01/19/2007 12:00AM

255 to vie for $850K in big one

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LAS VEGAS - Horseplayers from across the country will be descending on the Bally's race book here for the eighth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Friday and Saturday.

In all, 255 handicappers will be vying for an estimated $850,000 in purse money and a top prize of $400,000. Ron Rippey, 66, of Wayne, N.J., won the title last year, when first place was worth $225,000 from a total prize pool of $500,000, and along with the championship also earned a free chance to defend his title this year. The rest of the players had to qualify this past year by winning or placing high enough in 93 tournaments held at NTRA-member racetracks, OTB's, casinos, and websites throughout the country.

The NHC format calls for 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day of the two-day tournament, with eight of those being mandatory races that everyone must play and seven being optional plays from designated contest tracks. The official NHC tracks will be Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita.

Bally's is hosting a qualifying contest on Wednesday appropriately called the Last Chance Horse Handicapping Contest. NHC berths will be awarded to the top five finishers. The entry fee is $300, limit of two per person, with $50 going into a pool for the top five finishers and $250 going to the NHC purse, with proceeds expected to help that tournament reach the $850,000 figure.

Contestants in the last-chance contest will make 15 mythical $2 across-the-board wagers on 15 races from four contest tracks: Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Turfway.