01/28/2010 12:00AM

Five get last-minute spots in NHC

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LAS VEGAS - Of the 301 horseplayers competing this weekend in the 11th annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship, the last five come in with the hottest recent form after qualifying in Wednesday's Last Chance Tournament at the Red Rock here.

:: NHC XI:

John Balla of Northfield, Ohio, won the tourney with a score of $146.20 from 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets from races at Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park, Beulah Park, and Santa Anita Park. Balla was the leader after the scores were posted in the Red Rock racebook after the final mandatory race, the fifth at Santa Anita, and with no big prices coming in the final three races - the biggest was Streets of Heaven ($13.60) in the Santa Anita's sixth - Balla held on for the victory.

Joining him in the better-late-than-never club were Lorne Weiss ($131.20) of Thornhill, Ontario; April Scanio ($124.20) of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Brian Chenvert ($119) of Rogers, Minn.; and Lee Geraghty ($115.80) of Mission Viejo, Calif. Geraghty was just $2.80 clear of sixth-place finisher Joe Jarvie.

The Last Chance, with a $500 entry fee, drew a field of 151, which was up from 113 last year. Seventy percent of the entry fees went to the purse of the national championship, adding $52,850 to the pot and increasing this weekend's purse from the estimated $930,000 to $947,850. The $500,000 first-place prize to the champion and the $150,000 prize to the runner-up remained the same, with the most significant change being the third-place prize being raised from $75,000 back to the $100,000 it was last year. That number also shows how much the handicapping championship has grown since its inception, as $100,000 was the amount awarded to the champion through the first five years.

With just 30 percent of the fees returned as prize money in the Last Chance, most of the contestants were making it their sole goal to finish in the top five to earn the seats in the finals, but Balla still earned a nice payday of $11,325 for his victory. Weiss took $7,550 for second and Scanio got $3,775 for third.

Weiss had a history of success at the Red Rock as he was in third place after Day 1 of the championship finals here two years ago before finishing 16th overall.

Scanio is the wife of Joe Scanio, who had already qualified for the seventh straight year. Likewise, Geraghty is joining her husband, Kevin, in playing this weekend.

* Updates from the championship finals will be posted throughout the tournament, leading up to the wrap-up story on Saturday night, at drf.com/nhc/2009/nhc.html

* The national handicapping champion and the rest of the money-earners will be honored at an awards banquet Saturday from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Pacific in the Charleston Ballroom at the Red Rock Resort.

Looking ahead to the 2010 Tour

No sooner will the 11th National Handicapping Championship be over then horseplayers start looking ahead to trying to qualify for the 12th event, which will be held again at the Red Rock on Jan. 28-29, 2011. And the Red Rock makes it easy for this year's also-rans to take a shot, with this year's first qualifying event, the Red Rock Shootout, on Sunday.

The entry fee is $100 and players make eight mythical $2 win-and-place wagers from the contest tracks of Gulfstream, Aqueduct, and Fair Grounds. Four races are mandatory and four are player's choice, and the caps are $42 to win and $22 to place. All entries fees are returned as prize money in this contest, with 50 percent going to the winner, 20 percent for second, 15 percent for third, 10 percent for fourth, and 5 percent for fifth. No West Coast tracks are used in this contest to help those needing to catch planes home on Sunday.

The top two finishers earn championship seats next year and will be joined by this year's champ as well as the top five finishers of the 2009 NHC Tour - Bryan Wagner and Judy Wagner of New Orleans; Steven Hartshorn of Newport Beach, Calif; Michael Labriola of Richmond, Calif.; and Shawn Turner of Middletown, Md.

* Registrations for this year's NHC Tour are now being accepted online at ntra.com/nhctour. The tour formerly had a $125 membership fee but there is a new fee structure for 2010. It now costs $100 for a Level 1 membership, which allows players to participate in five free online tournaments, including one for Level 1 members only. Level 1 players are eligible for the 10 NHC berths to the top tour finishers who haven't earned berths by Dec. 31, 2010, but not for year-end tour prizes. A $500 Level 2 membership makes players eligible for the year-end prizes for top tour finishers, with a guaranteed $75,000 first-place prize.

"We made the changes based on research with 3,000 surveys sent to horseplayers," said Keith Chamblin, the NTRA's vice president and the tournament director of the National Handicapping Championship. "We found that most people weren't interested in the prize money but wanted an economical way to get more chances to qualify. And then there was the subset of people who did want to go for the year-end prizes and those people were willing to pay more. We hope we found the right balance."