Updated on 09/17/2011 10:44AM

Champ's one of 213 contestants

Defending champion Herman Miller takes on 212 foes this weekend in the fourth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS - Herman Miller threw down the gauntlet long ago. After winning the last January, he was surrounded by reporters and was asked if he would repeat as champion.

"I guarantee it," Miller said matter of fact, sounding like Joe Namath before Super Bowl III. When the follow-up questions started coming, you could almost see the gears turning in his head as he back-pedaled. "Well, I'm 90 percent sure I'll be able to defend my title. There are no sure things besides death and taxes, but I'm confident."

Too late. Miller had already given bulletin-board material to the 212 players who will face him this weekend.

With his victory last January, Miller earned an automatic spot in the fourth annual championship finals, a two-day event starting on Friday at Bally's Las Vegas on the strip. The other finalists were determined in qualifying tournaments.

In all, there were 81 sanctioned contests conducted by 49 racetracks, OTB's, casinos, websites, and racing organizations. Some contests sent the top four finishers, while others sent the top two from two separate events, while still others had four tournaments with only the winners advancing. Qualifiers won prize money, travel expenses to Las Vegas, hotel accommodations, meals, and, most importantly, the chance to win the $100,000 first-place payoff and title of Handicapper of the Year for 2002. The winner will be a guest of honor at the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 27 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Once again, the national championship brings together an eclectic field of players. Some are professional tournament players who earn all or part of their income by traveling to contests all over the country. Others took a shot at a free contest and came away winners.

Among the tournament veterans are players such as Steven Walker, winner of the first national championship in 2000 and the only one to qualify for the finals all four years; Gwyn Houston, a past winner of the World Series of Handicapping at Penn National and a three-time national finalist; Tommy Castillo, winner of the 2001 Suncoast Invitational and a two-time finalist; and David Gutfreund, multiple tournament winner and two-time finalist.

However, in a two-day contest, anything can happen. In fact, each of the first three national champions (Walker, Judy Wagner in 2001, and Miller) have been outsiders. Perhaps this year's winner will be one of the 23-year-olds - Dustin Dooley of Indianola, Iowa, or Jackie Martinez of Los Angeles - or one of the older players in the field - 84-year-old Agnes Hovsepian of Sierra Madre, Calif., or 85-year-old Martin Kasich of San Francisco. Or someone in between who emerges from the pack.

Players will be required to make 15 mythical $2 win and $2 place selections each day. Eight will be mandatory races that will be decided by a panel consisting of Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker, NTRA tournament director Jeff Sotman, and Bally's director of race and sports John Avello. The panel will try to choose a challenging mix of races from each of the contest tracks, ranging from maiden claimers to stakes races, sprints to routes, turf to dirt races. Players will then make their seven remaining bets from any of the contest tracks: Aqueduct, Laurel, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Turf Paradise, and Santa Anita, along with limited races available from Sam Houston and Turfway.

In addition to individual prizes, which pay down to 10th place, all of the contestants (except for Miller) will be competing in four-player teams based on their qualifying site. The team with the highest combined score will split $20,000, with second place paying $8,000 and third place $4,000. There will be daily prizes of $3,000 for the top score, $2,000 for second and $1,000 for third.

Last year, Miller won a record $104,000, with a $3,000 bonus for having the top score added to his $100,000 winnings and his third-place team finish providing an additional $1,000.

Another $10,000 will be dispersed to winners of daily bonus head-to-head proposition wagers. As a bonus to the participants and spectators, Avello said he also would book the individual matchups throughout both days.

Hourly scoreboard updates will be available online Friday and Saturday at www.drf.com.

Noel Michaels, author of the "Handicapping Contest Handbook," will have twice-daily updates on the DRF website.