01/21/2004 1:00AM

Handicapper of the Year up for grabs

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LAS VEGAS - The Eclipse Awards take place Monday in Hollywood, Fla. All of the votes have been tabulated, and it's assumed that all the honorees - at least the human ones - have already made their travel arrangements.

Except for one.

The 2003 Handicapper of the Year will be determined Friday and Saturday in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship at Bally's Las Vegas. After receiving a check for $100,000 at the awards banquet on Saturday night, the winner will then have the opportunity to go to the Eclipse Awards and take his or her place among the other 2003 champions.

"The winner will fly home on their normal flight Sunday," NTRA tournament director Jeff Sotman said. "They can spend their money or put it in the bank, pick up a tux, get packed, or whatever they have to do. Then we'll fly them to Florida on Monday and get them to the Eclipse Awards.

"If for some reason they don't want to go, or can't go, then they'll be given the option of going to the Eclipse Awards next year, and we'll make sure they're honored there. I'm thinking most people, if they won $100,000, would be able to take Monday off, but it'll be up to the winner."

Those in this year's National Handicapping Championship field of 261 handicappers, up from 213 last year, had to earn their way by either winning or finishing high enough in 94 qualifying tournaments held at 56 different racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites. All qualifiers received round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations to come to Las Vegas and compete for the $240,000 purse.

Steve Wolfson Jr. won the NHC last year and was given an automatic bid to defend his title. Two other past champions - Steve Walker (2000) and Judy Wagner (2001) - are also in a field that runs the gamut from professional tournament veterans who traveled the country to qualifying events to casual race fans who took a shot and got the money.

The contestants will make 15 mythical $2 win and place selections each day, on eight mandatory races (chosen by Sotman, Bally's director of race and sports John Avello, and DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker) and seven optional selections from nine available tracks. For contest purposes, prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

The mandatory races are always a particular challenge as the panel strives to select a mixture of distances, surfaces, and class levels - each at a different NTRA-member track - to test the contestants' range of handicapping skill.

Prize money will be awarded to the top 10 finishers. Aside from the $100,000 first-place prize, $40,000 will be awarded to the runner-up, $15,000 for third place, $8,000 for fourth, $5,000 for fifth, and $2,000 apiece for sixth through 10th.

Contestants, with the exception of Wolfson, will also be competing for team prizes. The team amassing the highest total score of its four players will split $25,000 ($6,250 apiece), with second place worth $10,000 ($2,500 apiece), and third place paying $5,000 ($1,250 apiece).

Also as part of the record $240,000 purse, which was increased from the $212,000 purse each of the last three years, will be daily prizes of $3,000 for the top score each day, $2,000 for second, and $1,000 for third, and daily head-to-head matchup contests each day that pay $5,000.

Media teams will also be competing for $10,000 to be donated to charities designated by the winning team's members.

Coverage will be available on www.drf.com, including a list of mandatory races, player profiles, and a leaderboard that will be updated after every other mandatory race.