Handicappers get their own tour

The two sponsoring organizations of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Thursday announced the creation of the NHC Tour, a series of qualifying tournaments that offers bonus money to players.

Starting next month and leading up to the January 2009 finale, members of the NHC Tour will earn points based on their performance in designated tournaments and the handicapper earning the most points will win $100,000. Second place will earn $50,000, with $25,000 for third, $10,000 for fourth and $5,000 for fifth. Prizes will be awarded to the top 50 point earners. In addition, the top three finishers will receive an automatic berth into the NHC finals if they have not already qualified.

If the NHC Tour winner also wins the NHC, he will earn a $2 million bonus.

"Just like in the past, the qualifiers will be open to everybody to try and earn a berth to the NHC," said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "But now the most avid tournament players will be rewarded for skill and consistency. This will help identify our sport's best handicappers but will also be an incentive for people to join the Tour and play more often."

There is an annual $125 membership fee, and registrations will start being accepted Feb. 15 at ntra.com/nhctour. Among the membership perks are enrollment in the Horseplayers' Coalition, an NTRA-sponsored lobbying group, and eligibility to participate in NTRA Advantage, the association's purchasing programs with such partners as Dodge, John Deere, Sherwin Williams, OfficeDepot, UPS and Toshiba.

Chamblin said the idea for a Tour started a year ago during the NHC at Bally's.

"We talked about ways to grow participation throughout the year, and one thing that kept coming up was to establish a tour like they do in other sports and poker," he said. "It picked up steam over the summer, and then with meetings with marketing executives at the Breeders' Cup and at the Racing Symposium. We also received a lot of feedback from literally hundreds of tournament players in a focus group in October and in an online discussion group.

Chamblin gave credit to the veterean tournament player Mel Moser for helping solicit feedback from other players.

Chamblin said the Tour concept may be expanded in future years.

"What we'll see, maybe not in this first phase, will be tournaments that are more similar in nature to smaller buy-in tournaments like they do in poker," he said. "We're also discussing things like a rookies' bracket for first-year players to compete amongst themselves instead of against more seasoned veterans, and perhaps officially sanctioned tournaments limited to Tour players only."

This year's National Handicapping Championship – the ninth – will be held Jan. 25-26 at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. The purse is $1 million and first prize is $500,000.