“For several months there were virtually no track tournaments,” said chief operating officer Keith Chamblin of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which has been running the NHC since its inception in 2000. line held up throughout the pandemic and was more popular than ever. We now return to a time in 2021 when the tracks were reopening, and there were other opportunities and options for tour members to qualify for the NHC.
Frank Mustari, a 10-time NHC player whose son Justin won last year’s tournament, also disputed the idea that the contest’s momentum has peaked.
“I’m seeing more weekend tournaments, whether it’s cash tournaments or online tournaments, than we’ve ever had before,” Mustari said. “Now you can go to Xpressbet or whatever, and you can see they have a schedule for the next four or five months with a lot of cash tournaments.”
Even though the stats suggest a flattening of growth in recent years, Wolfson seemed confident it would be temporary, especially since the expansion of handicap tournaments never went away.
“If COVID and having fewer live tournaments stop, which would otherwise be an upward trajectory,” Wolfson said, “the way Justin learned with his dad, and I learned with my dad and going to the racing is so much a part of it.”
Frank Mustari offered an even more personal story to show how tournaments and the sport itself can continue to grow.
“We were setting up our table there,” he said, pointing to where he and Justin would play in the NHC Great Hall that was once a jai-alai pediment. “A guy from New York came over, introduced himself to Justin and said, ‘You’re the reason I’m here this year.’ He followed Justin last year, and that’s why he was like, ‘Hey, if this young boy can do that, I need to get involved in the pageant world.’ And that’s what he did. It’s really cool. What he did last year is probably going to bring new players into the game, which we know we need.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” said Justin Mustari, 26, who last summer became the youngest champion in the NHC’s 22-year history. “That’s my goal as a young player, to try to get kids my age into the game of horse racing.”
He conceded that racing must contend with new forms of gambling, especially as sports betting has spread to 30 states after the US Supreme Court removed federal restrictions nearly four years ago. .
“More people my age are into sports betting right now, which is a great thing,” Justin Mustari said. “There’s a lot of money in there too, but if we could get some of those young eyes into the game of horse racing, that would be a lot of fun.”
Jim Stirr, a second NHC player from Edmonton, said it has been particularly difficult for him to play in US tournaments due to COVID restrictions in Canada.
“There was such a hurdle for us coming to the United States,” Stirr said. “I didn’t play much thinking that if I qualified last year maybe I couldn’t get into the United States”
That hasn’t stopped Stirr from lobbying the executives of Century Mile, his home track, to step into the water and consider running their own handicap contests as conduits to the NHC.
“I pushed the management to organize qualifying tournaments on the right track,” he said. “Years ago, our track at Northlands Park didn’t do anything with track tournaments. I know they do a lot in Woodbine (in Toronto), but in Western Canada it’s practically nothing. At Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, they do nothing. Edmonton and Calgary are not doing much. In Vancouver, Hastings Park didn’t do much either. I think it’s one of the best ways to bring young players, new blood, into the horse racing industry.
Despite the recent flattening of the growth curve, Chamblin said he’s confident momentum will return if some semblance of pre-pandemic normality returns for good.
“We had a meeting with our partners at Caesars and discussed how we are developing this event to make it even bigger and more successful,” Chamblin said. “We discussed ways to integrate the World Series of Poker, which will take place in this same room in less than six months. What are the synergies? How do we cross-promote? How can we push horseplayers towards the World Series of Poker, and how can we use this hugely successful property to help grow the NHC?
To that end, Chamblin argued that the NHC is healthy. Could there come a day when it hits $5 million in prize money with 1,000 players?
“I think so,” he said. “I am very optimistic about the future.”