01/11/2010 12:00AM

Forget the cheap speed

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The 11th annual $1 million NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship is rapidly approaching with only one more qualifying competition left to complete the estimated fleld of 320 players.

This Last Chance qualifying tourney will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Red Rock Casino in the Summerlin section of Las Vegas, nine miles northwest of the Vegas Strip. On Friday, Jan. 29, and Saturday, Jan. 30, the full field of contest players from more than 120 qualifying tourneys will play in the NHC final at the same race book. This will be the third straight year that Red Rock will host the NHC.

The lure of this competition is easy to explain: First place pays $500,000, plus a championship presentation at next year's Eclipse Awards. There also are other good paydays for top finishers, and various bonus awards for parlaying a win in a specific qualifying contest at a host track or Internet site into a win at the NHC.

The Last Chance tourney has an entry fee of $500 and is expected to attract upward of 120 players, while some qualifying tournaments during the preceding 12 months had no entry fee at all and others required fees of $100 or $300, $400, or even $3,000 or $10,000 dollars, including a portion for live-money wagers.

Because the NHC is based on mythical $2 win-place wagers, most qualifying tourneys use a similar scoring format. In any case, there are several intriguing facts about handicapping contests that are worth discussing, including the way these games must be played to achieve success.

First, handicapping contests are one of the very few growth areas in American horse racing. This can be seen in the increased numbers of participating players in the qualifying contests for the NHC, including several sold-out contests that are part of the official NHC Tour.

There also are many more qualifying tourneys at host tracks, simulcast centers and Internet sites, including a few dozen tourneys that have nothing to do with the NTRA/DRF. For instance, the Orleans Hotel Casino in Las Vegas will host the $700,000 Horse Player World Series on Feb. 18-20, a tourney that has been run in most years since 1986 and has its own series of more than 40 qualifying tourneys.

Moreover, aggregate prize money also has increased significantly, which stands in contrast to declines in purses that have impacted virtually every racetrack in America. Specifically, during the 10 years of the NTRA/DRF National Handicapping Championship, first place prize money has grown from the $100,000 Steven Walker won in 2000, to $200,000 in 2005; $250,000 in 2006; and to $500,000 since 2008 when Las Vegas resident Richard Goodall won it with a model game plan that can serve as a useful guide to aspiring contest players.

The NHC final - and most NHC qualifying tourneys - require selections to be made from a combined list of mandatory races and optional plays, and Goodall built his mythical bankroll into a contending position through his mandatory plays. But he strategically saved all of his optional race selections for a late push to chase down the players in front of him and secure his position at the top of the leader board.

Judging also by my own tournament experiences (I have won more than $100,000 from about 20 tournaments in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Vegas, and the Internet), it is extremely rare to go wire to wire, or win a tournament after establishing a big early lead. Simply stated, an early contest leader often becomes a mere target for the field to run down.

Consider: Let's say you catch a max limit $42 winner among your first plays (wins are often capped at 20-1 odds) and then you repeat this stellar handicapping feat a few races later. Naturally you will be happy to be on or near the top. But, before you start salivating over the prize awards, you will find that every other player in the tourney suddenly begins to accent longshots knowing that that they will have to catch big prices to have any chance.

Now, when the usual array of $20-$40, winners occur, there will be six, eight, 10 or more players who will each have more than a few of those winners to challenge your lead or zoom past you. With so many players actively focusing on longshots, the early tourney leader still will need to pick his or her share of bombs to stay in contention.

While contest logic commands the need to catch a few longshots, including some that can light up the tote board, most contest victories go to players who catch their share of $10-$15 winners mixed in with one or two near-limit scores. It also is true that most contest winners tend to get into a contending position and then make their run to victory on the final day or during the last few races in the competition.

Beyond the results of a given tournament, good players will tell you that the experience itself can provide a few unexpected rewards. For one thing, the mere concentration and focus you place on contest races, at both familiar and unfamiliar tracks, will wake you up to the best horses at each track; the pecking order of horses at specific claiming, allowance and stakes class levels; as well as a few new winning and losing patterns of trainers and jockeys.

The accent on finding double-digit contest winners also will force players to look beyond the obvious betting favorites. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The act of looking deeper into a few dozen contest races will improve your ability to see the merits of seemingly fringe contenders who actually are stronger than you might first have concluded. Stating this another way, good horseplayers realize that it is not possible to win at the races consistently by following the crowd and betting on short-priced favorites.

Focusing on three, four or as many as six tracks during a contest also will lead to more intense race watching, even if it is on TV monitors. Fact is, I never have played a contest in which I did not spot a few horses worth betting with real money after noting that they endured very difficult trips, or were compromised by a strong track bias against them. This has even occurred at tracks I would not have noticed without the contest in progress.

The few existing handicapping contests that require money management also can do a lot for your game. The absence of this money management component is the one criticism I have for the standard $2 win-place formats in vogue for the majority of contemporary contests. That said, as handicapping competitions continue to increase in popularity and as astute track officials tap deeper into the potential to advance the game through these contests, money management decisions are sure to become fundamental to the experience.

In the meantime, to find out more, or to enter the Last Chance NHC qualifying tourney on Jan. 25, contact the Red Rock race book manager, Jason McCormick, at StationCasinos.com, or at (702) 797-7798.