01/29/2010 12:45AM

Contest Eve

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LAS VEGAS -- This is one of the best parts of my job: On Saturday night, I'll be handing some horseplayer a check for $500,000 -- whichever one of the 302 finalists in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship does the best in 16 mandatory and 14 elective races over the next two days.

In addition to the winner's (not the lion's) share of the $930,000 tournament purse, the victor will be honored as the Handicapper of the Year at next year's Eclipse Awards ceremony.

The NHC is sometimes compared to the World Series of Poker, but it's a fundamentally different event. The NHC is more of a tournament of champions, because you have to qualify by taking one of the top (usually) four spots in one of 85 NTRA-sanctioned qualifiers during the past year. So everyone's already won some prize money in a qualifier and now gets a complimentary trip to Vegas for a free roll at half a million. That gives the event a different feeling from one where people can walk in off the street and buy an expensive seat, as in the WSOP.

Obviously, any horseplayer can have a good or bad 30-race stretch, and you have to be lucky as well as good, but good plays a huge part: There were 120,000 entries in the 85 qualifiers, but 7 of the previous 10 winners are back this year -- six of them qualified while last year's winner, John Conte, gets a free pass to defend his title. Of the 302 finalists this year, 140 are first-timers but 162 have been here before.

I got here Wednesday to squeeze in a day of poker before the tournament begins, and Conte was one of the first people I ran into at the Red Rock Casino, where the tourney is held in the race and sports book. Conte, a New Yorker who used to write a grass-picks column called "The Grass Is Greener" on the racing page of The New York Post, collected his Handicapper of the Year award 10 days ago in Los Angeles. He saw no point in going all the way back home between events and thus has been playing horses and roulette in Vegas to pass the time. He hasn't given back the $500,000 yet.

The Red Rock seems livelier than when I was here in September for the NTRA Marketing Summit, and casino business has stopped its freefall of last year, but the town is still struggling with high unemployment, stalled projects and a particularly hard crash in the housing market: Homes and condos that were selling for $750,000 and up 18 months ago are languishing on the market for less than half that much. Whoever wins the tourney might want to look into local real estate.


michael englert More than 1 year ago
is ther anyplace to view handicapping tournaments winners picks for the two days
Tom Crone More than 1 year ago
The NHC is going to be continually plagued with weather problems as long as they hold this in January. Have they ever thought about moving it to a track during live racing? I would think the last weekend of the Churchill meet would be a great time and they could handle the participants easily, and until they go to live scoring they wont ever get the excitement they want.
Brad Auger More than 1 year ago
Steve, It was a pleasure to meet you at the NHC tourney, if only everyone was as a great ambassador of the game as yourself. I have wanted to meet you for a long time and you were a super nice guy like I thought you would be. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and my new wife and best of luck and wishes to you and yours in the new year year...Brad
Pru More than 1 year ago
Just got back from vacation and see the Big A just canceled along with Oaklawn. I hope the Drf/Ntra Handicapping Challenge has some other dirt tracks it can use for the mandatory race changes. While, it is pretty cold (in UES of Manhattan) it seems like NYRA just doesn't really want to run the rest of a pathetic Saturday card. Excellent article from Mr. Beyer on MD racing's integrity or shall we say lack of integrity.
Craig More than 1 year ago
What is the deal with a lot of participants not getting televisions? [Craig (and others who asked about the seating issue): My understanding is that there are about 300 contestants and 250 racebook seats. The NTRA is making the best of a bad situation and working on finding a larger venue, but it's tough because most casinos are downsizing their racebooks. There's a Players Committee panel working on the issue too. --SC]
ponyman More than 1 year ago
Steve--wish you were at GP this weekend instead of casino. Sat-80degrees-Florida Sun-Rum & Coke- Ok card-your women by your side--then party at new club for dinner & dancing MIVI..WHOA-tell me that doesn,t beat Vegas
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Only Michigan has a higher state unemployment rate than Nevada, which might have a bit to do with falling real estate prices. Good luck with the ponies!
Evan Gewirtz More than 1 year ago
One Final thought on the exciting NY racino news. If Belmont eventually also gets a racino, will it be run by the Belmont Entertainment Group (BEG).
Evan Gewirtz More than 1 year ago
Could the nearly 10 year wait for the AQU racino finally be coming to an end? It looks like the rather bulky Aqueduct Entertainment Group secured the prize. I know the NYRA and the NY horseman do not get the "lion's share" of the profits, however, this might be a great day for NY racing. Given the history of the slots political football, with all the fumbles that have occurred, I will not be cheering until I hear the first slot machine ring.
Virgin Queen More than 1 year ago
betting horses and playing poker...what a life.