01/22/2014 3:05PM

Big money on the line at new-format National Handicapping Championship

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This year's National Handicapping Championship will be contested over three days at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas.

The 15th annual National Handicapping Championship will be held Friday through Sunday at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas. Nearly 500 players will compete for $1.5 million in prize money. The winner will receive $750,000 and be crowned the 2014 Handicapper of the Year at next year’s Eclipse Awards.

The NHC is the one contest where players can’t buy in – your spot must be won in a qualifying event. This is the first year where players were allowed two qualifications. Overall, there are approximately 78 dual qualifiers and 417 single qualifiers for a total of 495 entries (these numbers are subject to change depending on how many spots are awarded at the Last Chance Contest at the Treasure Island on Thursday). The field includes an array of former champions from both the NHC Finals and NHC Tour, including last year’s winner, Jim Benes. All eyes will be Brent Sumja, the reigning Tour winner, who will be playing for a bonus of a whopping $2 million in addition to the $750,000 grand prize for first.

The field is an impressive-looking group, ranging in age from 23 to 77. There are industry types, a few professional gamblers, and a whole lot of racing fans looking for the score of a lifetime. For some of the group, it’s a family affair with five sets of brothers and at least four husband-and-wife de facto “teams” competing. Of the brothers, Bill and Paul Shurman are of particular note as they have qualified 23 times between them. Of the married couples, Kevin and Nicole Cox might be the ones to watch with interest. With four entries coming out of the Cox household, they are the mathematical favorites going in at about 120-1.

[Get comprehensive, real-time coverage of the NHC]

Here’s how the tournament works. Gone is the two-day format and the controversial double-bet rule, which many players felt introduced yet another element of luck into an already heavily luck-dependant format.

This year’s NHC will be a three-phase operation. The first phase consists of Friday and Saturday, where players must make 15 $2 win-and-place bets each day, eight on mandatory races selected by a committee and seven on races of their own choosing drawn from the following list of tracks: Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Park, and Tampa Bay Downs. There is a cap on prices: the win cap is 20-1 ($42) and the place cap is 10-1 ($22).

After two days of play, the 50 players with the highest bankrolls will go on to a third day, where scores will carry over (the remaining players not in the top 50 will compete in a consolation tournament). The contest pays down to 50th, so if you’re still around Sunday, congratulations, you’ve finished in the money in the NHC. This cut down to 50 is probably the most controversial element of the new format. As one player said “I don’t know that I like the new format better than the old one. If the 51st person would have had a great third day, why doesn’t he get the same chance as the 50th person? It seems kind of arbitrary to me. It’s happened before where people come from nowhere after Day 1 and won the whole thing.”

The top 50 will continue to play on in a 10-race contest consisting of three mandatory and seven optional races over approximately 3 1/2 hours. From that point, the top 10 players (including ties) will advance to phase three, a “final table” format that will consist of five mandatory races. It’s a setup that is certain to create a lot of tension and drama. Players have been in favor of the final table, especially the opportunity it provides to have the NHC potentially become good television, like the World Series of Poker.

One fun way to follow the drama will be to play along at home. For the first time, NHCQualify.com is offering a “Play Along with the NHC” contest, offering the mandatory races in a bullet format. As much as $13,500 in prize money will be given away. The true fun of the contest is for a player at home to compare themselves to the players in Vegas. It also gives an excuse to pay closer attention to the NHC leaderboard and follow the event as if it were a poker or golf tournament. For more information, check out www.NHCQualify.com.

Another way to stay abreast of what’s happening will be to check back frequently on DRF.com. There will be updates there throughout the tournament and also via Twitter @loomsboldly.

Somebody’s going to be at least $750,000 richer come Sunday night. All that’s left is to sort out who it will be.