- Dave Tuley, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- The race book at the Red Rock Resort and Spa will be filled to the rafters Friday and Saturday when 305 horseplayers compete for the $500,000 first-place prize and title of 2010 Handicapper of the Year at the 12th annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship.
The National Handicapping Championship is not an invitational and you can't buy your way in this weekend. All of the finalists had to make it the old-fashioned way -- they had to earn it -- by qualifying at a series of 110 tournaments held the past year or by being a top point-earner on the NHC Tour the past two years. There are five exceptions as the last quintet to qualify did so in the appropriately named "Last Chance" qualifier on Wednesday at the Red Rock. That tourney, which drew a field of 89, had 70 percent of entry fees going to the national championship purse, boosting it to a record $1,050,150, topping the previous high of $1,017,700.
The defending champion also receives an exemption, so Brian Troop, of Barrie, Ontario, is back after being honored at the Eclipse Awards last week in Miami.
"It's not about the money," said Troop, an accountant, after his victory last year. "It's about the Eclipse Award and being named the top handicapper."
The best finish by a defending champion (or any former champion in any year for that matter) was Kent Meyer of Sioux City, Iowa, who won in January 2004 and then finished 11th the following year. Meyer didn't make this year's field, but Troop will be joined by five past champions: Judy Wagner (the second championship winner) of New Orleans; Steve Wolfson Jr. (the fourth) of Holly Hill, Fla.; Ron Rippey (the seventh) of Wayne, N.J.; Stanley Bavlish (the eighth) of Las Vegas, Nev.; and Richard Goodall (the ninth), also of Las Vegas.
Troop isn't alone in trying to keep the title north of the border, as 13 contestants reside in Canada, the hottest of which might be Brad Auger of Nelson, British Columbia, who earned his berths at NHCqualify.com on Dec. 4 and then followed that up the next week by winning $25,000 in the HPI Challenge, a harness tournament.
The U.S. state with the most representatives is California, which will have no fewer than 50 contestants. New York is second with 27 finalists, followed by Texas (16), Kentucky (15), Illinois (12), and Ohio (10). Again, those could change depending on the results of the Last Chance. There are 21 female contestants and the oldest contestant is Frank Jakubowsky, 79, of Oakland, Calif., and the youngest is Christopher Bertolucci, 21, of San Mateo, Calif.
Another California handicapper has the potential to be the biggest winner this weekend. Tom Noone of Redondo Beach, Calif., won the 2010 NHC Tour and its $75,000 prize for compiling the highest score over the course of A calendar year and is now eligible for a $2 million bonus in addition to the $500,000 first-place prize if he pulls off the NHC Tour/Championship double.
"It was a goal of mine to win the tour to prove I could compete with all the other great handicappers out there, and I'm proud of that accomplishment," said Noone, who made the finals for the sixth straight year. "But in a way that was easier than winning the finals, because it's a year-long thing and if you have a bad day you can just toss it and wait until the next tournament. In the NHC, you have to be the best over those two exact days. My best finish in the finals so far was around 150th. If I've learned one thing, it's that I should concentrate on fewer tracks, because it's hard to competently do 70 to 80 races."
National championship finalists will make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers, with eight races being mandatory and the other seven being player's choice from the designated contest tracks of Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Turf Paradise, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita. For scoring purposes, prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. The record championship score is $305.40 set by Steven Walker of Lincoln, Neb., in the first championship, but that was when it was 20 races per day before dropping to the current format the following year. The record under this format was $279.60 by Wolfson in 2003. The lowest winning score was Bavlish's $189.20 in 2007. The average winning score the past 10 years has been $239.41, or roughly doubling the two-day bankroll.