01/18/2005 12:00AM

The cream of the handicapping crop

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Handicapper of the Year Kent Meyer of Iowa will face a field of 213 challengers when he returns to Bally's-Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday to defend his title in the sixth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. The field will also include past winners Steve Wolfson Jr. (2003), Judy Wagner (2001), and an accomplished group of horseplayers who aim to add their names to the list of the country's top handicappers.

Here's a look at the five players who have been lucky enough and good enough to earn the title of DRF/NTRA Handicapper of the Year.

Steve Walker (2000)

Steve Walker broke through in the horse racing world when he won the inaugural National Handicapping Championship to become the DRF/NTRA Handicapper of the Year for 2000. Walker knocked out a field of 160 handicapping heavyweights to win $100,000 at the MGM Grand in January 2000. He compiled a contest-winning bankroll of $305.40 based on 20 mythical $2 win and $2 place bets.

Key NHC win: Star of Rio, who paid $40.40 at Gulfstream. "I needed that win to build up my confidence."

Personal data: Walker holds the distinction of being the only person to have qualified for the first five National Handicapping Champion-ships.

Describes himself as: An underdog from Lincoln, Neb.

Handicapping style: "I exclusively use the Daily Racing Form online past performances, which I download and print in advance. My goal in most tournaments is to select as many medium- to long-odds winners as possible. I try to select 'limit' horses in at least three of the optional races. My remaining optional selections generally have odds between 10-1 and 19-1."

Quote: "It was all about winning. The $100,000 never really entered my mind."

Judy Wagner (2001)

Judy Wagner won the second DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, defeating a field of 203 players and taking home a $100,000 grand prize in January 2001. She was in eighth place after day one of the contest and used a strong rally on day two to leap to the top of the leader board. Her final national bankroll of $237.70 based on $2 win and place wagers on 30 races from eight tracks around the country was good for a $7.30 margin of victory. Wagner picked up her Handicapper of the Year award a week later at the Eclipse ceremony in her home city of New Orleans.

Key NHC win: Wagner's big break came late in the event when Hoovergetthekeys won the Golden Gate Derby and then survived a 10-minute inquiry to return $33 to win and $12.20 to place.

Personal data: Wagner was introduced to handicapping by her husband, Bryan, just five years before her victory. The couple is active in the industry as horse owners in racing partnerships, including the Karmak Galactic Stable and GWM Farms. She owned Prankster, a horse who won the claimer of the year award from the Kentucky HBPA in 1999. Wagner qualified this year for her fourth national finals appearance with a win and a $29,000 payday in the River Downs Handicapping Contest.

Describes herself as: Someone who "doesn't exactly fit the typical profile of a horseplayer."

Handicapping style: She concentrates on pedigree and relies heavily on trainer stats, troubled trips, trainer and jockey changes, and horses that are improving.

Quote: "Whoever would have thought someone who has been handicapping for such a short time could win? I'm absolutely thrilled."

Herman Miller (2002)

Herman Miller jumped out to an early lead and never looked back on his way to victory over a field of 177 players in the third annual $212,000 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Jan. 25-26, 2002, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Miller prevailed after a seesaw battle with several challengers to take first prize of $100,000. He hit nine winners in the 30-race tournament and scored a contest-winning bankroll of $205.30 despite missing a race and making only 14 of his 15 available plays on the first day of competition.

Key NHC win: Miller built an early lead thanks to Crazy Star, who returned $75.20 to win and $22.60 to place in Friday's 10th race at Gulfstream.

Personal data: Miller qualified after playing in his first handicapping contest, and he was the final qualifier in the final qualifying contest for NHC III based on his fourth-place finish at Golden Gate Fields. Winning the NHC enabled Miller to help pay for some of his daughter's college education, and also paid for his trip to attend his first Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park.

Describes himself as: Someone who focuses on strategy.

Handicapping style: "If it's a full field and I think the favorite is going to lose, then I use my own system to find the winner. I take the raw data from the Daily Racing Form and rely heavily on the Beyer Figures. I then come up with a formula in which I coordinate my speed/class/pace 'spectrum' and decide which is more important in that race."

Quote: "I'm 90 percent sure I'll be able to defend my title next year. There's no sure things besides death and taxes, but I'm confident."

Steve Wolfson Jr. (2003)

Steve Wolfson Jr. became the fourth DRF/NTRA Handicapper of the Year with his victory in NHC IV on Jan. 17-18, 2003, at Bally's-Las Vegas. Wolfson defeated a field of 213 players and claimed first prize of $100,000 with a final bankroll of $279.60, which is the highest bankroll in National Handicapping Championship competition since the tournament was switched to its current 30-race format.

Key NHC win: Wolfson leapt into contention in the contest with his play on Offlee Wild ($56.80 to win and $21.60 to place) in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.

Personal data: Wolfson Jr., or "Junior," is the grandson of Louis Wolfson, the founder of Harbor View Farm who owned 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Wolfson has been an avid handicapper for many years and a tournament enthusiast since 2001. He stands as the all-time leading NHC money earner, with prizes and bonuses totaling $105,833. Following his national championship, Wolfson capped a memorable 2003 when he got married to his wife, Darlene.

Describes himself as: A somewhat serious bettor when he has time to get away from his day job as a teacher.

Handicapping style: "I play good-priced horses. I keep taking good shots and finding overlays, and I never change that strategy."

Quote: "Me and my dad are pretty comprehensive handicappers. A lot of my success came from working together as a team. We take everything into account, and I couldn't have done this without him."

Kent Meyer (2004)

Kent Meyer became the fifth winner of the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, topping a field of 261 players on Jan. 23-24, 2004, at Bally's-Las Vegas. Meyer won first prize of $100,000 and earned the crown of DRF/NTRA Handicapper of the Year for 2004. Meyer compiled a total of $238.40 based on mythical $2 win-and-place bets on 15 races per day on each day of the two-day contest. In total, Meyer had eight winners between $14.40 and $51.80, plus two additional seconds in the 30-race contest.

Key NHC win: Meyer's win on Farnum Alley in race five at Gulfstream ($35.20 to win, $10 to place) cemented his victory.

Personal data: When Meyer qualified for NHC IV in 2003, the year before his eventual victory, he used his free trip to Las Vegas as an opportunity to elope with his girlfriend, Cammie. Meyer got married - Elvis-themed ceremony and all - on the night before the contest started and finished 32nd in NHC IV. Meyer returned as a more experienced and focused player in his second straight championship appearance and came away with a $100,000 anniversary present.

Describes himself as: An avid horseplayer who is rarely seen without a copy of Daily Racing Form.

Handicapping style: Meyer looks for prices and tries to beat favorites. "You're always looking for prices in tournaments. I usually look at a race and see if I think I can beat the favorite."

Quote: "I knew going in that this is a really tough tournament to win, but I knew if I had a couple big days I could do it."