Betting Strategy: Free Roll for a Seat at the NHC

May 13th, 2023

The second of five free online qualifiers for the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) is set for this Sunday, May 14. The top three finishers in the contest will earn automatic berths to the 25th Annual NHC, which is slated to be held at the Horseshoe Las Vegas next March 15-17, 2024.

With the goal of winning a seat in Vegas and vie for the nearly $1 million top prize...

Let’s talk tournament strategy.

Getting Started

First, prior to the event, you need to be a 2023 NHC Tour member to be eligible to win a qualifying spot in the NHC.

Registration for this tournament is capped at 3,000. That size field is more than ten times the number of contestants participating in a typical paid-entry contest on any given weekend.

Sunday’s free contest is a Pick & Pray format.

In the Pick & Pray type of tournament, you make your selections prior to the start of the first race; once locked in, you cannot change them. It’s a mythical $2 win & place structure, so the payouts on the first and second-place finishers are the points each contest player who picked that horse tallies up. The top three highest scores win a seat.

  • The card for this free contest totals 15 races including
  • races 5-9 at Belmont Park
  • races 6-10 at Monmouth Park
  • races 7 and 8 at Pimlico
  • races 7-9 at Gulfstream Park.

Strategies for Pick and Pray

Now that we have the lay of the land, we need to think strategically about how to approach this.

To outpick 3,000 others, not only do you need to have a big day, but you also need to pick horses that others don’t.

That seems simple but let’s drill down into this a bit.

Similar to betting Pick 5's in tournament play, you will find more value in having a winner only a few others have than having a winner that everyone has.

As you handicap and make your list of contenders, go back and ask yourself, which of these horses is the obvious tournament pick? Which one will most players choose?

Many contestants look for horses between 5-1 and 10-1 on the morning line. Horses higher than 10-1 odds, with obvious angles, will be used as well. Some of these angles include quick handicapping takes, like early speed with the hopes of wiring the field or a horse entered by higher percentage connections that also has a high morning line.

Distance, surface, trainer, or equipment changes are popular too, along with horses running back after a long layoff. What other angles can you find or cases can you make for taking big-price horses? Whatever it is, in a tournament with this many contestants, you need to get creative.

One of the challenges of a Pick & Pray tournament is that you are stuck with your picks no matter the final odds for that horse. In a live format, if you are far back from the leader, you can start bombing, strategically picking horses who give you a shot to win. In Pick & Pray, you're not only praying that your horses win but also that they offer the value you need for your situation as the scores begin to tally up.

That being said, similar to betting blindly into a Pick 5, we can’t rely on the morning-line odds to tell the entire story.

Like public handicappers (me included), morning-line oddsmakers don’t always get it right, so we need to have an opinion about the prices the horses we like will be. Tournaments aren’t about picking the most winners, but about picking the most winners at the highest prices. If a 30-1 morning line shot gets bet down to 8-1 but we needed it to pay 20-1 to have a shot to win, we are then firing blanks, not bullets. Make your own assessments of how your contenders will be bet, and build a card of top picks that will give you a chance to win if you are correct.

Talking Totals

Finally, what score should we be aiming for?

In the last free tournament on April 22, there were 2,373 entries and players needed $164.28 to be in the top 3 (the top score was $191.54). The tournament featured two winners that paid $47 total and contestants needed to have at least one of those.

There were no “cap” horses (all payouts are capped at 20-1 in win pools and 10-1 in place pools) so these scores are on the low side for a free tournament with that many players. I always aim for a final score of $180 - $200 in free tournaments, but I adjust that based on field sizes, the number of turf races, and how chalky I think the slate is in general.

Another thing to keep in mind is no matter what the morning line says, high-profile connections get bet.

If you can make a strong case for a low-percentage barn/jockey, then you can count on getting the odds you need.

Some people take a longshot no matter what in the last couple of legs just in case they need it. Some have no trouble using short prices and favorites. Some play their phone number and some play all 4s, as I did winning one of these back in 2018.

Allowing for chaos can be a legitimate strategy in free tournaments. But make sure your phone number or kids’ birthdays do not land you on a string of favorites. You’ve got to be on prices to win.