01/26/2007 1:00AM

Bulgarian native leads NHC

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Tchavdar Milanov

LAS VEGAS – Tchavdar Milanov, a 48-year-old native of Bulgaria, led after Friday’s first day of the $836,750 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at the Bally’s race book.

Milanov scored $103 in contest points from his 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers to lead the field of 254 contestants who are playing for the $400,000 first-place prize and the title of Handicapper of the Year. Eight of the races are mandatory that everyone has to play, with players making seven optional plays. Contest points are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

He won $10,000 for having the opening day’s top score. He had gone to his hotel room without knowing he was the Day 1 leader and had to be called by NTRA officials to come down for some interviews.

“I’ll have to call my wife when I get back to my room,” he said about his windfall.

Susie Grensing, 35, of Lexington, Ky., had a score of $101.20 and finished second to pick up $7,5000; Bill Handleman, 58, of Neptune, N.J. and a columnist for the Asbury Park Press, had a score of $99.60 to collect $4,000; and Dennis Decauwer, 57, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and a majority owner of the Black Diamond Racing stable, was fourth with a score of $99.40 to collect $1,875.

Milanov said he’s been following horse racing since he was a teenager in Bulgaria when they only had races on Sundays and you could only bet to win. He said it was his dream to move to the United States and he did that in 1986, moving to Concord, Calif., where he does body work and paints automobiles.

He decided to enter Golden Gate’s spring tournament and had no idea it was an NHC qualifier until he had won the $5,000 first-place prize and two San Francisco Giants tickets.

But he was certainly happy with the free trip he received to Las Vegas and his spot in the NHC, which is in its eighth year.

Milanov said his favorite track is Golden Gate, along with Del Mar, but his biggest price Friday was on Spartan Queen in Oaklawn’s eighth race, the sixth of the day’s eight mandatories. Spartan Queen returned $26.80 to win and $11.80 to place.

He hit that after kicking himself for not having 35-1 longshot Mama Lulu in Santa Anita’s fourth race.

“After that, I started to look for better odds,” he said.

The selection that put him in the lead late in the day was Goinwest in the eighth at Golden Gate, as the 20-1 longshot paid $12 to place.

The field was supposed to have 255 player, but one qualifier from Texas was a no-show.

Dennis Bicsak, 60, of West Palm Beach, Fla., took the early lead with a score of $63.60 through the day’s first mandatory race, the third at Fair Grounds. With a dearth of long shots coming in over the next hour and a half when the next standings were posted at 1:10 p.m. Pacific time after the second mandatory race was run – the fourth at Oaklawn Park – Grensing moved into the lead at $64 with Bicsak still at $63.60 in second.

After the fifth mandatory race, the third at Santa Anita, Decauwer took over the lead with a score of $92.40. Toby Turrell, 41, of Westminster, Calif., publisher of the “Winners Card” tipsheet and a well-known clocker, moved into second place at $81.80.

By the 3:25 p.m. update, Decauwer’s $92.40 score was still on top but a familiar name moved up the leaderboard. Defending champion Ron Rippey, 62, of Wayne, N.J., vaulted into second place at $88.60. He finished the first day in eighth place with $92.20

“It would have have been nice to win some money today,” Rippey said, “but I’m kind of glad I’m not on top because then every one is shooting for you. I’m better coming from behind.”

With the exception of Rippey and those who earned their berths at nhcqualify.com, the rest of the field is broken into three-player teams based on where they qualified and are shooting for the $15,000 team prize.

After the first day, Team Calder #2 (William Galdorise, Myles Richards and Traci Richards) held a substantial lead with a combined score of $245.60. Trailing by more than $31 was Team Delaware Park #2 (Helaine Barash, Stanley Bavlish and David Malatesta) with $214. There is no daily team prize.

TVG will provide live cut-in coverage during Saturday’s action.