of the best days the NHC has ever seen, and in the last race of the contest, he correctly chose the winner, a 9-1 shot if I recall correctly.  He proceeded to jump with joy like a child as the horse crossed the finish line, thinking he won the tournament.  Unfortunately (for him), Steven Walker, a great player from the Midwest, had the same horse and he would become a worthy first champion.  Maury had to settle for second, but I will never forget the unbridled display of emotion that he showed that day, something I had never seen before or since from him.  I am not telling this story to make Maury look contradictory in his words and actions, and please if you’re reading this Maury, don’t take it that way.  I’m certain he really didn’t care all that much, but when he realized he may have won the NHC?  That is an ego boost that none of us could resist.  Do you know a horseplayer without an ego?  I don’t, and guilty as charged.


The National Thoroughbred Racing Association was formed in 1998, and their goals were simple and clear and paved with good intentions.  They were going to promote racing and try to attract some new fans to our great game.  Also, they would attempt to bring some uniformity to an industry that couldn’t be more splintered, with racing jurisdictions in Kentucky, New York, Illinois, Florida and California et al, playing by their own individual rules.


Imagine football, baseball or basketball games where the rules change every night depending on where the games are played.  In any other walk of life that would be called anarchy, but we call it Thoroughbred racing.  At first the tracks were all for it, with nearly all of them signing up with the NTRA and paying their dues. It didn’t take long for everyone involved to realize that the undertaking of getting these different interests to agree on anything was akin to herding cats.  And after just a few years their “Go baby go!” slogan unfortunately got up and went.


The NHC was a noble creation, but in the early years it was more of an annoyance to the NTRA.  They had bigger fish to fry.  This is only my opinion, but I was around for most of them and I believe they felt their time was better spent on the bigger issues, not securing venues and overseeing such a large undertaking every January.  I suppose I can’t blame them for that, but fortunately that mood changed as more and more tracks began pulling out of the NTRA.  Ultimately, the NHC became top priority, and I think few would argue that the NTRA would have ceased to exist without it.


Times are changing
The landscape of the NTRA was changing, and even more so the NHC.  The practice of 100% payback to the players at qualifying tournaments was short-lived.  I for one wasn’t happy about it, but I absolutely understood the reason.  At first, if you could get 100 players or more into your building to play in a tournament, you could count on serious handle through the windows.  This would offset costs and often times the tracks or OTB’s would make money or at least break even from the one or two-day event.


Las Vegas sportsbook contest Unfortunately a perfect storm was on the horizon.  The emergence of rebate shops led to the handle at tournaments falling off precipitously.  Most players were gambling on the phone or online, and it was at this same time that online tournaments began to take hold.  The convenience of playing from home could not be ignored.  As a result attendance at the brick and mortar tournaments began to wane as well and they were now looking to make money from the players through entry fee drags to cover expenses.  It was either that or cancel their tournaments completely, which many did.  So most live tournaments weren’t paying back anything close to 100-percent of entry fees and the online tournaments were all making money.  [Editor’s Note: One of the few exceptions are the NYRA tournaments which still pay back 100% of the entry fees].   This practice angered many, including yours truly; but this country was built on free enterprise, and the growth that resulted for the NHC was immediate and substantial.


With the revenue generated by NHC Qualify and other sites, the NTRA could charge higher fees per qualifying spot.  The original purse was $200,000, the top prize $100,000 and it remained that way for the first five years.  When the internet became a major player, the increases were immediate and have continued every year since with new sites popping up out of the woodwork. This year’s NHC will have an estimated purse of over $2.6 million.  The original 200 entry field will swell to over 600!  Personal value has decreased though, and this is not up for debate.  If you play and qualify on NHC Qualify, you get the trip and entry into the tournament but no prize money.  This is bad personal value, and I for one do not participate in any tournaments that choose to take this route.


My brother drummed in my head to play value from a young age.  He has made a living playing jackpot carryovers where your dollar is worth more than a dollar.  At your dollar is worth about 70 cents.  However, there is also no denying that they are one of the main contributors to the NHC’s massive growth.  The prize money is huge now and interest is at an all time high and shows no signs of slowing down; even a cynic cannot argue that the current direction is not successful.  They built it and we have come.


I am a member of the NTRA’s Players Committee and have been since it was formed.  We are a varied group of knowledgeable horse players from all points of the compass.  We are not paid.  We rarely agree on everything, but one thing we are all in agreement on is trying to make the both NHC and this game better.  We have meetings and debate many subjects and eventually come up with a consensus, and at the end we all support the majority even if it wasn’t the idea we personally had in mind, because we believe it is for the greater good.  The NTRA always has final say, but very often they relent, if they can, to our suggestions.


Ron Rippey (Left), Mike Mayo (Right)

Ron Rippey (Left), Mike Mayo (Right)

Mike Mayo was our original chairman, and he was a wonderful leader.  He passed away in 2014 and I miss him everyday.  He left his mark all over the NHC and last year he was one of the two original inductees into the newly formed NHC Hall of Fame with former NHC Champ, the late Ron Rippey.  Chris Larmey, one of the best players in the world is our leader now, and he has continued Mike’s legacy of excellence.  The NHC has changed drastically over the last several years and one could argue that most of the changes have been for the better.


The creation of the NHC Tour has increased interest and NTRA memberships have gone up every year since it began.  The NHC itself has been expanded to three days from two, with only the top 10% surviving to play on day three, and finally the top ten entrants midway through day three, making for a seven-race dash to the wire.


Perhaps the biggest and most significant change occurred two years ago when players were allowed to qualify twice a year, a move I was very much against because it took away the level playing field the NHC had always had, one entry one person.  But again, I understood the reasoning, and it, of course, worked quite well.  In the past players that would qualify earlier in the year would oftentimes shut it down, but now with the opportunity to qualify again, they would keep playing.  Couple that with the guys chasing the Tour prizes, the monster purse in Vegas, the new players that have been brought to the game, and tournament participation stays vigorous throughout the year.


What does the future hold?
The future looks bright for the NHC.  The Daily Racing Form purchased NHC Qualify last year and they qualified a record amount of players, I’m sure you can count on more and more qualifying tournaments this coming year.  More spots equals a bigger purse for the NHC, but also bigger profits for the parties involved.  This tournament that was created FOR the players, has been built BY the players.  I am ecstatic that the NHC has grown to what it is and am excited to see where it can eventually go, but it should be renamed, The Players Championship.  The NTRA, DRF, NHC Qualify and others deserve credit for the vision they showed adapting to the times and persevering to success, but never lose sight of the fact that it is your dollars that are funding the growth.


Players Brad & Howard at the 2015 NHC

Players Brad & Howard at the 2015 NHC

The NHC is still played under hypothetical rules, which means, scores are accumulated using track payoffs, and correct picks add to the player’s score.  In recent years, real money tournaments have become popular with players and the venues.  The reasons for the venue are obvious; the players are being “forced” to put their money through the windows, the scores are actually the player’s bankroll and the venue gets the handle.  Real-money has been directly responsible for some tracks and OTB’s to get back into the tournament game.  Theses tournaments are popular with the players because they have much more control of their fates during the tournament.


In hypothetical contests, if you get behind, many times you’re stuck playing hopeless longshots.  If you bring exactas and trifectas into the mix, your options increase exponentially, and real-money tournaments are more like day-to-day wagering.  I believe real-money is the future, and in turn attracting television could bring the NHC full circle, back to a tournament for the players.


If the prize money could be provided by a sponsor and not have to be generated by the players, then you would have a tournament that the people who came up with the idea in the first place, envisioned all along.  The change to a “Final Table” of ten was designed with TV in mind.  Keith Chamblin and Michele Ravencraft of the NTRA,  are always trying to look to the future to make the NHC bigger and better.  They work very well with The Players Committee and as I said before, they take our advice and implement suggestions when they can.


Poker has been our business model.  They blew up when they began to show the players hole cards.  We started that a couple of years ago at the final table, showing everyone which horse each player selected before the race went off.  The increasing excitement was palpable in the room and a great step in the right direction.  Poker focused on their colorful characters, and we can certainly hold our own with them on that front.  One thing they do have that we don’t is a mindless game.  Take the people reading skills out of it, anybody can learn the rules.  Anyone can play pocket rockets.


Horse racing is a cerebral game, ‘a game of skill,’ as my friend Rich Nilsen is telling you everyday.  That, unfortunately is our biggest obstacle in this short attention span, instant gratification world that we live in.  Eventually, we’ll figure it out, but until then things are not so bad.  The winner received $800,000 last year!  The overall purse has increased over ten times in just 16 years.  Where else in this game have they seen growth like that?  Nowhere.


If you didn’t make it to Vegas this year, check out the live podcast.  It really is pretty good and watching it will make you try harder to get there next year, I guarantee it!

* Editor’s note: Steve Wolfson, Sr., well known horseplayer and son of Harbor View Farm owner Louis Wolfson, was also instrumental in the creation of the NHC.

8 Strategies and Tips to Help Your Bottom Line – Part II

Ross Gallo continues offering his wisdom from 30 years of handicapping with the remaining five steps from his article last week.

Don’t be afraid to use the “All” button on occasion.  Handicappers are a proud lot.  I know guys who will never press “All”.  “There’s always throwouts.”  Or, “The 5, 7 and 8 can’t win here.”  I get it, really.  You know what you’re doing, you can weed out the race and it’s a waste of money.  Well, I contend that horses win every day that you couldn’t have had with tomorrow’s paper.  And I certainly don’t think you should always use it, but sometimes there are races so hard they can’t be handicapped.  And the extra cost will repay you in the long run with just a couple of those “impossible” wrinkles.

An example: 2007 the first year the Breeders Cup went to two days, I was at Canterbury Park preparing to play in my handicapping tournament (yes I had a real-money high end BC tournament, LONG before the BCBC.  But that’s a story for another day), a few buddies and I decided to pitch in and play the late Pick 4.  I took everyone’s opinion and started writing up the play.  We agreed on two things, the first leg was impossible and we liked Corinthian in the last leg, the Dirt Mile.  I felt I was done when I noticed we had left four horses out of the first leg.  I wrote one last ticket, those four with our top three horses in both of the next two legs and Corinthian in the last.  $36 out of a total $600 play, only 6% of the play.  Impossible horse wins first leg, $60 or $80 to win I think.  Top 3 win next two, and Corinthian jogs.  The payoff: $24,000.

We’re high fiving and celebrating, another friend comes up to me, ‘How on earth did you guys come up with that first horse?!”  “All” button baby!  Can’t cash a Pick 4 if you’re not alive.”  With 50 cent Pick 3, 4 and 5’s, 10 cents supers and Pick 6’s out there, the cost of this practice, on occasion, is not as severe as one might think.  And I would point out, in a 10 cents super, you might only need one of those 80-1 shots to run third or fourth to make you a big score.

ALWAYS bet against Bridge Jumpers.  Bridge Jumpers, for those of you who might not know, are people who see what looks like a sure thing horse and bet huge amounts to show in order to grab that quick 5% return.  $100,000 to show will earn you a $5,000 profit.  This will often work, but as everyone knows there is no such thing as a sure thing.  Play everyone else to show every time in this scenario.  The risk is minimal.  In a six horse race, for example, a $5 show bet on everyone else in the race (besides the favorite) will cost $25 and you’re guaranteed $10.50 back.  In an extreme situation, if one of those horses miss, you could average $75 a show ticket.  That would get you a return of $562.50.  The payoffs aren’t always that big, but the upside far outweighs the risk.  These horses run out on occasion, and in the long run you can’t lose playing against them.   Bet $2, $5, $10, $20, or even $100.  Whatever your bankroll allows, whenever you see a horse with 95% of the Show pool or more, NEVER pass on any of these opportunities.

“My friend just burned $600 because he’s up there calling numbers out and has no clue what he has or hasn’t got. “

Try to find a rebate program.  There are so many of them out there these days.  Most of the online services, and even some tracks offer cash back.  Ask your friends what they’re doing, but definitely look around.  The more you bet, the more they’ll give you, but even a percentage point back can have a positive effect on your bottom line come year’s end.

Keep a playback/play against list.  DRF and both offer Stable Mail for free.  Easy to use, for sure, and invaluable.  You see a horse get stopped several times, come late for a sneaky fifth, you have to bet him back.  With horses changing tracks it’s easy to miss him if you don’t have an email notification service.  Conversely, I find keeping horses to play against next out just as valuable.  Odds-on favorite gets perfect trip and is all out to beat a 30-1 shot and looks terrible doing it.  Form will look good with the win, but that’s a horse that will get bet next out that I want to eliminate.  Betting against low priced horses that you’re fairly sure are throwouts?  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Wagering Tote self service machine


Write down your bets before you go to the window.  This sounds simple right?  It is, but I’d love to have a dollar for every time I’ve heard something like this:  “Hey what do you like this race?”  “I love the 6 with 1, 2, 3.”  I watch the race, it runs 621, I see my friend.  “What did you get there?” “I don’t know he says as he rifles through the tickets.”  “Oh no man I forgot to get the $20 exactas 6 over 1-2-3, I only have a stinking $1 tri.”  Exacta paid $60 but the favorite ran third and the trifecta was $150 for a dollar.  My friend just burned $600 because he’s up there calling numbers out and has no clue what he has or hasn’t got.  I always write my bets down before I go to the window or sit down to bet at the computer.  This way I know I’ll get what I want, and if the total comes out different than what I figured, I know I forgot something or messed up a part wheel ticket.  This is a very simple tip that will save you from yourself.  The game is hard enough as it is, you don’t want to leave money behind with human error.

There you have it.  A few things that have worked out well for me over the years; hope they do the same for you.  Happy hunting (winners) my friends!

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.