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.