Some friendly advice for NHC rookies

Last year was my first time competing in the NHC. It was effectively only my second year attempting to qualify, and it took me until January to win my seat. There are many, many others with substantially more NHC experience than I have. And these days, there seems to be no shortage of info in writing and within the Podcast Universe available to NHC first-time starters. But perhaps some of you will find a tidbit or two in these paragraphs that will help you in Vegas.

First, for reference purposes only and not in any way an attempt to brag about how incredibly awesome I did last year, I managed to make it to Day 3 and ultimately earned a 47th place finish. I’m not saying that’s an incredible showing in my first NHC, but it kind of is. Yeah, NHC Champ Scott Coles was making his first start as well. Good for him. This post is about me, damn it. So yeah, I ran 47th. In my first year. 47th. Yep. 47th. Out of like 670 or some ridiculously high number.

My first suggestion to NHC rookies relates to your behavior before you get to Las Vegas. In fact, it pertains to your actions before you even leave home, and it has nothing do to with horses. At the NHC, preparation is key. But so is attention. Distractions are everywhere just within the horse racing aspect of the experience. Forget about what goes on outside the contest room. In my opinion, anything that hangs over your head unrelated to horses is just one more thing that can distract you when your attention needs to be on the PPs and the tote board. So…

Before you leave for the airport, make sure all bills are paid. Make sure you have a full tank of gas in your car. Clean, fold, and put away all laundry. Make your bed. The ultimate goal here is to ensure that when you return home from Las Vegas, you are returning to a life with absolutely zero burdensome distractions. While you’re watching the final minutes of post drag at Gulfstream, waiting to see if that recent Saffie Joseph claim is going to climb to 5-1 from his current 3-1, the last thing you need to be worried about is whether or not you paid your cable bill. Or if you remembered to send your boss that meeting invitation for Monday afternoon. Distractions equal disaster at the NHC. Leave home fresh, and plan to return home fresh.

If you exercise at home, plan to exercise at Bally’s. From the pictures I’ve seen, they seem to have a pretty cool gym. Pack accordingly. Get the blood flowing early in the morning, even if you just walk around the casino for 20 minutes. This will also give you time to think, and to release unwanted stress.

Also, don’t dress like a slob. Just because most of the turf writers and racing media folk other than Steve Byk dress like shit doesn’t mean you have to. Take some damn pride in your appearance. You don’t need to roll up in a Hugo Boss suit. But maybe make use of the iron in the free room you won on HorsePlayers. Look good. Feel good. If sweatpants and a t-shirt are your thing, fine. You can at least look put together.

Now to the actual contest advice portion of this post…

Find a way to have an adequate visual of the day’s races. My buddy and multiple-NHC-prize-winner Steve Decaspers creates a bad-ass spreadsheet every year with all races listed in order of post time, with mandatory races highlighted. I used this spreadsheet last year and it was critical to my success, and that is no exaggeration. Figure out a way that works for you, and make it happen. You need to be able to give your mind a picture of the contest at a single glance. Know how many bullets you have left to fire, and how many opportunities in which to fire them. And know this quickly.

Pay attention to the tote board (obviously) but DO NOT assume that if a horse opens at 5/2 that he cannot go off at 8/1. Last year, on two separate occasions in the NHC, in two races (both at Tampa Bay Downs), I liked a horse at a decent ML price, then began to look for alternative horses when mine opened way low on the board, and then I jumped back ON my original pick very late when the odds climbed back up. Both horses won. No bullshit. In one case, I had stopped paying attention to the race altogether and just happened to notice with zero minutes to post that my initial pick had climbed back ABOVE the ML price. So I used a bullet and, as I said, the horse won. Don’t just watch the tote board. Know the tote board. Feel the tote board. Love the tote board. Make love to the….ok that’s enough.

What odds you are willing to accept on a contest play is really up to you. If you set $180 as a two-day target, that works out to a $5 return per race, or $20 for every four races, with 36 total plays over Days 1 and 2. So, in an attempt to keep it simple, if you hit a 6/1 winner every four races, you’re probably going to get to $180. Or maybe you want to keep all of your plays above 8/1. Or 10/1. Or maybe you aren’t that rigid and you like the idea of collecting $11 on a 3/1 shot that you think should be 6/5. Just figure out a target and a formula that works for you. Begin with the end in mind (I stole that from the dude who wrote that Seven Habits book).

My final piece of advice is this: Don’t listen to anyone else, because I assure you, you are good enough to win on your own, and you will NEVER forgive yourself if you take a pass on one of your own opinions and it wins at 16/1. If you are playing in the NHC, it means that on at least one day in the last year, you were good enough to compete with other tournament players. Are some better than others? Of course. But we all have days when we handicap out of our minds and hit everything in sight. Prepare. Focus. Trust your stuff.

And make your bed before you leave.


  1. Craig Spencer on January 22, 2020 at 8:57 pm

    Lots of good advise, the single best piece of advise is to ensure you have the non-mandatory races in your spreadsheet or list of “potential” plays listed by post time. I cannot be more adamant about this. Had I had Steve’s spreadsheet in my one and only appearance, I would have made day 3. My day 2 adjustment was mainly that. Day one I ended somewhere around $9, day two I had a $129 day.

  2. Rich Nilsen on January 23, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    I still feel like a rookie after losing to lonespeed last year. It’s taken me a year and I’m still not over it. Thanks for the advice… I need it

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