01/23/2004 12:00AM

Early-bird qualifying events

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LAS VEGAS - On Sunday, the fifth Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship will be history. The champion handicapper of 2003 was scheduled to be crowned on Saturday night at the completion of the two-day tournament.

But there is no off-season in this sport. Preparations are already being done for next year's NHC and the first two qualifying events are less than two weeks away, on Feb. 7-8.

In Nevada, the Winter Challenge at Reno Hilton is a live-money event with each contestant paying a $200 entry fee and then making $300 in parimutuel wagers on each of the two days. Bets must be in denominations of $2 or higher and no parlays or pick sixes (or higher) are allowed. Players get to keep the money from their winning bets, plus compete for the highest accumulated bankroll to win their share of the prize pool. The top four finishers will also earn berths in next January's NHC, including round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations.

That same weekend the $140,000 Sports Haven Handicapping Challenge will be held in New Haven, Conn. Entries, limited to the first 350, are $400 and each player makes 10 mythical $200 wagers at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Santa Anita on each day. The top two finishers will qualify for the sixth NHC.

The third qualifier next month is Turf-Vivor III at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 27-29. The entry fee is $1,000, and the field is limited to 125, but guarantees a $100,000 first-place prize. Players make $2 mythical across-the-board wagers on five designated races on Friday and Saturday. The 16 top contestants, based on aggregate bankrolls, qualify for the final round on Sunday. The finalists then compete in head-to-head, single-elimination matchups until a winner emerges. There will also be $32,000 in secondary prizes.

Later this year, Bally's Las Vegas, which hosted the NHC for the second consecutive year, is also having two qualifying events for next January's finals.

Bally's Moolah, with an entry fee of a whopping $5,000, is April 16-17. The entry fee is steep, but it offers one of the best odds for getting in the NHC. Last year, just 14 people played in the tournament with the champ earning the trip to the NHC.

Summer Stakes V, with an entry fee of $1,000, will be the other qualifier at Bally's, on Aug. 6-7. Players make 15 mythical $2 across-the-board bets on each day. This tournament sends the top three finishers to complete Bally's four-player team for the finals.

Derby, BC Classic futures available

Before the NHC qualifiers head back to their respective homes, many of them are sure to check out the fixed-odds Kentucky Derby future book prices available at most Las Vegas race books.

At Bally's, Lion Heart and Tapit have been bet down to the favorites at 10-1. Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Action This Day has been bet down to 12-1 despite facing the Juvenile/Derby jinx. Among other top contenders, Eurosilver is 15-1, Birdstone is 18-1, and Second of June and St Averil are 20-1, but the true value in playing the future book is to find horses before everyone gets on the bandwagon and all the value is gone.

Bally's also has odds on the Breeders' Cup Classic. Candy Ride and Dynever are the favorites at 12-1, followed by Medaglia d'Oro and Ten Most Wanted at 15-1, Funny Cide and Grand Hombre at 20-1, and Atswhatimtalknbout, Congaree, Perfect Drift, defending champ Pleasantly Perfect, and Tizbud at 25-1.

Free Derby contest online

Those who can't get to Vegas can still play the Derby futures at Bally's, as long as they can get to a computer. The 2004 Bally's Future Book Challenge started Thursday at letitride.com.

There is no entry fee. Through April 21, contestants build a fantasy Derby stable of up to 28 runners by locking in odds every week based on the current future-book odds. The week before the Derby, to be run May 1 this year, contestants reduce their stable to four 3-year-olds. Points are based on a multiplier (10x for having the winner, 7x for second, 5x for third, 3x for fourth, and 1x for fifth) of the odds that were locked in at the time each horse was chosen, so it's imperative to get them at the highest possible odds before everyone else gets on the bandwagon.

The top five finishers will win two nights' accommodations and invitations for two to this year's Breeders' Cup party at Bally's. Other prizes - such as branded merchandise, handicapping subscriptions, books, caps, etc. - will be awarded to the top 100. Full details are at letitride.com.

Vegas news and notes

* Harrah's Entertainment Inc. finalized its purchase of Binion's Horseshoe on Thursday, less than two weeks after the downtown casino was closed because of insufficient funds on hand after U.S. marshals showed up with a court order to collect $2 million in unpaid contributions to union pension and health care funds. Terms were not disclosed and no decision was announced on when the casino would re-open, but Harrah's announced that this World Series of Poker would go on as scheduled at the Horseshoe from April 22-May 28.

* Entrepreneurs Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, founders of travelscape.com, completed their $215 million purchase of the Golden Nugget late Thursday night after the Nevada Gaming Commission approved their gaming license earlier in the day. The Commission granted the new owners' request for a four-year license after the Gaming Control Board recommended a one-year license because of the duo's continued association with strip club owner Rick Rizzolo, who is under federal investigation.

* The Jaguars gentlemen's club, located just west of the Strip on Desert Inn Road, re-opened Wednesday after its liquor license was reinstated by the Clark County Commission. Two former police officers, Rich Gonzales and Randy Miller, are operating the club for owner Jack Galardi, who bought the club from his son, Michael Galardi, after he agreed to plead guilty to political corruption charges. Admission is free and drinks are half-priced for Nevada residents through the Super Bowl weekend.