04/18/2004 11:00PM

Ace player misses his entrymate

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Joe Hinson is the patriarch of the first family of horse handicapping tournaments. The Hinsons have won more than a dozen major titles and close to a million dollars in prize money since 1988. It has been a sweet 16-year run.

But this last victory was bittersweet. Joe Hinson won the Bally's Moolah tournament last Friday and Saturday. He outlasted a field of 19 players who put up a $5,000 entry fee for a shot at a Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship berth and a prize fund of $95,000.

Hinson took more than half the pool with first-place winnings of $38,000, plus $7,125 for having the highest score on Friday and $3,562.50 for having the third-highest score on Saturday for a grand total of $48,687.50.

The bittersweet part was that it was his first victory that he couldn't celebrate with his wife, Valerie, who passed away Jan. 28 after a long bout with cancer. While the vast majority of tournament players are men who leave their wives at home (or send them shopping or to play the slot machines), Valerie was not only a supportive wife but a willing participant as they were a 1 and 1A entry on the circuit, commuting from their home in Germantown, Tenn., to tournaments from coast to coast.

Valerie was a three-time winner of the World Championship of Horse Racing Handicapping events that ran from 1983 to 2000 at the Club Cal Neva Casino in Reno and was almost always there to cheer on her husband.

When the National Handicapping Championship began in 1999, the Hinsons traveled around the country to countless qualifiers. But even though their successes continued in many other tournaments, they came up blank in NHC qualifiers. Joe was 0 for 4 years - until he finished third in the Summer Stakes at Bally's last August to finally earn a berth.

But fate dealt a cruel blow when Valerie's health turned for the worse in the weeks leading up to the NHC on Jan. 23-24. Joe called tournament officials the week of the finals to say he wouldn't be coming, nor would their daughter Kelly Phillips, who had qualified by winning the Turf-Vivor tourney at Gulfstream last year.

The disappointment of missing the NHC was furthest from the family's mind the following week when Valerie died at the age of 49.

When asked about playing without his wife, the soft-spoken Hinson said, "I miss her." And that's all that had to be said. His sad eyes told the rest.

So, it seemed right that Hinson was able to secure his NHC berth early this year. And he did it in relatively easy fashion, leading wire to wire. Bally's Moolah contestants make 15 mythical $2 win and place bets each day, counting bets on six races that are mandatory. Prices are capped at 25-1 to win and 12-1 to place, with a five-point bonus for each first-place finisher selected.

In the first mandatory race last Friday - the first at Keeneland with 3-year-old maiden claimers going 1 1/16 miles - Hinson's own computer program came up with longshot Rio Ruckus.

"When I put in the play with five minutes to post, he was 30-1," Hinson said. "He drifted up to 50-1. In a tournament like this with a cap, I wouldn't have played him if I knew he was going to be 50-1, but my play luckily was already in."

Hinson wasn't too thrilled with his play when Rio Ruckus stumbled out of the gate, but he rallied to victory, paying $104 to win and $41.40 to place. Even with the cap, Hinson was off and running. He said he played mostly favorites the rest of the day in the tournament (not even using Senorita Jazzy in Bay Meadows's fifth race, which he fortunately bet at the windows to the tune of a $140.20 win mutuel) and was the first-day leader with a total of $133.80.

Hinson again employed a conservative style on Saturday and proved he can consistently pick winners as well as finding bombs. He had seven winners in his 15 plays on Saturday to finish with a final score of $241.60, well ahead of second-place finisher Ron Geary.

Geary won $11,875 for finishing second, plus an additional $4,750 for having the second-highest score on Saturday, plus another $1,187.50 for having the fourth-highest score on Friday. Al Roehl collected $7,125 for third with a score of $193.70 and another $4,750 for having the second-highest score on Friday. Mario Mabanta only had $32.50 after the first day but got the high score on Saturday to earn $7,125 for the daily prize, plus tournament fourth-place money of $4,750.

But the big winner was Hinson, who asked for all of his winnings in a check, since he said he was flush with cash from his side play (he said he also hit Rio Ruckus heavily at the windows).

Tournament trail heads to Reno

That money will come in handy as Hinson continues his tournament trip. After Bally's Moolah, he said he was playing in blackjack tournament at Bally's earlier this week and then going to Reno for the Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament this Wednesday through Friday, before returning to Las Vegas for the Coast to Coast Derby Shootout April 28-29 at The Orleans.

The Harrah's Reno tournament has an entry fee of $500 with a guaranteed first-place prize of $20,000. Tournament coordinator Christi Mitchell said Sunday that she is expecting around 80 entries (compared to only 57 last year) with some uncertainty because there is a maximum of three entries per person. It's a safe bet that Hinson will buy the max.

Mitchell said interested players can still enter until there are 10 contest races remaining on Wednesday afternoon. Players are scored on 10 mythical $200 across-the-board plays per day.

NBA bankroll off to rocky start

Home teams won all eight opening games in the NBA playoffs over the weekend, while going 5-3 against the spread. I didn't fare so well.

On Saturday, I lost with the Knicks +8 vs. the Nets and the Grizzlies +9 vs. the Spurs (both blowout losses). Sunday was a little better with wins on the Kings -5 over the Mavericks and the Hornets +6 1/2 in a spread-covering loss to the Heat, but I lost with the Kings-Mavs under 219 1/2 (the final was 116-105, one basket over the total) and the Nuggets + 9 1/2 vs. the Timberwolves.

That made my record so far 2-4 for a net loss of 2.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Wednesday, I will start with the Bucks-Pistons over 178 points. That's a play I suggested in my write-ups on each series, but failed to make a bankroll play. I will again back the Hornets at +5 vs. the Heat because I think they can win outright and even the series. In the nightcap, I will take the Nuggets +10 vs. the Timberwolves. Denver was outplayed early but rallied nicely to get within five on Sunday before losing and failing to cover, 106-92.