11/30/2005 12:00AM

Hallandale retiree, 87, wins Calder contest

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Dominick Coppla, an 87-year-old retiree from Hallandale, Fla., won a tiebreaker to beat 847 other players in the three-day Calder Race Course Handicapping Championship, which concluded Sunday.

In addition to the $2,500 grand prize, Coppla qualified for the $500,000 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas on Jan. 27-28, 2006. He also becomes eligible for a $1 million bonus offered by Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Calder, if he goes on to win the championship.

"I had never won anything like this before in my life," said Coppla, who attends the races four or five days a week, but considers himself a small bettor.

Marie Lavelanet of Miami finished second, earning $1,000 and an NHC berth. Christopher Ratcliffe of Cooper City, Fla., finished third and pocketed $600, plus a trip to the DRF/NTRA finals.

The free three-round contest required players to make picks for all of each day's races at Calder. Players who correctly chose at least one show horse during the first day moved onto the second round. Entrants who correctly chose at least one place horse on the second day moved on to day three. In the finals, players picked one horse in each live race. Finalists survived as long as their top selections kept winning.

After several favorites finished off the board on the first two days, just 48 players made it to the final round. Only the top three players made it through Sunday's first two races after Parker's Mill ($10.40) won the second, and they had to go to a tiebreaker when nobody picked the third-race winner. Coppla, a Calder regular who has been playing the races for more than 60 years, came closest in the tiebreaker, which was guessing the payoff of the early double ($32).

Hawthorne

Cal Jestice of Hoffman Estates, Ill., topped a sold-out field of 206 players from 12 states in the Hawthorne qualifying tournament last weekend.

Jestice, part-owner of two Thoroughbreds, led the two-day tournament after day one, nailing $36 winner Ashley's Luck in Hawthorne's first race. He finished with a $154.40 bankroll based on $2 win-and-place bets on 16 races. Jestice earned the $5,000 top prize and qualified for his first NHC.

Mike Midland of Chicago finished second with $145.80, earning $2,500 and an NHC berth. Randy Jespersen of Mt. Prospect, Ill., won a photo finish for third by just 20 cents, finishing with $141.20. He earned $1,000 and qualified for NHC VII.

Sunland Park

By a mere 60-cent margin, Clay Miller of Midland, Tex., won Zia Park's first handicapping tournament on Saturday over 136 players from five different states.

Miller earned the $2,500 first prize and will represent the Hobbs, N.M., track in the DRF/NTRA finals.

Miller finished with a bankroll of $109.60, based on $2 win-and-place bets in each Zia Park live race, beating Marcus Hurd of Lubbock, Tex., Hurd also finished fourth, with his second entry, and earned $887.50 total prize money. David Stiles of Houston finished third and earned $342.50. Both Hurd and Stiles will join Miller in Las Vegas.

Freehold

Playing in his first handicapping tournament, Dean Keppler, the director of Daily Racing Form's press division, led gate to wire and beat 71 other players in the Freehold Raceway Handicapping Contest last Friday.

Keppler won the $3,500 first prize and qualified for the 2006 Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans in Las Vegas on Jan. 19-21. The contest was not a DRF/NTRA qualifier.

Keppler, from Yonkers, N.Y., compiled a real-money bankroll of $466.50, based on $10 win-and-place bets on 12 pre-selected races. He won contest by a $100 margin.

Keppler jumped right out to the lead, nailing Best Mom ($32.40, $14) in the third at Churchill, the first race of the tournament. He built his lead from there, also selecting Bushfire ($7.80, $4.60) and Strength and Honor ($7.20, $4.40) at Churchill and Voz De Colegiala ($8.80, $4.20) at Louisiana Downs. He sealed the win by picking Magna Graduate ($10, $5.20) in the Clark Handicap at Churchill, the last race of the tournament.