By Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the NTRA
This is a big week for some of racing's most devoted followers. On Friday
and Saturday, some 300 horse players will compete in the 11th
Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Red Rock
Resort, Casino and Spa in Las Vegas. The stakes are high and I am told the
format grueling, with players required to place mythical win and place wagers on
30 races over the course of two days.
The winner will walk away with $500,000 and be honored at next year's
Eclipse Awards as the National Handicapping Champion. Defending champ John
Conte, the pride of Brooklyn who energized the audience with his hilarious
acceptance speech at last week's Eclipse Awards, is among seven past champions
who will be on hand to compete for nearly $1,000,000 in prize money.
I'll be attending the NHC and look forward to meeting many of the
qualifiers. As the 100,000 or so tourney players who participated in 2009 know
all too well, just getting into the NHC is quite a feat. You see, you can't buy
a seat at the National Handicapping Championship, you have to earn one by
qualifying in one of more than 100 on-site and online tournaments conducted by
NTRA member organization's over the course of the year.
Today marks the beginning
of sign-ups for the 2010 NHC Tour, with feedback
from more than 3,000 customers and fans leading to several changes designed to
broaden participation among horseplayers. In addition to competing for money
and nearly 30 spots in next year's National Championship, Tour members get free
entry into five online tourneys held over the course of the year. Tour members
also qualify for industry discounts from NTRA Advantage partners, plus they
receive membership in the Horseplayers' Coalition, a grass roots organization
mobilized to support player-friendly federal legislative initiatives on Capitol
In reviewing the bios of some of this year's NHC qualifiers, I was taken by
the diverse backgrounds of the individuals descending upon the Red Rock. In
many ways, the NHC field is representative of the eclectic group of people that
visit racetracks and off-track betting facilities from coast-to-coast every day
of the year. Qualifiers consist of 27 females, including 2001 NHC winner Judy
Wagner. The youngest player is 24-year-old college student Andy Pham. The
oldest is 84-year-old Gerard Oberle, who was on hand to watch Seabiscuit win
the 1942 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs.
The field includes Hollywood screenwriter Eric Roth, who in 1994 won an
Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the movie Forrest Gump. In addition to
the usual array of professionals, this year's qualifiers include a logger, a
funeral home owner, a nuclear power plant employee (no, Homer Simpson didn't
qualify), and a pilot. Rounding out the field will, of course, be a host of
No one will have more at stake this week than New Orleans native Bryan
Wagner, who collected $100,000 for winning the 2009 NHC Tour. Bryan will
collect a $2 million bonus in addition to the $500,000 first prize if he can
win the NHC. The aforementioned Judy Wagner is Bryan's wife, and she collected
$37,500 for tying for second-place in the NHC Tour. That's an unprecedented
feat, and a win by either this weekend would cement the Wagners as the first
couple of the NHC. With New Orleans in the Super Bowl, perhaps this is the year
that the Saints -- or in this case, Bryan or Judy -- come marching home in
front of the NHC pack.
Horse players occasionally describe themselves as the neglected and long
suffering participants in Thoroughbred racing. That experience is changing.
Tracks, horsemen and even progressive state governments, wrestling with a tough
economy and expanding competition, are starting to recognize horse players as
the economic engine sustaining our business. The NHC is an outgrowth of that
changing perspective, where players are not only rewarded for picking winners
but also celebrated as champions.
Best of luck to all of the NHC qualifiers. And for those of you who have
never experienced tourney play, check out the NHC
Tour web pages on NTRA.com. As thousands of
others can attest, you may find that tourney play is yet another appealing way to
enjoy Thoroughbred racing.