Updated on 09/18/2011 12:16AM

Contestants to begin checking in


LAS VEGAS - The seventh annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship takes place Friday and Saturday in the Bally's race book here, but most of will be nearly as busy on Thursday.

You can call it Taking Care of Business Day, as the majority of contestants arrive in Las Vegas from all over the country and get registered for the $500,000-added finals.

The 226-player field includes Jamie Michelson Jr. of West Bloomfield, Mich., who is given an automatic entry as defending champion. There are also 220 handicappers who qualified during 2005, two qualifiers from this past Sunday's Smart Money tournament at Bally's, and the final three who earned berths in Wednesday's Win a Place to the Big Show contest at Bally's.

In addition to any money they won in the tournaments that qualified them for the NHC, all participants also receive round-trip airfare from the major airport nearest their home and three nights' accommodations at Bally's starting on Thursday night.

"We've been in contact with all of the contestants and stressed that seating will be on a first-come, first-serve basis, and most are planning to arrive early Thursday," said Ken Kirchner, senior vice president of product development for the NTRA.

When players register, they will get to choose if they want to sit close to the contest windows or farther away from the hubbub. Those who sit in the 18 seats closest to the front will be subject to being relocated Saturday, as that area will be reserved so that ESPN crews can focus on the top contenders for the taping of the one-hour special that will air Feb. 19.

In addition to picking their seats, contestants will also receive their rule packets, player numbers, contest cards, lunch vouchers for the two days, tickets to the Saturday night awards banquet, and complimentary Daily Racing Forms for Friday's races.

For repeat qualifiers - and a minimum of 63 players (not including those from Wednesday's last-chance tournament) have been to the NHC before - none of this is new, especially since this is the fourth straight year that the finals have been held at Bally's. The first three editions were held at the MGM Grand.

One change is that John Avello, the man who brought the NHC to Bally's, is no longer the race and sports book director, as he moved up the Strip to run the book at Wynn Las Vegas. Chris Eggers is now running the Bally's book, but she and the rest of her staff have been there through the first three runnings of the tournament, along with NTRA tournament director Jeff Sotman, so the show should be on autopilot and continue in the manner it's been run in previous years.

"This is our fourth year at Bally's, and it's run more smoothly each year," Sotman said. "The rest of the Bally's staff is in place, so I expect a completely smooth transition."

In the format of the tournament, in addition to eight selections per day that each player makes at the track of his or her choosing, seven mandatory races must be played by all contestants. In the past, Avello was heavily involved in the selection of the mandatory races, but Kirchner said that Sotman and a representative of Daily Racing Form - likely national handicapper Mike Watchmaker - will choose the races, which will be a challenging mix of different distances, surfaces, and class levels.

Those who arrive later on Thursday must wait until the contest headquarters opens at 9 a.m. Friday to get seat assignments and all other pre-tournament business taken care of, including finding out which races will be mandatory.

For the early arrivals, there is also a free cocktail reception at 7 p.m., though it's typical that most contestants make a short appearance and then leave early to get back to the business of handicapping.