Contest Strategies for Betting Horse Players

Churchill Downs Racing Scene
Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. (

John Mucciolo has participated in several tournaments and has been a betting horse player long enough to provide insightful tid-bits for tournament handicapping.

Horse racing contests have grown at a rapid rate since the inception of the NHC 19 years ago, both in field size and purse structure. While I have yet to win one, I have dabbled with enough contests in the past with some decent results. Below is what I think is a sound strategy to put yourself in a good position to be in the running:

Do Your Homework

Showing up for a contest ‘in the blind’ is never a wise idea. There is simply too much to process and a bevy of decisions to be made in a short period of time to do your ‘capping on the fly’. A hearty amount of studying in the days and nights leading up to your contest is essential.

Handicapping Backwards

I am a firm believer and stress the importance of handicapping backwards. What is handicapping backwards? Well, I always study the latter races on the card before coming back to the early ones. These contests are a grind, and you could get fried nearing the end of the day. So, having the later races already broken down in advance will help with the potential brain-freeze.

Get Track Changes As Early As Possible

Another important item that can be overlooked, track changes are vital. A morning scratch, a change of surface, the turf rail being closer or further than usual – these details can change the entire complexion of a race and how you go about tackling it.

Don’t Fall in Love with The Leaderboard

Horse racing contests are the ultimate challenge, combining both handicapping prowess and astute money management. With that said, I do my best to avoid getting sucked in to what other players have accomplished, especially early in the day. Stick to your guns and instincts.

Picking Winners

Remember, a 2-1 winner is much better than an 8-1 loser. In an average contest, a 30-40 winning rate will often give you every chance at grabbing the money. So avoid swinging at a price horse that you are not confident in…unless things are getting dire late in the game!

Play to Your Strengths

I, personally, do my best work with maiden runners, starter allowance races and have also been improving my success rate on the turf. I often use the BRIS Custom Card to focus on my strong points and download just these types of events. If you do well with other kinds, then I urge you to do the same.

Recognizing Bad Favorites

I saved the most important nugget for last. Establishing vulnerable favorites is imperative for contest success. With many of these using the win/place format, this is where you can get inflated returns both in the win and place pools. I could compose an entire piece on what I think a poor betting favorite looks like, though we all have our own criteria. Make this a number one priority in your handicapping.

While there are numerous other factors in preparing and playing contests (workout reports, track variances et al), I believe that I have highlighted on a majority of the big ones.

Good luck!

– by John Mucciolo

The Super Bowl of Horse Betting is the NHC

The National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) precedes the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship (KDBC) and is the Biggest Betting Event of the Year.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby may be in full stride with 16 Derby prep races completed and the biggest races coming in March with the Championship Series. But this weekend in Las Vegas is the horse handicapper’s largest event of the year. THE “Super Bowl” of horse racing where horse players participate in the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) Feb. 9-11, before taking on the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship in May.

The NHC is the world’s richest and most prestigious handicapping tournament of the year for horseplayers. The event culminates following a year-long series of NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments conducted by racetracks, casino race books, off-track betting facilities, and horse racing handicapping websites. Each of which sends top qualifiers to the national finals in Vegas. There are no “buy-in” entries at the NHC, but getting into the field through qualifying events is a big accomplishment.

Tournament play has been the fastest growing segment in the horse racing industry. The NHC was first held in 2000 at the MGM Grand and has been held in Las Vegas every year since. And big money is played for during the NHC at the Treasure Island (TI) Hotel in Casino on the Las Vegas strip. In 2016, the NHC purse was $2.77 million with a first place prize of $800,000 going to Paul Matties. In 2017, the 18th Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship (NHC) boasted a record field of 654 entries who competed for the largest purse in horse handicapping tournament history – $2,900,600 in cash and awards. First place was again $800,000 and Canadian Roy Arsenault, a 64-year-old transportation broker, was the winner and awarded horse racing’s official title of “Horseplayer of the Year.”

I was on site at the 2017 NHC in Las Vegas, following and listening to the excitement as the ballrooms were buzzing. By Sunday, the field had been paired down to the top-10 percent of the field, and the top 66 players earned a minimum cash prize of $5,000 with 50 players earning $10,000 or more.

But in talking with horse players and other handicappers including Las Vegas-based Richard Eng, who writes and reports on horse racing for various publications and online outlets, it’s clear that tournament play is a skill set far different from playing the races daily. It requires a strategy in which the tote board is your friend. The higher the odds on a horse you like, the more likely you are to play it.

You can’t rely on $6 and $8 horses as you might in real life. You need $20 winners and up to compete with the best tournament players. Thus, playing it safe in a tournament is playing to lose. Even the best horse players and handicappers can struggle with that concept.

The 2018 NHC will be another superb success as the horse players watch their horses storm down the stretch on numerous TV’s and video screens at the Treasure Island.

“We are delighted to once again host many of the pre-eminent horseplayers, and coolest people, in the world,” said NTRA Chief Operating Officer and NHC Tournament Director Keith Chamblin. “It is only through the support of so many horseplayers and participating organizations that we are able to realize another record year of growth for the NHC – by far the single largest promotional program in Thoroughbred racing.”

A full scoreboard will be updated regularly at, where fans and players can also find each day’s contest race menu and news updates. Additional news and exclusive content will be shared on Twitter via the official NTRA account, @NTRA.

News updates also will be available throughout the contest on At the Races with Steve Byk, who will broadcast live on Sirius XM satellite radio from Treasure Island during the show’s regular hours, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. EST, beginning Friday morning.

Many of the NHC bettors will appear again during the biggest weekend in Thoroughbred Racing. The next tournament on player’s radars is the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship (KDBC) presented by TwinSpires, which encapsulates Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby days. With a real money handicapping contest that awards prizes, including the chance for seats at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge (BCBC) in the fall, the opportunity to wager big on an already pool friendly card is enticing. Find more information on the TwinSpires Tournaments website.

by FairwayJay

2017 Kentucky Derby Betting Championship Qualifier Mike Kappel Looks Forward to Competing

by Alastair Bull

Retired computer store operator Mike Kappel has been a horseplayer for 48 years, but nothing has matched the thrill of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship.

Kappel, 69, of Belleville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, earned his spot after finishing second in a qualifying tournament Feb. 19.

His prize: a $12,000 prize package guaranteeing him entry to the second Kentucky Derby Betting Championship, which otherwise would have cost him $12,000 to enter, and a competition seat at Churchill Downs for the Oaks and Derby May 5-6 if he wishes (he also has the option of competing online via

Kappel began well the day he qualified for the KDBC, but fell back a little before changing his plan and placing a winning bet at Oaklawn Park. However, he fell back prior to the last race, a maiden claiming at Santa Anita Park, where he backed favorite Hook’ Em Kurt, who he decided was very likely to win.

“I saw I could not catch the competition leader, but I could make second depending on what the others above played, so I thought Hook ‘Em Kurt was my best chance to get second.

“Hook ‘Em Kurt won (rallying from well back to win by a nose), and I was thrilled.”

Kappel said he became interested in horse racing from the time his father took him to the track. He’s taken part in tournaments for 15 years, and said his biggest moment had been finishing first to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship at Kentucky Downs’ first all-turf contest – until now.

“My biggest win is the entry to the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship,” he said. “I look forward to competing.”

The Kentucky Derby Betting Championship runs on Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby day, May 5-6. Contestants put forward $12,000, of which $8,000 is their betting bankroll and $4,000 goes into the prize pool.

The prizemoney will depend on the number of entries. If there are 75 players entered, the winner receives $140,000, the runner-up $80,000, and the third-place finisher $30,000. All three, plus the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, also receive entry to the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, which is worth $10,000.

All players get to keep their remaining bankroll at the end of the tournament.

(Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)