NHC Optional Play Selections

National Horseplayers Championship participants are afforded the opportunity to make thirty optional selections during the three-day contest while the remainder is prescribed. Due to an abandoned meeting at Aqueduct on the first day of the 2020 tournament, players were given the option of selecting thirty-one races of which to place a mythical $2 Win-Place wager. The resulting ratio is a tad over 65% of the plays are optional.

Distribution of Earnings Source For Final Table Contestants

Arguably, mastery of optional plays is requisite to climb to the lofty position of the final table in the NHC format. The preceding table enumerates the percentage on contest points earned respectively in mandatory, optional, and final table races. Essentially, all of the final table earned at least 40% of their final bankroll from their optionally selected plays.

A review of which races the tournament players collectively chose provides insights into how many contestants approach the contest and possibly suggest ways to better compete against the crowd in similarly-formatted contests.

The popularity of optional races ran the gamut from only one player (Fair Grounds match race) to 482 players who selected Gulfstream Park Race 5 on Sunday for either Semi-Final or Consolation stage. Gulfstream Park was the most popular venue selected by contestants. There are numerous factors that skew the popularity charts below including full-cancellation of Aqueduct’s Friday program, partial-cancellation of Laurel’s Friday program, scheduled turf races transferred to the main track, and the placement of the Day 3 cut line with respect to the remaining races.

More insights may be drawn from the composition of the races selected than from the location. For example, the predominant choice of the racing surface of optional plays was dirt at each stage of the tournament. Caution should be heeded before making too many surface-related conclusions. The dearth of turf plays on Day 1 was directly correlated to the lack of turf availability due to seasonal and recent weather factors. Similarly, Tapeta ‘haters’ should not gloat as the final table cut was sufficiently early enough to prevent contestants from playing Golden Gate Fields during the Consolation and Semi-Final stages.

Distribution of Collective Optional Plays By Racing Surface

For a rough guideline ignoring the placement of the Final Table cutline, 21% of the contest day races (43 of 205) were contested on the turf. While the contest players’ motivation to select turf races is multi-factorial, it is significant that grass events are selected more than double their fair share. Larger field sizes or pari-mutuels on the weeds is the likely attractor.

Players do not necessarily have to play turf races disproportionately but should acknowledge that the majority of the competition is playing those events heavily. A similar observation is not easily made when analyzing optional plays by distance. At a cursory glance, the distance of selected races appears to be a function of the ratio of distances offered on the contest menu.

One might assume that the ratio of maiden races and claiming races utilized as contest plays maybe a function of offered frequency, but could also be related to the general larger field sizes in comparison to starter, allowance, and stakes races. A similar recommendation as with turf is to understand that the majority of the competition prefers using maiden and claiming races within NHC-style contest formats.

The elephant in the ballroom is the field size of the optional contest race selections. A lion’s share of the optional plays come in races with a minimum of seven runners. Further analysis is warranted as the lesson learned might be muted by changing to the number of betting interests (coupled betting interests) instead of field size.

Let’s break out the scientific notation – 4.89E-05 of the optional plays were in a two-horse race. Approximately 1.6% of all optional selections in the NHC 2020 were in races with less than six runners. If one were to calculate the average field size weighted by optional selections, the result would be 8.54.

The minimum field size for 34 contestants was 7+ horses. 88.88% of contest plays were in races of seven or more. 28.5% of optional plays were in races with double-digit field sizes.

Average Contest Points Dollars Earned By Optional Selections By Field Size

As I asserted previously in the analysis of the mandatory NHC contest plays, I am in no way asserting that I am a handicapping contest expert. With that proviso, I will insist that the above chart instructs all tournament players to demand a minimum field size of at least six to maximize the utility of one’s plays. Depending upon the menu of available contest races, an even higher bar might be suggested. The following table details the distribution of optional plays by field size for the members of the Final Table.

Optional Plays By Field Size For Final Table Members

Another curiosity is the distribution of plays in the same race under different circumstances. Specifically, those playing in the Semi-Final stage had different incentives than those who started Day 3 with zero points in the Consolation tournament. Both stages were comprised of the same menu from which to make optional plays.

Since the two parallel tournaments varied in size by a factor of nine, let’s examine only the three races in which the smaller population contest made at least 50 optional selections. The trio were all contested at Gulfstream Park. The first was Sunday Gulfstream Park Race 1. The biggest disparity in the observed contest odds was with #12 CHA CHA HEELS who was 18.3-to-1 with the general public. 27.1% of semi-finals selected the Lilli Kurtinecz-trainee versus the 18.1% of the consolation tournament.

Only two races later, Gulfstream Park Race 3, selection tallies displayed wildly different contest behaviour. In this case, none of the semifinalists opted to play the longest pari-mutuel priced runner in the race, #5 PREFECT at 41.3-to-1. In the very same race, 43 of the entries in the consolation tournament swung for the fences with the third-place finisher.

In our third comparative example, the fifth from Gulfstream showed polar opposite actions with respect to contest plays on #8 UNION RICHES (post-time odds 37.3-to-1) and #9 TILL THE END (post-time odds 5.6-to-1). At this point in the respective contests, players are sensing different motivations. Semi-finalists may have been motivated to play for making the cut by identifying higher probability horses at the expense of possible payout. The consolation tourney players are playing with a different mindset of playing for the higher prices with a shorter time horizon (seven less races than those at the final table.

Further evaluation of the overlapping races might yield more substantive theories on the different motivations at the risk dampening the signal to noise ratio as the number of optional plays amongst semifinalists decrease.

In summary, players are best armed when understanding their opponents’ behaviours. Firstly, there was an observed contest preference for playing maiden or claiming races, especially on the turf. The second takeaway was the predominant inclination to select larger field sizes when given an option in this year’s NHC.

(Photo credits:  Horsephotos/NTRA)


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  • Kudos for being first to post publicly about the NHC contest selections, and trends and patterns which might be visible in players’ choices. Your articles would be more accessible if more people understood the context of your references to “horizons.” The tip of the iceberg is looking at “what” the entire Field is doing, versus what the most successful players are doing. Below the surface, I am looking at the “HOW” of what the most successful players are doing.

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