03/22/2012 3:08PM

Action for tournament handicappers begins to heat up

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It’s tournament time.

I’m actually talking about horse racing handicapping tournaments. Sure, the NCAA basketball tournament is cutting down to the Final Four this weekend, but it won’t be long before college basketball gets put on the backburner for a lot of people until next March Madness.

While the Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Championship is the season-ending championship, there are hundreds of chances during the course of the year for horseplayers to get involved in handicapping tournaments. And this is the time that Las Vegas race books really get involved.

Here is a look at several of the tournaments coming up:

Horseplayer World Series qualifiers

The Handicapping Championship at the Orleans is next weekend, March 29-31. This long-running tournament has an entry fee of $500 and contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day with full track odds paid on the first $20 and the remainder capped at 20-1. The Orleans tourneys usually draw around 500 entrants with the first prize ranging from $80,000 to $100,000. In addition, the top five finishers earn an automatic berth in the Horseplayer World Series, which will be held Feb. 21-23, 2013.

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This is a quick turnaround from the World Series that was just held Feb. 23-25. For those who missed it, Robert Gregory of Durango, Colo., had a historic performance as he ran away from the field of 681 to win the $306,450 first-place prize. Gregory posted the highest daily scores on both Thursday and Friday – the first time that has been done – and his score, based on 15 mythical $20 win-and-place wagers each day (with caps of 19-1 to win and 9-1 to place), was 3,448, which was better than the three-day record of 3,416.20 set last year by Bart Solomon of Minnesota. Gregory finished with a score of 3,926 to blow away the record and finish more than a full cap horse (600 in contest points) ahead of Bob Montgomery’s 3,225.20 and Bob Rubin’s 3,206.

The other qualifiers this year at the Coast Casinos are the Gold Coast Summer Classic on July 26-28 at the Gold Coast ($400 entry fee, win-and-place format, top five earn berths) and the Fall Classic at the Orleans on Oct. 4-6 ($500 entry fee, win only, top 25 earn HWS berths). The Coast Casinos also host smaller contests during the year as well as qualifiers throughout the country and online. For a full list of those, go to coastrace.com

DRF/NTRA NHC qualifiers

Treasure Island Las Vegas hosted the NHC finals for the first time in January and is ramping up its qualifiers with three Wager to Win tournaments this spring: Saturday, April 7; Sunday, May 6; and Sunday, June 10.

There will be three NHC spots up for grabs in each to the top finishers who haven’t previously qualified (note to those not familiar with the NHC Tour: you must pay a $50 membership fee to be eligible to earn an NHC berth; details at ntra.com/nhctour). The entry fee for the Wager to Win tourneys is $300 and are limited to one per person. Like the Coast events, all entry fees are paid back as prize money unlike some tournaments that take money out of the purse to pay to send the qualifiers to Las Vegas for the NHC finals.

The dates for these tournaments were chosen to coincide with Santa Anita Derby Day on April 7, which is also Wood Memorial Day at Aqueduct and Illinois Derby Day at Hawthorne, and the day after the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes for those coming into town for those big race weekends.

It’s not until summer, but the Wynn Las Vegas – catty-corner on the Las Vegas Strip from Treasure Island -- will again have two NHC berths awarded at its $150,000 Guaranteed Wynn Las Vegas Challenge on Aug. 3-4 with its $2,000 entry fee.

◗ The Pick the Ponies Invitational is not a qualifying tournament, but it is popular. It is set for May 2-4 at the LVH – Las Vegas Hotel & Casino (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton). This is annually held the Wednesday through Friday or Derby Week and has a $500 entry fee ($450 if you register by the early-bird deadline of April 23, and it often sells out the field of 200 by then so don’t delay). The LVH pitches in the extra money to bring the purse to $100,000 with $37,000 to the winner.