By Noel Michaels
For some veteran tournament players, the upcoming Bally’s Las Vegas NHC Qualifier will be a trip back to the future to the site that is both the former, and future home of the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship [NHC]. Meanwhile, for other players who’ve caught the tournament bug more recently, the summer Bally’s NHC Qualifier will offer a first look at the next host site of the NHC finals, and an early opportunity to check out the new digs.
One of the premier qualifying opportunities on the upcoming schedule, and one that is undoubtedly already circled on a lot of player’s calendars, is the Bally’s Las Vegas NHC Qualifier, a two-day tournament on August 3-4. The tournament will offer a qualifying seat for every 20 entries, meaning there will be three qualifying spots based on 60 entries, five NHC qualifying spots based on 100 entries, or 10 qualifying spots based on 200 entries. The tournament will cost $500 to enter, with 50 percent of that money going to pay for the NHC qualifying seats, travel and accommodations and half of all entry fees will go to the top finishers in the form of prize money.
Bally’s NHC Qualifier players will make 18 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on each day of the two-day contest, including 10 optional plays at a variety of tracks and eight mandatory races per day. Odds are capped at 20-1 to win and 10-1 to place.
Not only will the Bally’s Las Vegas NHC Qualifier be an excellent chance to earn a seat in the NHC, it will also be a great opportunity for players to get a “prep race” under their belts in a tournament at the new NHC host site, and with the same mythical-money format of the NHC finals.
For many younger tournament players and newer NHC Qualifiers, the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is the only home for the NHC they have ever known. That will change in 2020, however, when the NHC moves to its new home venue at Bally’s Las Vegas starting with the 21st edition of the NHC on Friday through Sunday, February 7-9, 2020 at Bally’s Las Vegas.
In case you missed the news from a few months ago, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association [NTRA] and Caesars Entertainment signed a multi-year agreement to move the premiere handicapping tournament in all of Thoroughbred racing a couple blocks down the famous Las Vegas Strip from Treasure Island to Bally’s. The agreement returns the NHC to the Bally’s property, which had previously hosted the NHC in its Race Book back in the formative years of the tournament from 2003-2007.
The NHC had begun to outgrow its space at Treasure Island in recent years, which played a part in necessitating the move. The NHC finals, which had a field of 455 entries as recently as 2013, nowadays hosts nearly 700 entries and more than 500 individual players. As of the 2019 NHC finals, Treasure Island was utilizing three rooms and two floors to be able to accommodate the tournament. At Bally’s, the tournament can now move back all into one single larger event space.
Caesars Entertainment Corporation stepped up the plate with its Events Center venue at Bally’s, complete with 40,000 square feet of floor space that will enable the Bally’s Events Center to be transformed into what essentially will be the world’s largest race book during the weekend of the NHC. The new space will nearly double elbow room the NHC tournament and its players will have to work with starting in 2020.
In terms of the continuing history of the NHC. The move to Bally’s Event Center is important, because much of the story of the NHC’s growth through its 21-year history can be told by looking at the event’s host venues.
At the time the NHC was conceived back in 1999, it had always been meant to be conducted in a Las Vegas race and sports book. The NHC’s first host, the MGM Grand race book, was bulging at the seams the first three years as it hosted NHC fields between 160 and 204 players. All-star odds maker and former Bally’s Las Vegas race and sports director Johnny Avello came along and pried the NHC away to Bally’s for the first time in 2003. At that time, the NTRA still intended to keep the NHC in a race book and Bally’s offered a stadium-style race book that was state-of-the-art at the time. Bally’s proved to be the perfect host for a total of six years until 2008, when the NHC once again outgrew its venue and moved off-Strip to an even larger race and sports book at the off-Strip Red Rock Resort for three years from 2009-2011.
Some players never really warmed up to the idea of the Red Rock’s (far) off-Strip Las Vegas location, however, and ultimately, when it became apparent that the NHC had forever outgrown its ability to continue to be held in a race book, the event moved back to the Strip and found a new and better home at the Treasure Island ballroom starting in 2012. Thanks to Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin and race book manager Tony Nevill, the NHC finals thrived throughout its eight-year tenure at Treasure Island, which became the longest-standing host of the NHC in the event’s history so far through 2019.
NHC finalists who played in the 2003-2008 years at Bally’s might not recognize the place upon their return. Yes, Bally’s is still located on the center of the Las Vegas Strip across from Caesars Palace and next to Paris Las Vegas, but almost everything else about Bally’s has changed since 2008. The Bally’s property completed a $125 million renovation in 2018, and the Bally’s guestrooms have been newly refurbished.
In order to play in the Bally’s Las Vegas NHC Qualifier, all players much first be members of the NHC Tour, and also must join the Caesars Rewards program. Caesars Rewards is a loyalty program offering cash, valuable perks and customer service to guests at Caesars resorts, which encompasses the Harrah’s properties, Caesars Palace, Bally’s and other resort casinos.
So while the NHC bids a fond farewell to the TI, tournament players can now look forward to a new era of growth, fun, and competition for big money at Bally’s Las Vegas. It all gets going on August 3-4 with the Bally’s Las Vegas NHC Qualifying tournament. I hope to see you there, and then back at Bally’s again at the NHC finals’ return in February 2020.