01/28/2010 12:00AM

301 horseplayers go for the big one

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LAS VEGAS - For the past year, since winning the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, John Conte has been living the dream. It's the dream that will be chased by 301 horseplayers, including Conte, at the 11th National Handicapping Championship at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday. The entrants qualified through tournament play over the last year; Conte was given an automatic berth as defending champion.

Conte, 69, of Oceanside, N.Y., also topped a field of 301 last year when he leaped from 11th place to first when Raiding Party won the final race of the tournament at odds of 22-1. That gave him the $500,000 first-place prize and the title of Handicapper of the Year.

So how did it change his life?

"I've always been an ordinary guy trying to make ends meet - I've always been paid weekly, very weakly," said Conte, a longtime public handicapper for several publications as well as his "Grass is Greener" tout sheets. "After winning the half-million dollars last year, it changed my life. All my bills were paid. My wife, Arlene, loved me again. I bought three claiming horses that are trained by Richard Dutrow and I take my grandchildren to feed them carrots. It's been a great year and was topped off with getting to make a speech at the Eclipse Awards."

Conte obviously doesn't want his reign to end. He estimates his odds of repeating at 25-1 and said he has a little help from back home, saying with his thickest accent: "I had my uncle Frankie Cement, who has a shoe business in Brooklyn, talk to a few contenders to take it easy on me."

All joking aside, Conte said he won't be playing just to cash. Just like in the last race last year, it's all or nothing for him.

"The best tournament players only play to win," he said. "Either they're on top or all the way at the bottom of the standings. I'm a battler. A lot of guys have said if there was one person in a foxhole with them, they'd want it to be me. I'll be trying until the end."

The 11th NHC starts Friday with each contestant making 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers with eight races being mandatory and the other seven being player's choice from the races contested at Aqueduct, Laurel Park, Gulfstream Park, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita, and Golden Gate Fields. Prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place and scores will be updated after each mandatory race on the Red Rock's boards each day. The same format goes on Saturday, with the added incentive of daily prizes to the top point-earners. Saturday's top scorer will earn $5,000, with $2,500 for second and $1,000 for third.

The 301 contestants ties the record set last year and they will be going for a purse of $947,850, including the guaranteed $500,000 first-place prize. The official purse was determined after the Last Chance Qualifier on Wednesday.

There are six other NHC winners in the field: Judy Wagner (NHC II champion, and the only woman to be named Handicapper of the Year) of New Orleans; Kent Meyer (NHC V) of Sioux City, Iowa; Jamie Michelson Jr. (NHC VI) of West Bloomfield, Mich.; Ron Rippey (NHC VII) of Wayne, N.J.; and Stanley Bavlish (NHC VIII) and Richard Goodall (NHC IX), both of Las Vegas.

No one has won the NHC twice, with Meyer's 11th-place finish in NHC VI the best placing by a former champ.

Wagner is joined by her husband, Bryan Wagner, in trying to make NHC history. Bryan won the 2009 NHC Tour and its $100,000 year-long prize (with Judy tying for second and collecting $37,500) and is eligible for a $2 million bonus if he goes on to win this weekend's NHC.

Judy said she would be happy to defeat her husband and win the tournament - even if it cost the family the bonus money.

"Of course I want to win," she said. "We're very competitive and I would love to be the first two-time champion."

Then Judy reconsidered and said, joking, "But if it comes down to me and Bryan I'd be a fool to try and beat him - Louisiana is a community-property state."

Everyone's a comedian. But who will have the last laugh this year?