With horse racing taking center stage in the gambling industry, many new players are seeing online contests but have no idea what they are or even how to begin playing. Even longtime bettors may have never tried contests, perhaps from a lack of information or popular myths surrounding them.

Each week, I will answer frequently asked questions about horseplayer contests and provide quality information so that you can feel confident about entering them.

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My first article explained where to find horse racing contests and the difference between the two formats most often used. My second article discussed the handicapping techniques that tend to produce contest victories and the importance of sticking to your own opinions, rather than someone else’s.

Before you get too deep into playing contests, it is important to know about the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) Tour and if you should join it. Though the Tour is not for everyone, it is a great way to play the races differently, meet new people, and travel to tracks that you have never been.

A guaranteed seat in the Tour is widely used as a top prize in most major contests, but joining it is not mandatory, so new players can still enter contests without paying the $50 annual membership fee. As tracks around the country slowly resume live racing, it is important to know about the NHC Tour and how it can benefit you.

The tournament room at the 2020 NHC (Credit: Mike Somich)

For those new to the contest world, the NHC itself is an annual year-end, three-day tournament where some of the best handicappers across the states gather to shoot for a piece of the $2.9 million prize pool. Other major events – such as the “Grade 1 Gamble,” the “Breeders Cup Betting Challenge,” and the “Pick Your Prize” – are nice, but contestants can simply buy their seats at those tables.

What makes the NHC so special is that each and every participant at the contest had to earn his/her way there. No matter the size of your bankroll, the NHC is the great equalizer.

Each horseplayer’s journey to the NHC is different and always seems to have a story behind it. Me, I got lucky during a live event at Del Mar that awarded NHC seats. A few races fell the way that I had envisioned and my bankroll strategy helped me end the day in second (along with a nice chunk of change in my pocket):

Mike Somich qualified by first winning a small contest that gave him a free spot in a bigger contest that offered a free NHC seat – then he won that contest, too. Earning an NHC entry is not an easy task, and many respected handicappers are shut out each year, so it is that much more rewarding if and when you get your own.

Each horseplayer treats the NHC differently. I was a Tour rookie in 2019, so once I qualified for the NHC, I told myself that I would treat it as my reward for a hard-working year. Throughout the weekend, the NHC did a fantastic job making us all feel special for playing in the contest.

My first article talked about the horseplayer community having a family-like atmosphere where we support each other and cheer when fellow horseplayers cash big tickets, and the NHC was no different. I spent the three-day weekend at Bally’s reconnecting with familiar faces and meeting legendary contest players that I had followed closely all year.

Taking a shot at $2.9 million in cash prizes while gathering with some of the more respected handicappers in one room, not to mention spending three days in Las Vegas, all sounds great, but how can you get there? This is where the Tour comes into play.

A view of the 2015 NHC Tournament (Credit: HorsePhotos.com)

The Tour has a year-long leaderboard that supplements your journey to the NHC while awarding prizes along the way. The $50 annual Tour fee needs to be covered BEFORE you can qualify for the NHC, so make sure that you pay before you play in the contest, or else any NHC entry you might have won goes to the next Tour member in the standings. This is the same rule no matter what contest you enter.

The decisions to join and when are personal decisions for you to make. For me, it was a simple decision. As a member of the Tour, the contests that award at least two NHC entries also give out points based on the finishing position, as well as participation points. The player with the most Tour points at the end of the season is crowned that year’s champion.

Tour points are also essential to those who have not yet qualified for the NHC because each year, the top 50 players who did not earn a berth are granted a seat. The next NHC will have 75 players because the current pandemic forced several contests to shutter, so if you need any more incentive to join the Tour and give contest playing a shot, there you go!

Paul Matties after winning the 2016 NHC (Credit: HorsePhotos.com)

Feel free to let me know what questions you want answered in future articles over the coming weeks, and remember: There is only one way to ensure you will not do well in contests, and that is to not try.

Sean Alvarez is a regular on the horseplayer tournament circuit. Follow him on Twitter @smoothturn2.