I am flying home from the 12th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship which concluded Saturday night at the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am banging out this blog on my I-Phone while the experience is still fresh in my memory.
This year's event was a nail-biter with the championship undecided until the very last race when NHC veteran and Ellis Park racetrack owner, Ron Geary, was passed by newcomer John Doyle, who selected the winner of the very last race of the contest to move to the top of the leader board.
Turns out, John Doyle is a former IBM exec who retired just a year ago to pursue his dream of being a professional handicapper. He told me he had pictured himself standing between Steve Crist and me receiving the big, over-sized check for $500,000. John is a fascinating guy who is going to be an articulate spokesman as the reigning Handicapper of the Year and a great ambassador for horseplayers.
At the closing banquet Saturday night, we handed out checks of all sizes. Each of the top 30 finalists received part of the record $1,050,150 total purse. First and second day top point scorers also received checks. Tom Noone, winner of this year's NHC Tour, grabbed a big check for an additional $75,000. And of course, our new champion, John Doyle, took home the biggest check of all. There were lots of smiling faces all around.
We also presented Eclipse Award trophies to seven of the prior 11 winners of the NHC who happened to be in the audience, making good on our promise at the NTRA to elevate the status the Handicapper of the Year to that of our industry's most celebrated champions. Seeing all of these past champions together on the stage with genuine, copper-forged Eclipse Awards in hand brought a rousing and heartfelt standing ovation from the nearly 500 players, family and friends who attended the banquet. It was a poignant moment.
Since my arrival at the NTRA, I have grown to appreciate the NHC and the men and women who thrive on tournament play. Our game is very tough to master and as an industry we are not always good at rewarding horseplayers for their efforts. Yes, cashing tickets is in some ways its own reward but these dedicated fans deserve more. That's why we have committed to growing the NHC to $2 Million in 2012. And the players have responded enthusiastically, as have tracks, OTBs and other qualifier hosting entities outside of Thoroughbred racing. Already we have secured more qualifying tourneys in 2011 than in all of 2010.
And the NHC Tour is growing by leaps and bounds as players look for ways to secure a spot in the championship like Tom Noone did this year. And while the $75,000 tour winner purse is great, putting yourself in position to win the $2 million tour winner bonus should the Tour winner capture the NHC is even better.
If you have never entered one of our many tournaments at your local track or online, this is the year to give it a try. We are expanding the number of available spots in the 2012 NHC from 300 to 500. That means 200 more opportunities to qualify to win the $1 million grand prize.
Yes, prize money is the most obvious incentive to participate in the NHC but that's only part of the story. Something I observed time and again over the course of the past few days at the Red Rock was the remarkable camaraderie among the contestants. Yes, the competition was fierce and there was certainly tension throughout both days, but at the end of it all, there was a healthy dose of congratulatory handshakes and positive regard for fellow contestants.
I even heard from a few contestants how important it is to preserve the feeling of "family" especially among veteran contestants. That caught me by surprise. Horseplayers are too often negatively stereotyped. But watching the interactions in the Red Rock Race Book full of passionate, expert NHC contestants and hearing first-hand how much they love our game gave me new optimism for the future of our sport... and an even greater appreciation and respect for our core fans.
The NHC is just one of many ways the NTRA is reaching out to fans of horse racing - both core and casual - and it’s one that is clearly working right now. Look for us to continue growing this event and with it the stature and report of horseplayers.
Tell what you think about the NHC. Will you join the NHC Tour and enter a tourney this year? Does the $1 million first prize make it more interesting?