What does it take to win the National Handicapping Championship?

Updated February 14, 2019 - 5:59 pm

If you’re like me, you’ve probably read about the National Handicapping Championship and daydreamed about what it would be like competing for big money against the best handicappers in North America.

You’ve also likely wondered what it takes to qualify for the tournament, which played out last weekend at Treasure Island, let alone win the $800,000 grand prize.

For some insight, I turned to Vic Stauffer, a Las Vegas resident when he’s not calling races at Oaklawn Park and a fine handicapper. He’s also a five-time NHC qualifier.

Here are a few of his thoughts:

“The basic rule of thumb is that over the 36 races, you have to average about $8 a race return, just by the mathematics,” he said this week. “… That means if you’re going to play a horse in the 5-2, 7-2 range, you have to hit over 50 percent.”

That means most players concentrate on finding playable long shots in the mandatory and optional races during the three-day event. Stauffer says he sets a minimum of 8-1 before he’ll consider using one of his valuable optional picks.

Being organized also is crucial.

“Once the races start, they come fast and furious,” said Stauffer, who finished midpack this year. “If you’re not prepared with a list of horses that are potential plays, then you can not only lose a possible optional (wager), you can have a mandatory race come up and you don’t know Then you could really have to make three decisions at the same time.”

The handicappers who regularly win on the NHC Tour also tend to be avid users of technology. That includes this year’s tournament winner, 34-year-old Scott Coles, a futures trader who told the Paulick Report this week that he uses TimeformUS to look at pace, the Daily Racing Form and STATS Race Lens to examine specific angles.

Stauffer said the ability of the computer jockeys to find the races most likely to produce long-shot winners gives them a big advantage.

“When I was going into my 50th hour of prep, I knew that I was desperately behind the eight ball,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, how they’re eliminating races and horses, but those guys have such an edge over those of us who don’t know how to do that.”

I mentioned that Stauffer is an excellent handicapper. I know that because I’ve been following his recently launched “Vic’s Picks” report each weekend at Santa Anita. I’m not one to recommend “winner-picking” services, but I’m making an exception because the information is good, the report is educational and it’s entertaining. The cost is $20 per card, or $30 for both weekend cards. You can learn more at vicstauffer.com.

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicappers are zeroed in on the most interesting Triple Crown prep so far this year: the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, as well as the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

In the latter, a Grade 2, 1 1/16th-mile event on the main track, the crowd ’cappers are narrowly backing Positive Spirit, 5-1 on the morning line, over Needs Supervision (5-1) and Bell’s the One (8-1).

“I like her running style where jockey Manuel Franco can lay off the pace and draw away late,” wrote Michael Kaczer of the crew’s pick. “Franco is one of the nation’s hottest riders right now. In addition, I like Positive Spirit’s works at Payson Park in Florida.”

We won’t get anywhere near those odds with Bob Baffert’s 5-2 morning line favorite, Chasing Yesterday, almost certain to scratch, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be value to be found. I’ll take a shot with Oxy Lady (6-1), a Calumet Farm homebred and graded stakes winner, over Positive Spirit and Serengeti Express (6-1).

In the Risen Star, the crew strongly backs War of Will, the 5-2 morning line favorite, despite the LeComte Stakes winner starting far out in the 14-horse field. They like Hog Creek Hustle (8-1) and Owendale (6-1) to fill out the trifecta.

Crowd ’capper Howie Reed sees the risk, but likes the Mark Casse-trained colt nonetheless: “Outside post (14) could be a problem if ‘early’ speed doesn’t get him clear. But this one loves the track.”

As good as War of Will looked last out, I think that short run into the first turn will cost him lots of ground. I’ll use Plus Que Parfait (10-1), Mr. Money (12-1) and Henley’s Joy (10-1) in that order and tip my hat to the favorite if he wins.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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