Updated on 09/16/2011 6:43AM

Finding the best of the best

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LAS VEGAS - You could call it the U.S. Open of handicapping tournaments. Or even the horseplayers' quest for the Holy Grail.

The $212,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, held Friday and Saturday in the MGM Grand race and sports book, will crown the 2001 Handicapper of the Year. The champion will win $100,000 and a trip to the Eclipse Awards in Miami Beach on Feb. 18, where he or she will be honored along with the nation's top horses and racing people.

You can't buy your way into the finals; you have to place high enough at a qualifying tournament to receive an invitation. Forty-four racetracks, off-track parlors, casinos, and websites sponsored a total of 65 qualifying events in 2001. Each group ultimately sent four qualifiers to the finals.

Adam Leoni has been to the National Handicapping Championship each of the last two years, but only as a guest of his son, Rick, who qualified for the event both times.

The elder Leoni, a 61-year-old retired postal supervisor, was proud of his son's accomplishments, but says he was sick of living vicariously after failing to qualify either year. He wanted in on the action.

At last January's event, he came up with his motto for 2001: "Broke, die, or qualify."

He shared his mantra with people at the tournament and also with friends and family back home in Sonoita, Ariz.

Although Rick Leoni didn't qualify this year, Adam made it on his third try, finishing in the fourth and last spot at a qualifier at Sunland Park on Aug. 4-5.

"It's very difficult, because there are so many talented handicappers out there," Leoni said Wednesday morning. "I was going to give it my best shot. If I hadn't qualified at Sunland, I would've made time in my schedule to play more tournaments.

" 'Broke, die, or qualify.' Luckily I'm still alive, but I'm almost broke," he said with a laugh.

Leoni's quest was different than a lot of other handicappers who traveled all over the country for the chance to earn a berth in the championship. Professional tournament players could be found far from home in such outposts as Fair Meadows in Tulsa, Okla., and the Bettor Racing OTB in Sioux Falls, S.D. Anything to have a shot at the national title.

One person who didn't have to worry about qualifying was defending champion Judy Wagner, a former sports travel executive from New Orleans. She received a sponsors' exemption and will be back to defend her title in the field of 177 handicappers. Steven Walker an environmental worker from Lincoln, Neb., who won the inaugural championship in January 2000, is also back for another try. He is one of only three three-time qualifiers, along with Brian MacClowry of Phoenix, and Michael Deville of Bossier City, La.

Contestants make 15 mythical $2 win and place bets a day. Tournament organizers select eight mandatory races, spreading them around different tracks, different surfaces and different class levels. Players can choose their other seven wagers from races from nine contest tracks. Mutuel prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

The person who accumulates the highest bankroll from their 30 plays will win $100,000, plus the trip to the Eclipse Awards. Second place is worth $30,000, with $10,000 for third, $5,000 for fourth, $3,000 for fifth, and $2,000 for sixth through 10th.

Daily prizes are $3,000 for the top score, $2,000 for second, and $1,000 for third, plus a $5,000 daily prize for a bonus exotic competition. In addition, each competitor is part of a four-person team (based on where they qualified) that will vie for a $20,000 team prize with $8,000 for second and $4,000 for third.

The total prize money comes to $212,000.

Adding to the big-time feel this year will be camera crews from ESPN and the Discovery Channel. The print media will also be represented; Sports Illustrated is sending a writer and photographer, and reporters from The San Francisco Examiner and other top newspapers will be on hand. Penthouse is also planning a feature story.

Media members will play along with the contestants to try to win $10,000 for designated charities. The teams are captained by Daily Racing Form's Steven Crist (Team National), Mike Watchmaker (Team Penthouse), Michael Hammersly (Team Industry Media), and Lauren Stich (the defending media champion, Team Vegas).

PICKING WINNERS FOR 100 GRAND

WHAT: Third annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship

WHEN: Friday and Saturday

WHERE: MGM Grand in Las Vegas

WHO: 176 horseplayers who earned a berth in 65 qualifying tournaments held coast to coast, plus defending champion Judy Wagner.

WHY: To crown the 2001 Handicapper of the Year, who will be honored at the Eclipse Awards Dinner on Feb. 18 in Miami Beach, Fla.

FORMAT: Each contestant makes mythical $2 win and place bets each day on eight mandatory races and seven races of their own choosing from nine available tracks.

PRIZE MONEY: $212,000 total purse (including $158,000 distributed to the Top 10 finishers, $22,000 in daily prizes and $32,000 in team prizes, based on where players qualified) with $100,000 going to the champion. Media teams also battle for $10,000 to go to the winners' designated charities.

INTERNET: Coverage available on www.drf.com, including a list of mandatory races, player profiles and a leaderboard.