An Inside Look at How Mandatory Races are Selected at the NHC (Part II)


Last week, in part I, I went over what constitutes an ideal NHC mandatory race, as well as some of the other factors we consider as part of the process. I’m surprised it until Part II to get to it…but one gigantic factor in our thinking is weather – both with respect to whether a race might come off the turf and whether a given track might cancel altogether due to a snowstorm.

We prefer not to include turf races that could be in jeopardy. Or any races that could be canceled. Neither presents that big a problem should it take place. But an off-the-turf race is likely to be one fewer “good” scoring opportunity for players. We try to avoid those if possible, though sometimes (particularly on weekday cards) we mess up. We are picking the races approximately 48 hours ahead of time in order to give the 400+ people ample study time, and sometimes—particularly in South Florida—an innocuous forecast on Wednesday can take a significant turn for the worse by Friday. I suppose we could play it totally safe and just not include any South Florida grass races, but that doesn’t seem right either. So sometimes a mandatory grass race will come off the turf. (And tracks seem more eager to take races off the turf on weekdays than on weekends, so this year’s move back to a Friday-Saturday-Sunday NHC from a Thursday-Friday-Saturday schedule should aid in this regard.) And while a canceled mandatory race would likely just be turned into an additional optional race for players, it still creates the potential for confusion and misunderstanding, which we certainly don’t want. With 400+ people participating, the opportunities for confusion or misunderstanding are multiplied five-fold compared to an 80-person event. This is also a reason why the NHC doesn’t introduce “substitute” mandatory races on the fly. Some might wish that we did, but again, the idea with 400 people is to keep things straightforward—not to toss in curveballs.


Another fun exercise is handicapping post times! Sometimes there are two good races with adequate time spacing (i.e. 15-20 minutes or more) but the first race is taking place late in the day at a track notorious for post drag. We’ll certainly factor that in even though our estimates of actual off-time can’t be too precise. What we don’t want are two mandatory races going off on top of each other.

Our meetings sometimes get contentious. One committee member might have his heart set on a race that others find less attractive for one reason or another. Or someone might dislike a race, thinking that the favorite in a race is unbeatable, while others see the same favorite as utterly vulnerable. We’ve also had disagreements over not including a high-profile track whatsoever in a day’s mandatories due to weather concerns (i.e. possible cancellation). These disagreements are part of the process and actually somewhat fun. They force members of the committee to justify their arguments and beliefs. No matter how heated things get, I’m proud to say that there have never been any hard feelings that have lingered beyond the meeting itself. As far as I know, at least!

I do recall one lively discussion when, back at Bally’s one year, we broke from tradition and included as a mandatory event a 3-year-old Maiden Special Weight sprint at Gulfstream with about eight first time starters in a field of 12. The race had everything – pedigrees galore, multiple horses working bullets, horses with one career start who had been left at the gate in their debuts and still closed for second or third. Wasn’t such a race part of what the American horseplayer faces and struggles with on a frequent basis? Since it was such a delicious looking race, we included it. We thought the players would enjoy the change of pace.

We were wrong. The race was won at 2-1 or 5-2 by one of the bullet-workers who had a less fancy pedigree. Several players, I think rightly, made the case later that when you force people to play such a race, you run the risk of turning a mandatory race into a question of which contestants have the best connections with trainers. They had a point. And make no mistake, there are plenty of people at any big event like the NHC who are pretty plugged in.

I’m not a horse owner or otherwise “in the know”, but even I once called a trainer friend regarding two young, short-priced horses he was running during a day of the Horse Player World Series. I was planning to play both and thought a little, ahem, confirmation might not hurt. He told me that he expected one (a European import) to have trouble at the gate, and that the other was “nothing special”. Both ran third. I wound up saving two plays, and putting them to much better use elsewhere. Now this type of thing is still going to take place no matter what—with mandatory and optional races, alike. But no sense in including a race that is too ripe for such back-channeling.

Bottom line: races chock-a-block with first-time starters are highly unlikely to be mandatory races. There’s no reason why pedigree fanatics or workout-report devotees can’t capitalize on them, but over time we’ve come to believe it’s better if such capitalizing takes place in optional races.

For most of its history, the NHC was a two-day contest. Two years ago, it added a third day during which all of the final-table races are mandatories. You’d think this might mean that picking those Day 3 races are extra tough, but the opposite is true. The final table doesn’t start until about 1:30 pm Pacific Time (with all of the Day 3 pre-final-table races being optional plays). So the requisite seven mandatory races have to come from a limited pool of possible races—largely the last couple from Gulfstream and Tampa, a few from Fair Grounds and Oaklawn and the last six or so from Santa Anita and Golden Gate. The good mandatory races from the reduced pool really tend to stick out, which means the battle isn’t so much choosing among a bevy of good races but, instead, coming up with as many as seven within such a truncated time period that don’t have post times too close together. As a result, you are likely to see mandatories on Day 3 that, in a vacuum, might not make the cut on Days 1 or 2 because we don’t have as big a pool to pick from.

I know many players may, quite reasonably, disagree with one or several observations made above or made last week. Others may detest the entire concept of mandatory races (though others expressed in an NHC survey that they thought ALL races should be mandatory!). It is my hope, though, that this gives players just a touch of added insight into how the races are picked and the various factors considered therein.

To those of you lucky enough to be at this year’s NHC, congratulations. I hope you like the races!