LAS VEGAS, Jan. 30, 2008—In the aftermath of America’s two largest handicapping tournaments, the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association- sponsored National Handicapping Championship, and the Horseplayer World Series presented by the Coast Casinos group, this is the word that best describes my feelings on the subject: Conflicted.

I don’t believe that my wounds are self inflicted. What I see is a disconnect between the game’s practitioners – the best of whom were battling for a lot of money and prestige last weekend in Las Vegas – and those observing the action from beyond the fringe of the contest area. It’s as if the handicapping community was split right down the middle.
I’ve been around plenty of pressure-packed gambling action. From the trainer expected to win a million-dollar race with the favorite, to the would-be buyer of a seven figure yearling, to the whale who routinely bets a significant percentage of my annual income in the course of one afternoon, to licking the wounds from my own self-inflicted opinions.

A handicapping tournament is a little different, and it’s not because there’s a potential life-changing score at stake. Well, maybe a little. But, the fact is there’s no greater pressure than the kind a top handicapper puts on himself. Combining positive expectations with an exceedingly laborious exercise is enough to raise crazy to a whole new level. Analyzing seven tracks daily for two or three consecutive days is nothing less than mind-numbing.

The best handicappers always play to their strengths, whether it is turf routes or dirt sprints, allowance horses or maidens. The game’s big enough for everyone. You can find the answer in a speed or pace figure, a tough trip or suitable pedigree, a bad post position or fast workout. All the elements are there. But no matter how smart you are, or think you are, sometimes the hardest thing to remember is that you can’t be right for the wrong reason. Like Zito might say, right is right.

So, finally, after all the pre-game, players are set to begin. The juggling of different races from different tracks and the irregular post times created by the occasional gate malfunction or obstreperous run-off can be very confusing, rendering focus nearly impossible. And last minute odds fluctuations negatively impact the decision-making process, especially when the goal is to accumulate the most money.

Sharp focus? Fuhgedaboudit!

Of course, racetracks could easily address this serious, everyday problem by throwing money at it, bringing wagering code up to twenty-first century standards. The only thing preventing horse players from betting in real time now are the dollars tracks don’t spend in their own self interest. That’s the gambling business; governed by the criminally myopic.

Finally, there’s tournament wagering strategy. In the HWS, last year’s winner accumulated mythical earnings of $2,929 by making 11 $20 win-place wagers, by rule.

Thus, players we spoke with were shooting for $3,000. In the NHC, contestants must make 15 $2 win-place bets on eight mandatory and seven optional races. Handicapper of the Year Richard Goodall’s horses earned a record $272.30, or 31.60 more than the previous highest total in the event’s nine-year history.

“You can’t worry about striking out,” said resident handicapper and NHC qualifier, Cary Fotias. “Pete Ross doesn’t win handicapping contests. Mickey Mantle does.” Or, if you prefer, and in keeping with the weekend theme, it’s not Unitas to Berry. It’s Montana to Rice, Brady to Moss.

Good handicapping doesn’t guarantee victory, of course, but perfect handicapping and sound strategy does. After hitting the first mandatory wager of the day at 8-1, the eventual winner sat near the lead and watched his 276 rivals fire their bullets. His first optional play, producing a 23-1 winner, didn’t come until the 9th at Fair Grounds. Then, with two contest races remaining, he took 7-5 on the winner of the finale at Golden Gate. The 11th at Santa Anita would not stand between Goodall and a half-million dollars.

To my point, the only responses we’ve seen, relative to the one weekend in 52 when a horseplayer can be king, were negative, which was a little disconcerting. Nary a “wow” or “nice goin’” in the bunch. Coming from loyal friends of the sport, it was a slight to almost anyone who ever placed a bet.

Are horseplayers unworthy of a day in the sun? It’s not as if Goodall or HWS winner, Ken Hopkins, pushed a button on a VLT ding-ding. Actual thinking and figuring and strategizing were involved. The reward for being right is a huge part of what makes this engaging, participatory pastime into something Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud calls “the greatest game played outdoors”.

The atmosphere in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans and the Race and Sports Book at the Red Rock would be described best as laid back intensity. You could feel it even as the handicappers, all of whom had either earned their way in or placed significant wagers on themselves via a sizeable entrance fee, pored over their data.

But when the handicappers got up between wagers to stretch their legs and visit with relatives and friends gathered around the venues, the karma changed. It was as if everyone exhaled at once. The contest area was transformed into a warm and fuzzy place. You wouldn’t know there was a competition going on.

When they met, the 960 horse players acted as if they had nothing to prove to each other, because they didn’t, unusual for such an ego-driven pursuit. Each player there survived and advanced to the final round, only for the process to begin all over again. And there’s nothing like the fresh scent of a new set of past performances and the infinite possibilities contained therein.

The horseplayers that had the passion to try, the skill sets to achieve, and the character to work the program, can take pride in knowing they make this whole merry-go-round spin. Certainly, they have nothing to apologize for and, in fact, should be held in some esteem by not only a grateful industry but by the sport’s fans. Unless you believe that people just come for the show, and enjoy the pomp despite the circumstances, not because of it.