Handicapping tournaments are an important growth area for horse racing, say racetrack officials and horse players.
Tournaments attract a passionate, educated and well-heeled crowd to the tracks and are alluring to new fans who are attracted by intense competition for big cash prizes.
"There are two ways to get horse racing's euphoric experience," said professional handicapper Christian Hellmers, during a panel discussion Dec. 10 at the Arizona Global Symposium on Racing & Gaming. "One is a tournament. It is really the emotional competition of man versus man or versus woman; the idea that I want to be my best self. I want to show that I know my stuff. I think that will resonate with the younger generation."
Hellmers is also a cast member in a new reality television show called "Horseplayers" that will launch Jan. 7 on the Esquire network (formerly the Style cable network). The show will follow seven handicappers as they try to qualify for and participate in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship
"Now when they see that happen on television, then the story begins," Hellmers said. "They will want to know, what is that person doing? How can I do that? What do they put into it? There is inspiration from watching others succeed."
The boom of tournaments at tracks and online, in no small part due to the fact NHC now pays $1 million to the winner, is attracting thousands of well-educated fans with disposable income. More than 38% of tour members went on to become a racehorse owner.
"All the research we have done at the NTRA over the years has indicated the best way to create new owners in the sport is to create more fans," said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of marketing and industry communications at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "This clearly indicates that nearly four out of 10 tournament participants have ventured into racehorse ownership."
A survey of National Handicapping Challenge Tour members, who register to earn qualifying points to the NHC and possibly bonus money, revealed the following demographic about tournament players:
• 95% are male
• Average age 52
• Average income $117,000
• Nearly 50% have a college degree and 22% have a masters, doctorate, or other professional degree
• The average member plays five tournaments a year and 26% play in 10 or more.
Jim Goodman, simulcast director and tournament director at Keeneland, said tournaments are valuable for attracting handle but, more importantly, they generate good publicity.
"And these are the right kind of people you want at your track," Goodman said. "They are good customers."
Hellmers used his opportunity on the panel to urge racing not to stop at building up tournaments. He said racing is missing a huge opportunity if it doesn't push further by embracing exchange wagering.
"The other half of the euphoria is betting exchanges," he said. "What is happening in Europe is earth-shattering, at the level of sophistication of the bettors and it's culturally cool because it is smart. You are competing against great minds. But we need to have a platform with fixed odds so people can bet more money. I want to bring in the Wall Street group, I want to go head-to-head against a hedge fund group and I can't do that with the tote system because the odds change. They won't play a game where they can't lock in their odds."
Exchange wagering is different than pari-mutuel because the bet is made between only two players. One bets to win and one bets to lose at agreed upon odds, like betting with a bookmaker.
"People that have these skills want to demonstrate their skills, their prowess," Hellmers said.