Handicapping title on the line in Vegas

Updated: January 21, 2009, 9:23 PM ET
By Dave Tuley | Daily Racing Form

LAS VEGAS -- The 10th annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship takes place here Friday and Saturday at the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa, with 301 horseplayers battling for $962,000 in prize money.

Maybe the NHC should be renamed the HSP - the Handicapper Stimulus Package.

More than 100,000 entrants competed in 88 qualifying tournaments over the past year, with the final five spots being earned Wednesday in the Last Chance Qualifier at Red Rock.

Contestants will make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets each day of the championship. Eight races are designated as mandatory by tournament organizers, and the other seven can be chosen by each player from the seven contest tracks: Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita. Players earn points based on the track payoffs, though they are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

The person earning the top score will win $500,000 and the title of Handicapper of the Year, including recognition at the Eclipse Awards next year. Last year's champion, Richard Goodall, 65, of Las Vegas will be honored Monday during this year's Eclipse Awards ceremony in Miami.

Second place is worth $150,000, with third place being $100,000, which was the first-place prize for the first four years of the championship. Fourth place is $45,000 and then prizes gradually decrease down to $500 for 30th.

The leader after Friday's action will earn $2,500, with $2,000 awarded for second, $1,500 for third, $1,000 for fourth and $500 for fifth. To give added incentive for those who have a poor first day, the daily prizes increase Saturday to $5,000 for first, $3,000 for second, $2,000 for third, $1,500 for fourth, and $1,000 for fifth.

The winner will also receive a championship ring or pendant. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the championship, the NTRA decided to start awarding a championship ring and to make it retroactive to the nine previous winners. Judy Wagner, champion in the event's second year and the only female winner so far, was to receive a pendant at a special ceremony at the opening cocktail party Thursday night, along with five of the eight male winners.

Three hundred players have those above goals in mind, but one contestant is eligible for an even bigger payday. Sam Brooks of Jarrettsville, Md., won the inaugural NHC Tour this past year, and if he wins the championship this weekend, he will pick up a $2 million bonus on top of the half-million prize.

Brooks earned 13,825 points in the competition, which awards 3,500 points for each victory in a qualifying tournament and a graduated scale of points determined by a person's finish and the total number of entrants in each contest. Brooks's Tour championship was worth $100,000.

Ross Gallo, 49, of Jupiter, Fla., finished second with 11,200 points to win $50,000; William A. Shurman, 50, of Danville, Calif., was third with 9,975 points to earn $25,000; James M. Henry, 40, of Redondo Beach, Calif., was fourth with 9,965 to win $10,000; and Ricky Zimmer, 31, of New York City, was fifth with 9,178 points. The NHC Tour costs $125 to join and also includes membership in the Horseplayers' Coalition and NTRA Advantage purchasing program. In addition to almost certainly qualifying for the 2010 national championship, the top five tour finishers in 2009 will earn an automatic berth in the 2011 championship, said the NTRA's tournament coordinator, Fritz Widaman. This weekend's winner as well as the top two finishers in the Red Rock Shootout on Sunday, the first qualifying tournament of 2009, earn berths to the 2010 championship.

NHC Tour members also receive preferential seating at this year's final.

The NTRA will have a computer set up this weekend at the Red Rock for anyone to register for the 2009 NHC Tour at ntra.com/nhctour.

* There was actually supposed to be 302 contestants this weekend but Harry Seaman, 59, of Goodland, Fla., canceled because of work commitments. Seaman finished fifth in last year's finals to earn $30,000.

* Tournament updates and end-of-day recaps will be posted Friday and Saturday at drf.com and ntra.com.

Dave Tuley has covered the Las Vegas race and sports book scene since 1998 and runs his own website, ViewFromVegas.com.