01/19/2005 12:00AM

Defending champ won't have it easy

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When current Daily Racing Form/NTRA Handicapper of the Year Kent Meyer arrives at Bally's Race Book in Las Vegas to defend his title this Friday and Saturday, he will have a very strong group of rivals waiting for him, hoping to assume his throne.

This year's 214-player field for the sixth annual National Handicapping Championship is among the strongest ever assembled for the event, with top handicappers from all across North America. The field includes dozens of tournament specialists, pick-six sharpshooters, industry insiders, and others who have a singular goal in mind: take Meyer's title, and in the process take home the championship's all-time highest grand prize of $200,000.

Meyer, 39, from Sioux City, Iowa, dispatched last year's 260 challengers with contest earnings of $238.40 based on mythical $2 win-and-place bets on 15 races per day in the two-day finals. Meyer had eight winners between $14.40 and $51.80 and two seconds in the 30-race contest to take home the $100,000 top prize.

Meyer, who received an automatic berth into NHC VI as the defending champion, will be one of three past winners in the field, along with Judy Wagner from New Orleans and Steve Wolfson Jr. from Holly Hill, Fla. Wagner earned her fourth NHC berth by winning $29,000 in a qualifying event at River Downs in July. Wolfson earned his third straight trip to the national finals with a $26,000 win at Aqueduct in November.

Many other tournament professionals are in the field, and, not surprisingly, some of the most successful players in the 20-plus-year history of handicapping tournaments have made their way into this year's championship. The list is topped by Joe Hinson, also known as "the King of Cool," a player who has won nine major titles as an individual or in partnership on the tournament circuit dating back to 1983. If you mention Hinson, you also have to mention Mike Labriola of Richmond, Calif., who has won seven individual titles over the last 20 years. Labriola will be playing in his fourth national championship, Hinson his first.

Also on the list of contest big-wigs is Robert Bertolucci of San Mateo, Calif. Bertolucci has earned tournament purses in excess of $300,000 thanks to victories in contests such as the 1998 and 2000 Flamingo Reno Summer Challenges and a $108,000 payday at the MGM Grand Tour in 2000.

Another player to look out for is Ira Schwartz of Miami Beach. Known for his raspy voice and outspoken opinions, Schwartz has made appearances on horse racing-related radio shows as his alter ego, the Rabbi Larry Fine. He is coming off a big 2004, having won $60,750 for his victory in Bally's Summer Stakes contest last August, topping a strong leaderboard that included Hinson, Bertolucci, and Dave "The Maven" Gutfreund of Chicago.

Gutfreund, who on Saturday mornings co-hosts "Horsin' Around TV" on Comcast Sports Net Chicago, is a long-time contest player and winner of several events during his 16 years on the tournament scene. The Maven also is coming off one of his strongest years thanks to a win in the Belmont Summer Handicapping Challenge, a second in the Bally's Summer Stakes, and a win at the Orleans for total tournament earnings of more than $50,000.

Other tournament specialists in the field include Mike Mayo of Richardson, Texas, the winner of the MGM Grand Racing Festival in 2001 and the MGM Surf & Turf contest in 1999, and Paul Yaffee of Skokie, Ill., who won $92,900 in the 2003 Gold Coast Summer Classic and another $40,500 in a Pick the Ponies Invitational at the Las Vegas Hilton. Some other past major title winners also include Ed De'Ath of Henderson, Nev.; Richard Goodall of Las Vegas; and Frank Tate of Oceanside, Calif.

If past results in the NHC are any indication of future performance, then two more names must be added to this year's list of favorites. They are four-time qualifiers Tim Holland of Midway, Ky., and Rich Nilsen of Lexington, Ky. Holland, a breeding farm broodmare manager, finished third in 2003 and played on back-to-back team championship-winning teams for Keeneland in 2002 and 2003. Nilsen is the director of marketing for BRIS and a handicapper for the America Tab Players Pool Pick 6.

Horsemen try for a different prize

Several people in the field for NHC VI have ties to the racing industry. Two active trainers are in the field - Jerry Greenwell, who qualified at Ellis Park, and Nick Lowe, who qualified at Portland Meadows. Two others are related to trainers. Gail Searing is the wife of California-based trainer and owner Jerry Searing, and Duke Matties is the brother of Maryland-based conditioner Greg Matties.

Racing media types in the NHC VI field include The Horseplayer Magazine publisher Tim Quigley, who will be playing in his second national finals after winning the $100,000 grand prize in Gulfstream's Turf-Vivor contest last February. Also, don't forget about 81-year-old public handicapper Russ Harris, who makes selections for the New York Daily News.

Contest a family affair for some

Brynn Gallo of Hudson, Fla., is the fifth member of her family to have qualified for the National Handicapping Championship. She is related to four former qualifiers: her father, pick six guru J. Randy Gallo; her brother, Randy Gallo; and her aunt and uncle, Candice and Ross Gallo. Ross recorded the family's highest finish yet last year, when he finished 17th.

This year's field also includes brothers, Paul Shurman from team Aqueduct and Bill Shurman from team Autotote; a father and son, James A. Michelson from Thistledown and Jamie Michelson Jr. representing Youbet; and and uncle and nephew tandem of Claude Davey from Emerald Downs and Sean Felix from Portland Meadows. There is also one husband and wife team in the field thanks to Rich Nilsen's wife, Marta, who qualified on Churchill's Louisville Trackside Team 2.

The Jimmy Winkfield connection

One of the names in the news in horse racing lately has been Jimmy Winkfield, the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. He won the Derby twice, with His Eminence and Alan-a-Dale in 1901 and 1902. Winkfield is currently a popular biography subject thanks to author Ed Hotaling's "Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield," and the soon-to-be-released "Black Maestro: Jimmy Winkfield, an American-Russian Legend," by New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape.

Earlier this week, Winkfield had a stakes race named in his honor at Aqueduct, and now his name will be connected to the National Handicapping Championship, because his nephew William Smith of Versailles, Ky., will represent Keeneland in the tournament. Aside from being an avid handicapper, Smith also works to keep his uncle's legacy alive as a collector, exhibitor, and storyteller of black history.