01/25/2007 12:00AM

Easy job? Not so much


LAS VEGAS - So you think it's easy picking the mandatory races for the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. All you have to do is find the eight most inscrutable races from the pool of signals offered at Bally's Las Vegas's race and sports book, and presto, you have your mandatory races.

Well, that is part of the process. While it's not breaking rocks in the hot sun, picking the mandatory races is not as simple as it might appear.

First and foremost, the mandatory races are supposed to be very difficult from a handicapping perspective. That is as it should be, because with an NHC estimated purse this year of $850,000, the winner should have to work hard to earn the lion's share of that pot.

But there are other important factors that go into this exercise as well. For one, you ideally want a good cross-section of types of races. You don't want to have the mandatory races lean too heavily toward claiming races, or maiden races, or sprints, or turf events, because many handicappers tend to specialize in one or two race-type categories. Having too many of a certain type of race as mandatory races could unfairly work to the advantage, or disadvantage, of NHC contestants.

It is also preferable to offer a good geographic mix of tracks. The goal here is to avoid having too many mandatory races from one section of the country that could work to the unfair benefit of contestants from that part of the nation.

A critical consideration is the timing of the mandatory races. There may be two races that are excellent candidates to become mandatory races, but if their post times are scheduled within minutes of each other, both can't be used. Having two mandatory races go off within a minute of each other adds a degree of confusion that does not belong in a handicapping contest of this magnitude.

When Michael Wayne, assistant manager of Bally's race book; Eric Wing, senior director of media relations for the NTRA; and myself met on Thursday morning to pick the mandatory races for Friday, the first day of this two-day event, we were also faced with two other wild cards. One was the weather forecast for Aqueduct. We immediately agreed that picking one of Aqueduct's Friday races would be asking for trouble, even though Aqueduct would normally have at least one race chosen as a mandatory. We realized that, given the forecast for unusual bitter cold, either a partial or complete cancellation of the card was possible. Sure enough, just over an hour later, we were informed that Aqueduct cancelled its Friday card. Bally's designated Tampa Bay Downs as the contest track to fill Aqueduct's spot.

The other monkey wrench was the weather forecast for Gulfstream Park. Friday's race 7 at Gulfstream was an excellent candidate to be one of the mandatory races, but it was scheduled for the turf. A good amount of rain was predicted for south Florida Thursday afternoon and evening, and with the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf at Gulfstream on Saturday, we thought there was a strong chance that Friday's turf races at Gulfstream would be moved to the main track, partly to protect the course for Saturday's big race.

But after 1 1/2 hours of looking at the races from six different tracks, we came up with the eight mandatory races. Our list didn't start out exactly perfect, as the first mandatory race, the third at Fair Grounds, and the second mandatory event, the fourth at Oaklawn Park, both figured to have strong betting favorites in Gothic Soldier and Eastern Point, respectively. But Gothic Soldier has been suffering a bad case of "seconditis," and Eastern Point was taking a suspicious class drop, and we felt there were just enough questions about them to make their races interesting betting races, even if they were strong favorites.

From what was available for us to choose from, the remaining six mandatory races were all entirely satisfactory selections. Race 7 at Fair Grounds, race 8 at Gulfstream, race 3 at Santa Anita, race 8 at Oaklawn, race 7 at Golden Gate, and race 7 at Santa Anita all looked like very competitive, wide open betting races. Of course, watch the chalk have a field day in them.

Michael, Eric, and I will meet again Friday morning to pick the mandatory races for Saturday, the final day of the NHC. We have already decided to give ourselves an extra hour to complete our assignment.