01/21/2008 12:00AM

Army sergeant flies in for finals


LAS VEGAS - Every January when the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship comes to town, every contestant has a great story.

But there's usually one feel-good story that stands out above the crowd. Two years ago, it was William Gonsoulin Jr. of Louisiana, who qualified after losing his home in Hurricane Katrina. Last year, Michael Carlat of Las Vegas made it just months after having a stem-cell transplant and open-heart surgery.

When the 278 horseplayers compete this Friday and Saturday for the $1 million purse and the chance for the $500,000 first-place prize, the talk of the tournament is expected to be Chris Lavezza, 32, of Stedman, N.C. But that hometown doesn't tell the story. He currently lives in Germany as a sergeant in the United States Army, and when he qualified online he was deployed in Kabul, Afghanistan, as an information management officer, basically keeping the computers up and running.

Lavezza said he tried to qualify for the NHC four times at the nhcqualify.com site in 2006, but without success.

"The NHC helped take my mind off the gravity of being in a war zone," said Lavezza, who has been in the Army for 11 years but went to Kabul in September 2006. "I used to go to the races every other week or so, either at Laurel or to the OTBs in Pennsylvania or Maryland, so when I finally heard about the online tournaments, I was excited about it because it was a welcome distraction. You have to be vigilant every day out there - especially when you travel - given the existence of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], which can be anywhere. You just never know what's going to happen from day to day in Afghanistan."

The format at nhcqualify.com in April 2007 called for handicappers to complete a two-step process: Make it out of a pre-qualifying first-round contest, and then earn the actual NHC berth in a contest at the end of the month. On April 14, Lavezza said, he entered his 10 contest plays but was 0 for 5 when he had to go to sleep because he worked early the next day (remember, he was eight hours ahead of New York time). When he woke up, he learned that three of his final five selections had won, including two longshots, and he was eligible to play in the April 28 contest.

"I had no trouble staying awake that night," Lavezza said. "Of course, I was working on the computer systems that night."

Lavezza jumped out to an early lead, led most of the day, and held on to fourth place to win one of six NHC berths.

"I wanted to win, but I was confident I wasn't going to get caught for the NHC spot unless a really big longshot won the last race," he said. "Once I qualified, I told my commanding officer, and he told me to go through the proper channels and put in my request for leave right away so I could be sure to get the time off to fly to Las Vegas."

Lavezza plans to depart Frankfurt, Germany, on early Wednesday morning for Atlanta, where he will pick up his father, Douglas, who took him to Penn National as a kid and instilled him with a love of horse racing, and his brother, Jon. They will fly together to Vegas to get ready for the tournament, and then on Friday after competing in the first day of the NHC, he will be joined by his wife and 5-year-old son, whom he hasn't seen since last March, the month before he qualified.

"We're all going to have a wonderful dinner that night, but even if I have to stay up all night, I will get my handicapping done and be ready for Day 2," Lavezza said. "I promise you I will be ready."

Sounds like a disciplined military man on a mission.

Last chance to make NHC

In addition to the 273 people who have already qualified, five more can add their stories on Wednesday when the Red Rock hosts its Last Chance Qualifier in the race book.

Contestants pay a $500 entry fee and make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets, with eight races being mandatory and seven being player's choice, the same format that will be used in the weekend's finals. The deadline is 10 a.m. Wednesday. Seventy percent of the entry fees will go toward the NHC purse, with the remaining 30 percent to the top finishers in the qualifier.