01/24/2008 12:00AM

Five Last Chance players join NHC finals field

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In horse racing, a lot of weight is given to current form. If it's also true of humans, then the five men who earned their Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship berths on Wednesday for this Friday and Saturday's $1 million finals have to be considered live longshots as they wheel back on short rest.

The Red Rock Resort, which is hosting the NHC for the first time, held its Last Chance Qualifier on Wednesday and drew 122 entries at $500 apiece. Seventy percent of the entry fees went toward the NHC IX purse and pushed it over the milestone million-dollar mark for the first time, at $1,017,700.

The field was finalized at 278 on Wednesday, with the addition of Paul Stath, 56, of Floral Park, N.Y.; Alan Denkenson, 54, of Las Vegas; another Las Vegas resident, Meir Segal, who turns 54 on Saturday; Jerry Bartolomeo, 47, of Davie, Fla.; and Dennis "Mickey" Seagle, 65, of Marion, N.C.

In addition to his NHC berth and hotel accommodations during the finals, Stath won $6,100, with a final bankroll of $110 from 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers.

Stath said he saw the ad for the Last Chance Qualifier in the Racing Form and wanted to give it a shot.

"I talked to my wife about coming out here," Stath said. "I told her I only did two tournaments all of last year, and she said sure."

He was sitting second going into the final race of the tournament, the ninth at Turf Paradise, which was also one of the eight mandatory races that everyone had to play. Stath had vaulted to the lead earlier with 29-1 longshot Northern Chorus in Turfway's eighth race before dropping to second behind Denkenson. In the finale, Stath used Glitternmeporridge, the 4-5 favorite, who won and paid $3.60 and $2.80.

"I thought for sure I was going to finish second," Stath said. "I was shocked when the leader didn't use the favorite."

The last time he was in the NHC in 2005, Stath was in 11th after the first day with a score of $97.30 but blanked the second day to finish 108th.

"I learned a lot from the experience, and without a doubt expect it to help me this weekend," he said. "Practice makes perfect."

Denkenson finished with a score of $104.40 and settled for $4,880, but more importantly earned the NHC berth.

Segal, who was third with a bankroll of $103, earned $3,050, but said he's not much of a tournament player. In fact, he said this was his first tournament, and the only reason he entered was as a favor to Red Rock's race and sports director, Jason McCormick, who was asking regular players if they would enter.

"I can win a lot more betting straight," Segal said. "Tournaments are so time-consuming that it takes away from your other betting."

To cut down on the time he would devote to the tournament on Wednesday, he put in all eight of his mandatory plays at the start of the day, so he'd only have to worry about his seven player's choice selections. He found Sas See Fras Play in Tampa Bay's fifth race, good for $54 in contest points on a $39 win price and $15 to place. Segal said he had two other winners and then padded his total with second-place finishes in the last two mandatories.

Segal, who handicaps with the Form, deflected praise for his accomplishment. "I'd rather be lucky than smart," he said. "In any gambling game, you have to get lucky."

On his 54th birthday on Saturday, the DRF and NTRA will be handing out the $500,000 first-place prize.

"That would be a nice birthday present," he said.

Maybe then he'll change his opinion of tournaments.

Bartolomeo was fourth with $99.80. Seagle finished in fifth with $93.60.

Seagle might have the most interesting story of the group. He retired at 55 from educational sales and now just plays in horse racing and poker tournaments.

He came to town to play in the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans on Thursday through Saturday with his sons and decided to take a shot at the NHC. Informed that he would use a proxy at the HWS, since he was an NHC qualifier, Seagle planned to play at the Orleans on Thursday and then use one of his sons as a proxy while he plays at the Red Rock on Friday and Saturday.

Seagle's given name is Dennis, and that's what he's used in horse racing tournaments, including when he finished 122nd in the NHC two years ago, but he said everyone calls him Mickey, which is the name he uses in professional poker tournaments.

Seagle has cashed six times in World Series of Poker events for earnings of $326,850 (he's won more than $500,000 overall in pro poker tournaments), including a 53rd-place finish in this past year's Main Event in which he collected $190,053.

These five late qualifiers also have the advantage of having a race over the track at the Red Rock. They are joined by George Gatheca and John Cammarata, two Las Vegas locals who qualified at the Red Rock's previous qualifier in November.

However, as Stath alluded to, previous experience in the NHC is also very valuable. If you're checking the leader board at drf.com on Saturday, don't be surprised to find the names of those qualifiers that Eric Wing, the NTRA's director of media relations, cleverly dubbed "Frequent 'Fiers." Steven Walker, who won the inaugural NHC in 2000, is making his seventh NHC appearance. Ross Gallo, David Gutfreund, Rich Nilsen, Sally Wong Goodall, and Paul Shurman are back for the sixth time. NHC IV champ Steve Wolfson Jr., NHC III winner Judy Wagner, Bryan Wagner (husband of Judy), Richard Goodall (husband of Sally), Steve Hendricks, Trey Stiles, and William Shurman (brother of Paul) have qualified five times; and NHC VIII champ Ron Rippey, NHC VI winner Jamie Michelson, Duke Matties, Tim Downs, and Craig Kaufman are in for the fourth time.