08/01/2007 11:00PM

Handicapper gets to keep crown after all

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LAS VEGAS - It doesn't rain often in the desert, but the Las Vegas valley has had thunderstorms throughout the past week. In fact, last Saturday night, lightning struck for the second time at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino.

Okay, not literally, but John Buckley, 52, of Novato, Calif., won the Summer Classic horse handicapping tournament for the second straight year, a feat that appears to be unique on the horse handicapping circuit, especially with a tournament that attracts around 500 entries each year.

But Buckley beat the odds by compiling a record 38,878 points from making 15 mythical $200 win and place bets each day of three-day tourney. Buckley said he couldn't help but think about repeating.

"It crossed my mind a lot," he said, "especially with guys joking with me that it was 'your last three days with the crown,' 'the last two days,' and then 'it's your final day as reigning champ.' But all the while I was in contention."

Buckley was in 11th place through Thursday and moved up to fourth place after Friday - and people were starting to believe he could do it.

"What most people didn't know is that when they put the update on the board around 12:30 p.m., I had fallen 10,000 points behind the leader, who hit a couple of the big longshots at Saratoga," Buckley said. "He was sitting two tables away from me so I knew he was putting up a big score, but I kept to my game plan."

Buckley picked West Coast Coach in the fifth race at Arlington, and he paid $71.80 to win and $28.20 to place. Buckley followed that up with Earthen Vow ($19.40) in Monmouth's 10th race, Desert Sea ($17) in Del Mar's fifth, and Excessive Obsession ($10.80) in Del Mar's seventh.

Even though Buckley's two victories in eight years of contest playing (his other top finish was third in the Championship at the Orleans in April 2002) have come with the win-and-place format as opposed to the other Coast Casino contests, which are win only, he said the format has had nothing to do with his success.

"This weekend, I had nine winners, which averaged $32 apiece, and only three places," said Buckley, who in addition to West Coast Coach had two other $50 winners earlier in the tourney. "It's nice to get some points when a longshot runs second, but if you don't pick winners you're not going to do well anyway."

Chris Seagle finished second with 38,210 points to earn $30,000 and Milton Johns was third with 37,876 to collect $14,000. The top 10 finishers earned berths into the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans on Jan. 24-26.

Buckley uses the HTR computer program developed by Ken Massa, who held a seminar for subscribers on the Wednesday before the Gold Coast tourney.

Worth the trip

Mel Moser of Lexington, Ky., not only attended that seminar but led a panel on handicapping tournaments. He was in eighth place at the Gold Coast heading into Saturday's final day, but blanked. His plan was then to go to Emerald Downs for the Ultimate Qualifying Tournament, which was offering nine berths to the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. He then went on a journey that couldn't have been more of a roller-coaster ride if he had taken an actual roller coaster.

He had a 10:30 p.m. flight from Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport to Seattle, which seemed to give him plenty of time to make the flight after the end of the tournament. But his cab to the airport was stuck in a traffic jam due to a rock concert and an accident, and then the tram from the McCarran terminal to his gate got stuck for about 45 minutes without any air conditioning. Then his baggage was delayed when he arrived in Seattle, and when he finally got to his hotel, it took half an hour to check in.

On minimal sleep - Moser said trains were going by his hotel room every 15 minutes - he headed to Emerald for the 9 a.m. registration. He struggled until he hit Men Only ($49.20 to win and $20.60 to place) in Del Mar's third race, and then added Gentle Lana ($21.20) in Arlington's 10th race and I Can See ($20.60) in Del Mar's seventh to win the $20,000 first-place prize in the 400-entry field and one of the nine NHC berths.

Conflicting tournaments

A big topic of conversation at the Gold Coast was that the Horseplayer World Series and National Handicapping Championship are being held on the same weekend in Las Vegas, as the NHC is scheduled for Jan. 25-26 at the Red Rock Resort. The NTRA has tried in recent years to hold the NHC during the bye week before the Super Bowl. The Orleans was unable to get another weekend for its Mardi Gras Ballroom (which is needed to hold a tournament of its size) and announced its dates first. Since both events require players to submit their plays in person, contestants hoping to qualify and play in both are trying to figure out how to be in two places at once or navigate between the two properties.

* The next tournaments in Las Vegas are the $2,000 buy-in Horse Race Handicapping Challenge at Wynn Las Vegas on Aug. 10-11 and the Pick the Ponies at the Las Vegas Hilton on Aug. 16-18. The entry fee for that one is listed at $500, but unlike the Pick the Ponies held the weeks of the Derby and Breeders' Cup, which sell out their 200-player fields, the August edition has yet to fill in its two years of existence. The tourney's early-bird deadline has been extended to Aug. 13, with entries costing only $400 and the Hilton kicking in the difference.

NFL preseason kicks off

It doesn't count for much except for ticket sales and the chance for a few rookies to make an early impression, but the Hall of Fame Game starts the most highly anticipated preseason in sports. The long wait for NFL football ends Sunday with the annual game from Canton, Ohio, when the Pittsburgh Steelers play the New Orleans Saints. Most Vegas sports books have the Steelers favored by 2 1/2, though the Leroy's books have it as high as -3. The over/under ranges from 34 at the Hilton to 35 at the Caesars/Harrah's and MGM Mirage network of books.