First, congratulations to Paul Matties for winning the 2016 NHC. Given the odds against the players, it is a spectacular accomplishment. I also believe it takes a special kind of horseplayer to thrive in that environment. 53 races over four days, and multiple tracks. While I’ve learned to make money by staying in my element – primarily win and exacta betting at the NYRA tracks – doing well at the NHC would be highly unlikely for me, or anyone, without an incredible amount of preparation. The discipline and commitment it takes to break into the top tier makes the winners more than deserving of the recognition they get.
I was thinking about the NHC during the Super Bowl this weekend. 100 million people were distracted with what can be alternatively called the National Football Championship, or if you are concerned about the NFL suing you for some sort of copyright infringement, The Big Game. On the other hand, other than horseplayers nobody knows or cares about the NHC. I did a “man on the street” survey where I asked random people on the street if they knew who won the National Handicapping Championship. The answers were unsurprising.
Most people thought it had something to do with handicapped people, at least those who didn’t think it was some “goddamn gummint” attempt to raise taxes. The most common response – “Is that like the wheelchair Olympics?”
Obviously expecting anyone outside the community to pay attention to horseplayers would be a massive longshot, but it does point out how horseracing has become a niche sport. It also points out that the common meaning of the word we use to describe the selection process – handicapping – has a generally lame connotation, excuse the pun.
It also is the description of only half the equation. When horseplayers talk about handicapping, they are talking about the process of coming up with selections. The other half is betting. Of course, changing the name of the contest to the “National Horseplayer Selection and Betting Championship” would be even more lame than the current incarnation.
National Handicapping Championship doesn’t have the same brand identity as Super Bowl or World Series or March Madness. If you’re going to come up with a brand name, alliteration is always a good way to go. Horseracing Hootenany is still available.
I know history is on the side of the word “handicapping.” In the old days, like the 70’s – that’s the 1970’s – racing secretaries regularly used weight to even out the ability between horses, essentially giving them a “handicap.” In one of the greatest races of all time, the 1976 Marlboro Handicap, the mighty Forego slipped by Honest Pleasure in the last stride under 137 pounds. Today, if a racing secretary wanted to give a horse 128, the trainer would threaten to pull out. There are no real handicap races anymore. Most races for the best animals are stakes races with fixed weights based on age and sex.
The term handicap is an anachronism. Tracks rarely handicap horses enough to really make a difference, and whatever it is that we do to find horses to bet, it has nothing to do with handicapping a horse. We analyze, we select, and we bet, and we use an archaic term to describe it. It’s a term that came into vogue in horseracing when there were other descriptive words for people with disabilities, and now that there is an entire federal act to cover the disabled, maybe it’s time we came up with our own special word.
What do you think? Are you happy being a handicapper or do we need to come up with a new word for what we do and a new name for the Championship?