National Handicapping Championship Kicks Off Friday; 675 Entered & $2.9 Mil. Purse

By Jim Mulvihill/Brisnet Betting Guide

More than 550 swashbuckling handicappers will scour their past performances for riches rumored to be worth $2.9 million at the 2019 National Horseplayers Championship, kicking off Friday at Treasure Island Las Vegas. More than 100 players qualified twice, the maximum allowed, so the winner of the $800,000 grand prize will have to assemble the best of about 700 entries.

MULVIHILL: NHC Q&A with Steven Shaffer

The 20th NHC – organized by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and presented by Racetrack Television Network, STATS Race Lens, and Treasure Island (“TI” as the locals call it) – also determines who will earn a 2019 Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year.

There are no buy-ins at the three-day NHC. Every player earned their way in through the scores of handicapping contests hosted at racetracks, OTBs or online that make up the “NHC Tour.”

There are no buy-ins at the three-day NHC. Every player earned their way in through the scores of handicapping contests hosted at racetracks, OTBs or online that make up the “NHC Tour.”

There have been no repeat winners of the NHC

There have been no repeat winners of the NHC, yet time has proven that the cream does rise to the top at the most prestigious contests. Recent winners have been veteran contest players who either bet on horses professionally or have made handicapping their life’s pursuit. Among those returning this year are Chris Littlemore (2018), Ray Arsenault (2017), Paul Matties Jr. (2016), and Jim Benes (2013). 

JAY: The Super Bowl of Horse Betting is the NHC

Several entrants will play for six-figure bonuses they became eligible for by winning other prestigious qualifying contests, including a $3 million bonus for Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge winner Chuck Grubbs. All Grubbs has to do is wheel back to win the world’s most prestigious “mythical bankroll” handicapping contest three months after winning the biggest “live bankroll” contest.

The 2018 NHC Tour winner Dave Gutfreund is eligible for a $1 million bonus.

The 2018 NHC Tour winner Dave Gutfreund is eligible for a $1 million bonus. The longtime pro gambler known for many years as “The Maven” has been an outspoken critic of handicapping contests and only pursued the Tour after a series of on-track contest triumphs in the second half of the year unintentionally thrust him into contention.

“There are so many things that had to go right for me to win those tournaments,” Gutfreund said. “I was really taking it one tournament, one day at a time, focusing on what I could focus on in the moment as opposed to looking at it as a big picture.”

“I know how difficult it is to win,” he said of this weekend’s championship. “But I’ve had two top 10s, I’ve had four top 20s. It’s difficult but it’s not impossible. And I’d love to be back there on Day 3 just swinging for the fences and giving it a run.”

The NHC Field Format

The NHC field will be reduced to the top 10 percent of players after the first two days. The highest 10 cumulative scores after the Semifinal round will fill out the Final Table. Bankrolls amassed during Day 1, Day 2 and the Semifinal round will roll over to the Final Table, with the 10 finalists settling the NHC score in seven “mandatory” assigned races.

The tournament format for the NHC is meant to be the best possible test of overall handicapping ability. Players attempt to earn the highest possible bankroll based on mythical $2 Win-and-Place wagers in assigned “mandatory” races – eight per day on Day 1 and Day 2 and seven at the Final Table – as well as 30 optional races – 10 per day on Day 1 and Day 2 and 10 for the Semifinal Round – chosen by the player from eight eligible tracks. 

All players making the cut after Day 2 earn a check from the prize pool, while the rest compete in a separate Consolation tournament.

Between its prize money and an Eclipse Award, the NHC represents the pinnacle of achievement in the booming world of handicapping contests. The inaugural NHC in 2001 featured 203 players and a grand prize of $100,000 before industry-sanctioned online contests even existed. Now the serious players can compete in online contests nearly every day of the year and travel a circuit of big-money on-track contests tied to major racing events like the Pegasus, Kentucky Derby, and Breeders’ Cup, and the most popular meets like Del Mar, Saratoga, and Keeneland.

The NHC serves as a handle-boosting promotion for racetracks and ADWs and serves the industry by supporting the NTRA and its initiatives, including government lobbying and safety initiatives.

Find more information on track with the BRISnet Simulcast and Live Racing Betting Guides!

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