Equestricon’s NHC Qualifier: A Beginner’s Guide


Did you meet members of the Tournament Edge at Equestricon last week, or attend the tournament panel featuring our co-founder Michael Beychok? Are you looking for a place where you can put your newfound tournament skills to the test?

If you had a Panel Pass or a VIP Ticket, you have the perfect chance coming up on Saturday afternoon, August 26 at Horseplayers.com. At stake is a seat in the biggest tournament event of the year, the 2018 NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC). The tournament features twelve races from Saratoga, Del Mar, and Monmouth.  Check your email – if you had a Panel Pass or VIP Ticket, you should have gotten an email on Tuesday from NTRA’s Michele Ravencraft with a link to register for the contest.

If you’re new to contests, read on, and help give yourself your best chance to punch your ticket to the NHC on Saturday!

Join the NHC Tour

In order to play in an NHC qualifier, you need to be a member of the NHC Tour. Generally that is where to start each January 1st so that for any eligible tournaments you play will can awarded points depending on where you place in the tourney. However, if you’re new to the NHC, Equestricon has made this step easy for you: your Tour membership was already included in your Panel Pass or VIP Ticket.

In addition to qualifying you for the free Equestricon contest, your Tour membership makes you eligible for all other qualifier contests for the 2018 NHC. So, if the Equestricon contest stokes your interest in contest play, you’ll be all ready to keep playing in NHC qualifiers through the rest of the year.

Know Your Scoring Format

Handicapping tournaments, like wagers at the betting windows, come in different varieties. Different strategies work better for different sets of rules. The Equestricon contest, like any typical qualifier on Horseplayers.com, is a $2 mythical win/place format. For each race, you pick a horse, and your final score equals the combined win and place payouts for each of your picks through the contests, with a cap often placed on payouts to even the playing field to some degree. And just a reminder, these are mythical bets, so they don’t hurt your bankroll, but they won’t increase it either. That’s what pari-mutuel play is for, if you decide to play your contest races at the betting windows as well.

Your next step is to simply make your choice. We recommend that, in any mythical wager contest, you put all of your picks in before the contest starts, even if you change them later.

At this point, you should also put in your second choice, called the alternate. Though picking an alternate horse in each race is technically optional, it is highly recommended because if your primary horse scratches, and you have no alternate, you get the post time favorite as your contest horse. What if you think the favorite is bad chalk, even without your most preferred horse? What if some other price horse gets a sweeter setup if your top choice scratches? Setting your alternate is the way to take advantage of these contingencies if you lose your top pick.

When Are Your Picks Due?

Mythical wager contests are split into two general types based on when picks are submitted: live and pick-and-pray. The live format allows players to change their picks in each race until a minute or two before that race goes off. If you need to alter your selections mid-tournament due to a change in strategy, a late scratch, or a track bias, you can. The NHC uses a live format.

However, the Equestricon NHC qualifier is a pick-and-pray format. All selections are locked at a predetermined time a few minutes before the first contest race goes off, and they cannot be changed during the course of the day.

The tough part is, you have to craft your strategy beforehand. You have to handicap the races in advance, and anticipate any weather changes or track patterns through the day. You can’t look at the horses in the paddock or post parade, and you can’t play the board.

But, on the other hand, everyone else is playing under those constraints as well. You’re not the only one trying to guess when that rainstorm is going to blow through, or wondering whether that 6/1 morning line is going to hold on a horse you like, or grumbling when your top pick in a race is a fractious mess in the post parade. And, you do not have to worry about someone changing their pick to some random longshot at the end just because that’s the only horse that will possibly catapult them to victory.

Put On Your Thinking Cap

When playing a mythical wager contest, you also want to be aware of whether a contest you’re playing has a cap. Most do, and the Equestricon qualifier does has a 20-1 cap on win wagers, and a 10-1 cap on place wagers. This is way to both reward your finding a live longshot and help make sure players aren’t left in a hopeless position if one contestant has a 99-1 shot who wins the first contest race of the day.

What does the cap mean for your strategy? If you’re evaluating a race, and trying to decide between two or three horses likely to go off at massive odds, there’s no advantage to backing a less likely 50-1 shot over a horse you find more likely to win at 30-1. They’ll give you the same amount of contest points, anyway – so you have nothing to lose from choosing that 30-1 horse you like a little better.

Field Size Matters

Expect a field of a few hundred in the Equestricon NHC qualifier – there are about 400 people eligible to enter it. Since it was free with the pass, expect most (though perhaps not all) eligible entrants to play the contest. This is small for a free NHC qualifier – the last few open free qualifiers on Horseplayers.com have drawn in the range of 2,000 or 2,500 entries. Even so, it is a far larger field than most online contests you’ll play, and applying a large field strategy makes sense.

In short, you’re not going to beat a field this big without hitting a few longshots. You can play a lot more small-ball in shorter contest fields, but the winner of a contest with a field of several hundred players will inevitably be someone who roots out a handful of the longest prices of the day.

However, if you think a shorter priced horse is a lock in one or two of the contest races? There’s no shame in taking them if you cannot see them losing. Just a few dollars can come between winning and losing a large contest, and that $7.50 combination win-place payout could put you over the top as long as you hit some longshots in other, more wide-open races.

Trust Yourself

This can be tough if you’re a new handicapper, or a new contest player. Trying something new, particularly when it involves competing against a few hundred other smart racing fans, can be scary. But, there’s no substitute for just doing it. You can read all the tournament strategy you want – but you’re never going to get comfortable until you jump in and play some contests yourself.

Trust your handicapping, trust your opinions, and trust your gut instinct. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do, whether it’s your first tournament or your thousandth.

Good luck this Saturday!