Tournament Tips for the 2012 Season

by Rich Nilsen

Before Louisiana political consultant Mark Beychok had even accepted his title and seven figure check for his NTRA Handicapper of the Year victory, many horseplayers were already plotting in their own minds how they were going to attack the tournament scene in 2012. Now that the winner of the National Handicapping Champion (NHC) earns a huge paycheck for two great days of picking the ponies, the interest in the year-long event has skyrocketed.

Here we are in June and the contest season is in full swing. There are tournaments every week and tons of opportunities. Tournament players don’t even need to leave the luxury of home to compete against the best and earn their way to the coveted Las Vegas championship. However, in doing so, players typically give up the chance to win serious money. Most of the online tournaments fail to offer much in the way of cash prizes. Instead, the carrot dangling out in front of the players is the NHC berth, valued at roughly $7,000.

Online Opportunities

NHC Tour membership is mandatory in order to earn an entry into the NHC Finals, so make sure you have paid your $50 membership dues prior to playing in any online events. An added perk of the membership fee is that NHC Tour members get to play in exclusive, online qualifying events that are free to play. These tournaments offer a total of 10 seats to the 2013 NHC.

Longtime horse racing executive Mark Midland created a tournament site in 2011 at Yours truly was one of the beta testers for this innovative contest platform. On DerbyWars contest players can chat with one another during the event. Members at DerbyWars can also “connect” with their friends via the contest interface, for example, knowing when one of their friends have registered for a contest on the site. It’s the first tournament platform to integrate social networking-type features.

“Since we started DerbyWars,” explained Midland. “One of the things that surprised us was how well newer racing fans took to the game.  Part of that speaks to the fun and interaction of DerbyWars, but part of that speaks to the fact that tournaments are fun and easy.  Since you’re not betting, you only have to pick a horse, and you can see many others picked the same horse you did.  So it’s a much easier learning curve than wagering.  That’s why we think it’s a perfect introductory game to create new horseplayers.”

DerbyWars offers numerous types of tournaments, many of which are cash games with a very low takeout, and contests are offered up to five days each week. If you haven’t tried Derby Wars, I highly recommend it.

McKay Smith, former NTRA Tournament Director, is the man behind, another great site for players looking for online opportunities. With the generous sponsorship of Ron Geary from Ellis Park, has many NHC and HPWS qualifiers throughout the year. is another favorite site of mine. This one gives players the opportunity to qualify for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC), the big money tournament where the buy-in is a steep $10,000 fee. Last year Patrick McGoey won his way into the event via a $100 contest at before parlaying that into an incredible six-figure score at Churchill Downs on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

There are several other online sites for players to choose from, including, (which is the NTRA’s site), and some of the leading online ADWs such as TwinSpires.

NHC Tour Changes

The NHC Tour continues to evolve. In 2012 there were several changes put in place. First, the season is broken up into two halves for the first time, as prizes will be awarded half way through the year based on players’ performances.

The overall NHC Tour prize money has been increased to $250,000, which includes a $50,000 payout to the top finishers in the first half of the Tour year and another $50,000 to those who perform best during the second half of the year.

Point totals within each half year segment will be based on a player’s top four scores. The NTRA is requiring that a player must earn at least one of his or her four scores at a live, non-online event. I understand the logic behind this, but it an unfair rule for players who reside in states where either pari-mutuel racing does not exist or where contests are not available. A player not earning points in a live event would be credited with a zero for the fourth score. Also, winning at an on-track event will be worth more tour points than winning an online contest.

End-of-year payouts will total $150,000, with points based on a member’s top six scores.  Again, one of those six year-end scores must come from a live, non-online tournament.

Another interesting change for 2012 is that the top 100 players at the end of the year will be guaranteed entry into the 2013 NHC Finals. Last year 12 players would have benefited if that rule existed then. This year I anticipate that number being higher.

Also new for 2012 is an automatic $5,000 bonus paid to anyone who wins more than one NHC qualifying tournament (live or online). A small handful of players accomplish that impressive feat every year, so it would be a surprise if the NTRA did not have to pay out on that – multiple times.

Tournament Advice

I have learned a lot over the past decade about how to approach an upcoming tournament. For starters, it is critical to be prepared. You need to have handicapped all the races ahead of time. Doing so, you will know how the races later in the day shape up, which would likely affect your decision making during the afternoon. Let’s say you’re in a contest with a lot of optional plays, but the last couple of races on the day are short fields at the two West Coast tracks. Obviously, you would not want to “save” a play and end up having bullets in your holster for those races.

If you are at a live event, stay focused and don’t get influenced by the talk of players in the tournament. “So and so had that one.” Or, “So and so hit a $10 trifecta in that last race.” Unless you actually know this for a fact and seen the leaderboard reflect such a result, there is no sense letting “rumors” affect your play. Stick to your gameplan, and weed out the distractions. You and your game will be better off for it.

Speaking of distractions, tournaments are fertile ground for just that. It is very easy to get distracted, especially when one is playing at a live event. You run into people you know. You’re talking to other players at your table. You’re trying to get comfortable and figure out the best view of the tv’s. Most likely you are in a different environment that you are used to when playing the races. Something as simple as getting “late changes” for today’s races is different, especially for players used to clicking a couple of buttons on their computer at home. Stay focused and anticipate the distractions that could occur…because they will.

Fully understand the format of the contest you are playing. You shouldn’t have to look up anything up in the rules during the course of the tournament. Read the rules multiple times, just in case you missed something the first time. And just because you played the contest last year, doesn’t mean the rules are the same this year.

When you understand the rules and the format, you’ll be best prepared to have a game plan going in. You should have a good idea of what it takes to win the contest. What scores have previous winners had? Knowing the scores of previous winners and qualifiers will provide you an excellent barometer of what it will take to succeed in this year’s event. Little details can mean a lot, especially in handicapping tournaments.

I suggest mapping out a schedule for the year based on your budget, life schedule, willingness to travel, and overall passion for the handicapping tournament scene. One of the many advantages of doing this is that if you are attending a contest at an unfamiliar track, you can start following that circuit in the month or two leading up to the event.

Make sure you are not at a disadvantage when it comes to information. There are many sources of great handicapping resources in this day and age, and a horseplayer trying to win a tournament cannot afford to be in the dark. For example, there are some excellent private workout services such as the National Turf Clocker’s Report. You can’t afford to be ignorant about the fact that the favorite in the 7th at Santa Anita has been training like a slug, when some of your fellow tournament contestants are fully aware of this.

Finally, play to win. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a contestant make their final play to finish somewhere “in the money.” This has become even more prevalent since the NHC Tour was started. It’s true that in some tournaments, like at, it may not matter at the end of the day if you are first or fifth. However, in most tournaments it does matter. When you have the chance to win a tournament with a lucrative grand prize, take the shot. It doesn’t come around every day.


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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.

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