Monday, November 30, 2015

3 Ways to Improve the NHC Tour

I haven't been much for weighing in on the NHC Tour in this lonely outpost of cyberspace, mainly because I never qualified for the NHC in any previous year. So offering my 2c would have been like my alma mater Rutgers offering unsolicited advice to the NCAA regarding the format of March Madness.

But this year, finally, I'm in baby. So I figure that allows me to opine on what I see and offer a few constructive suggestions.

Plus, in all likelihood this will be my only blog post of 2015, so I thought I would make it count, rather than just rehashing my own personal contesting situation.

So without further ado, I recommend that the DRF/NTRA...

Add More 'Tour' to the NHC Tour

The NHC Tour which I believe has been around for 6-7 years or so was a great idea and it has boosted interest in the NHC, but it has not realized its potential.

Reserved seating for Kinchen, Moomey, and Flanders defines tour as 'a traveling around from place to place', and this is where the NHC Tour underperforms.

The tour offers seats mostly through online events, and there are also brick-and-mortar contests at 18 North American racetracks. That's not a horrible number at face value, but cross-referencing the list of thoroughbred racetracks with the NHC Tour tracks shows that the following tracks were not represented in 2015:    

Charles Town
Churchill Downs
Delaware Park
Delta Downs
Ellis Park
Emerald Downs
Evangeline Downs
Finger Lakes
Golden Gate
Hoosier Park
Indiana Downs
Louisiana Downs
Oaklawn Park
Penn National
Presque Isle
Sunland Park
Tampa Bay Downs
Turf Paradise
Turfway Park

That's at least 23 tracks absent from the NHC Tour, which exceeds the number of tracks that are on the tour.

As I understand it, the issue is money. The no-show tracks aren't NTRA member tracks, which mean they would have to pay through the nose for an NHC seat, so they say thanks but no thanks.

But there's gotta be a compromise here, in the interest of the greater good. Can't the NTRA offer a fair deal for non-member tracks to offer just 1 seat per year at a live event? Not a giveaway, but a fair deal in which both sides give some. The tracks would benefit because of the additional handle on contest days; the NHC would benefit by bringing in new players; local players benefit by having a live option; out-of-town NHC Tour members would have other tracks to possibly tour. Win-win-win-win.

From my New Jersey home base, there are about 6-7 tracks on my no-show list that are a reasonable drive away, and at least a few other tracks could be intriguing possibilities to tie in a contest as part of a general leisure trip. My pal NJHorseplayer is often up for an adventure -- heck he's flying to Lone Star this coming Saturday -- and I'm sure other players would be amenable to hitting the road to some new places in the quest for an NHC seat.        

It would be tremendous if the NHC Tour could bring 12-15 new tracks into the fold. 10 would be great. Heck, adding even a half dozen would meaningfully bolster the schedule and make the tour more of a tour.

Come on NTRA folks. I'd find it hard to believe that the benefit of expanding the bricks-and-mortar NHC Tour would be less than the costs associated with making some concessions to non-member tracks to make it happen.

Help the Middle Class

The NHC Tour deck is stacked in the favor of the biggest players.

I'd go as far as positing that the single biggest determinant of whether one qualifies for the NHC is frequency of qualifying-contest play. Handicapping ability, contest skill, and luck rank 2, 3 and 4, in my opinion.

It's even more the case when it comes to NHC Tour points. If you plan on qualifying for the NHC via finishing in the top 150, you need to play a lot of contests to be competitive. If you don't play very many contests, you really have to thread the needle in an improbable way, i.e. do very well (without qualifying directly) in a high percentage of the contests that you do play. And forget about winning prize money by finishing near the top of the points standings, as aspiring for that without being a heavy player is like bringing a 1970s-style squirt gun to a Super Soaker fight. 

But, I get it.

Hotels give free nights to regular guests. Stock exchanges rebate high-frequency traders. Credit-card companies give more rewards to the biggest spenders. I could go on.  

An enterprise should reward its best customers. 

So I'm not here to whinge about the NHC's non-level playing field. In a perfect world, the NHC Tour would rank players based more on quality of play than on quantity of play, but ours is an imperfect world, it ain't gonna happen, and I'm not gonna go there.

But, I do recommend one simple, elegant and eminently sensible tweak that would tip the NHC tour scale at least a token smidge back toward equilibrium. This would help the middle class (always an attractive cause heading into an election year), which is up against it vs. the heavies.

Here's my plan:

Add a few seats (IDK maybe 10? Five? At least three) for middle-class NHC Tour members. I define middle-class NHC Tour members as those who play at least 10, but no more than 25, non-free, point-awarding contests over the course of the year. 
A chicken, and an NHC seat, in every pot

Score by dividing the middle-class player's NHC Tour points by the number of contest entries he/she played. Simple as that.

For example, say I earn 3,000 points along the way of playing 15 contests in a given year. I would have have 200 middle-class (MC) points.

Someone else has 3,500 points over 20 contests, that's 175 MC points. Yet another player has 4,000 points over 10 events -- 400 MC points.

The top (insert # here) MC scorers at the end of the NHC Tour year go to the NHC.

Note this qualifying route would award 1st NHC seats only, i.e. if an MC player qualifies directly through a contest, he/she becomes ineligible for an MC seat.       

I gotta say, I love this idea. Seats are now awarded through 'rookie' contests which is a nice addition to the tour; in the same spirit, shouldn't there be something that helps the middle class, i.e. the folks who do NHC stuff as a casual hobby but don't play every weekend?

How about it NTRA? 

Cap the NHC

When I launched RedRockorBust dot blogspot dot com in 2009, I think the NHC had about 320 players. A few years later, it was close to 500. The 2015 version, which I believe was the first NHC that allowed two entries per player, had north of 600 entries. I was surprised at that last jump, as I thought 500 made a lot of sense as a stopping point.

I recently checked with Michele Ravencraft over at the NTRA -- she said there were 601 entries at the Jan. 2015 NHC, and about 625 entries are expected this coming January.

Look, I understand that growth of the NHC and NHC Tour is a good thing for all parties. But at the same time, when everybody plays, nobody wins. The NHC field has doubled over the past six years, and while still navigable at current levels, it's pushing the bounds of unwieldiness. Doubling it again over the next six years would result in an NHC that is more of a lottery-ticket proposition than a handicapping contest.

Is this the 2025 NHC?
I don't think anyone wants that.

My suggestion is twofold: in the short term (say for the next couple years), cap the number of entries at 650.

For the longer term, say three to five years out, articulate a vision as to what the field size will be. Is it meant to be about what it is now? Or is the plan to start ascending towards 1,000 entries? If the latter, how will it be managed so that it retains the ethos of a handicapping contest rather than 'de-evolving' into something more akin to an online free-for-all.

As I mentioned, I was taken aback by the >600 number from Jan. 2015 -- unless I missed something, I don't believe this bump was communicated in the e-mail blasts to the masses. If there are more material step-ups planned, I think it should be spelled out in advance.

Okay, that's all I got. Use it in good health.

Perhaps I'll come up with three more ideas for next year's blog post.