01/27/2007 1:00AM

Columnist leads late at NHC

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LAS VEGAS - Heading into the stretch run of the $836,750 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Saturday, Bill Handleman was leading the field of 254 players.

Handleman, 58, of Neptune, N.J., is a news columnist for the Asbury Park Press. Last year, Ron Rippey, the public handicapper for the Newark Star-Ledger, won last year's first-place prize of $225,000. This year's top prize is $400,000.

The eighth annual NHC, being held Friday and Saturday in the Bally's race book, requires each contestant to make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers to 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.

At the 2 p.m. update, Handleman was in the lead with a score of $171.60. In second place was Myles Richards, 48, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., with $168.80. Myles is eligible for a $1 million payday if he wins the NHC due to the Churchill Downs Inc. "Million Dollar Bonus Tour," which awards the bonus for anyone who can win a qualifying tournament at a CDI track and go on to win the NHC.

Richards vaulted to the top with Crusader Rabbit, who paid $130.40 to win and $40.60 to place, in Gulfstream's second race. Contest payoffs are capped $42 to win and $22 to place, so the win was worth the maximum $64 in contest points, but that gave Richards $145.40 points total. At the 11 a.m. update, he held a lead before being overtaken by Sue Ashby, a 40-year-old homemaker from Des Moines, Iowa. At the 2 p.m. update, Ashby was behind Richards again at $167.20, with a $30 lead over fourth place.

The Day 1 leader, Tchavdar Milanov, 48, of Concord, Calif., slipped to 13th place at $127.60.

Rippey was in ninth place with $131.70, while 2005 winner Jamie Michelson, 41, of West Bloomfield, Fla, was in the hunt in 15th at $125.40.

The tournament ends around 5 p.m. with the 10th race at Santa Anita, though Santa Anita's ninth if the final mandatory race.