Handicapping tournaments have become extremely popular throughout the horse racing industry in the last decade. What was once a niche inside of the sport has now become a major part of the horse racing landscape. An opportunity is available every week of the year either at the track or online to participate in a handicapping tournament. Some offer prize money, some offer qualifying spots to major tournaments and some offer both. For most regular tournament players the goal each year is to qualify for the DRF NTRA National Handicapping Championsip (or NHC for short).
The NHC, with an estimated first place prize of $1 million, has become “The Horse Racing Handicapping Tournament.” There is no buy-in option so players must qualify by playing in satellite tournaments throughout the year and the only requirement is membership in the NHC Tour. The NHC Tour was created a few years ago as a foundation to increase the strength of the NHC. The results have been very positive to say the least. This year over 1,000 horseplayers are registered as members.
While there are many positive attributes of handicapping tournaments and particularly the NHC there is one problem, a lack of interest by younger people. A survey conducted by the NTRA in 2009 revealed that only 9.3% of the respondents were less than 40 years old and of that group only 0.3% was less than 25. As is the case throughout the horse racing industry there is a struggle to gain interest among young people. I can vouch for this firsthand as there have been only a handful of younger people at most of the on track handicapping tournaments I have played in. Maybe the numbers are better for online tournaments but until a survey is done to answer that question it will remain unanswered.
Unlike most problems in the horse racing industry this is one that I believe can be resolved quickly and if done correctly could yield positive results in a short period of time not only for the handicapping tournament circuit but for the entire sport of horse racing. So without further ado here are the 4 reasons Handicapping Tournaments can be used to attract younger people to horse racing:
#1 – Eliminates the Complexities of Betting on Horses
The biggest obstacle for attracting younger people to horse racing is the complexity of betting. With hundreds of races to choose from and thousands of betting pools to bet into on any given day the experience can be overwhelming. This is where handicapping tournaments have an advantage because most of them focus on picking one horse in each race and the choice of races is limited.
The foundation of every good handicapper is the ability to pick winners, from there the focus can shift to exotic bets with more rewarding payoffs. Introducing younger people to handicapping tournaments will simplify the betting process, allow them to learn how to pick winners and set the foundation for long term success.
#2 – Small Investment, Big Money
Some segments of the horse racing industry try to draw in new fans by marketing the notion that a person can win large sums of money with very small investments. While that can be the case, such as hitting a Pick 6 that pays millions of dollars on $8 ticket, it is highly unlikely. Introducing young people to the sport should begin by teaching them how to pick winners then, over time, they can transition to exotic bets such as the Pick 4 or Pick 6. The fastest way to drive a person away from horse racing is to drain their wallet a few times and that is exactly what marketing the hard to hit exotics such as the Pick 6 will do.
Handicapping tournaments can be friendly to the wallet and very small investments can be parlayed into hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The recently concluded TwinSpires Online Handicapping Championship awarded over $300,000 in prizes. A person could enter by paying a $1,000 entry fee or they could qualify for as little as $10 in the months and weeks leading up to the finals. I qualified for the finals via a $100 satellite tournament. My fifth place finish in the finals netted me over $1,300 and a seat at the NHC. So my $100 investment could potentially yield a $1 million return if I were to win the NHC.
While I would not expect a newcomer to do what I did in their first few attempts it is not impossible. However there are opportunities to win money via a handicapping tournament with no investment, such as the free weekly tournaments offered by Equibase, or for very small investments, such as the tournaments offered by Derby Wars. In both cases a young person is provided the opportunity to win money while learning the handicapping process with very little investment and in time that learning experience can be parlayed into participation in tournaments with much larger prize money.
#3 – Online Accessibility
Younger people gravitate towards products and services that are easy to access and readily available. The convenience factor can be make or break for a product or service targeted towards younger people. Online handicapping tournaments meet those criteria. The ability to participate in an online handicapping tournament without ever having to leave home or being able to participate via a smart phone is a huge advantage over going to the race track for a day of betting.
In addition to that online handicapping tournaments can be the first step into transitioning younger people into long term fans of horse racing. Rather than thrust a young person into horse racing by getting them to the track where the aforementioned obstacles exist online handicapping tournaments can be the gateway to Advanced Deposit Wagering. After being exposed to horse racing via the internet it will only be a matter of time before that person attends the live races. By that point the foundation has been laid and after a few trips to the track a lifelong fan will be born.
#4 – Comparable to the World Series of Poker
The World Series of Poker (WSOP) has seen explosive growth in popularity, particularly amongst younger people, in the last few years for two reasons. The first reason was the addition of satellite events held both online (which were subsequently banned beginning in 2006) and at casino’s that awarded seats at the WSOP. Rather than having to pay the $10,000 buy-in players could qualify via a satellite tournament. The second reason was increased television coverage by ESPN. What was once a one hour broadcast has now expanded to over 36 hours of nearly live coverage. In addition to the extra air time the advent of the “pocket cam” which shows the players cards has increased interest. The pocket cam allows viewers to watch how the players play their cards and adds to the drama of the broadcast. Since the addition of satellite tournaments and increased television coverage the number of entrants for the WSOP has increased tenfold.
The NHC is very similar to the WSOP, the only difference is you can’t buy-in. There are satellite tournaments held throughout the year that offer qualifying seats at the NHC and unlike the WSOP many are available online. The creation of the NHC Tour was the first step to taking the NHC to a new level and it has worked. The total prize pool has increased significantly in the last few years and the field size for the upcoming NHC will be the highest to date at over 500.
The next step is increasing television coverage and using the strategy that has worked for the WSOP, namely the creation of the pocket cam. Showing which horses the players picked just before the race is run will lead to increased drama and in turn increased ratings.
Presenting the NHC in the same manner that the WSOP is presented will surely garner the attention of younger people. In addition to that explaining the qualifying process and highlighting the free and low cost online satellite tournaments will lead to added interest among younger people. If done properly there is no reason the NHC can’t grow as quickly as the WSOP.
The fastest way to drive people away from a product or service is to force them to spend a lot of money and receive very little or nothing in return. Unfortunately that is the marketing strategy used by some groups in the horse racing industry. Advertising Pick 6 carryovers or guaranteed pools may be a catchy way of attracting the attention of younger people to horse racing but it is unlikely to create many long term fans of the sport. The reason being that it is highly unlikely that a young person with little or no handicapping experience will hit one of those hard to hit exotics and after a few failed attempts it is almost a guarantee that the person will leave the sport and never return.
A much better approach would be introduce a young person to handicapping tournaments, particularly those that involve mythical win and place bets and are free or very low in cost. By putting that person in a structured environment with very little, if any financial investment required they are more likely to give horse racing a fair chance and over time with more and more success move onto actual betting.