01/19/2005 12:00AM

Handicapper of the Year title at stake

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LAS VEGAS - For contest players, bigger is better when it comes to prize money, but not to field size. Contestants in the sixth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, to be held Friday and Saturday in the Bally's race book, get it both ways.

The NHC purse has been increased 67 percent from last year's $240,000 to about $400,000. Yet there will be only 214 players this year, compared to the 261 in last year's NHC, won by Kent Meyer of Sioux City, Iowa.

First prize has been doubled from $100,000 to $200,000. The winner also earns a trip to the Eclipse Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Monday to be honored as Handicapper of the Year with the rest of the industry's champions.

Prize money for second through fifth place has been increased as well. They will pay a minimum of $70,000 for second, $25,000 for third, $15,000 for fourth, and $10,000 for fifth. The sixth- through 10th-place finishers will receive $5,000 apiece.

In the first five years of the NHC, the payouts ended there, but this year 11th through 20th are worth $2,000 each. In addition, daily prizes will be awarded to the top three scorers each day - $5,000 for first, $3,000 for second and $2,000 for third - and this year's qualifiers will also be competing as teams, based on where they earned their berth, for a top prize of $15,000.

The racetracks, OTB's, and websites that held the qualifying tournaments are each putting up $1,500 in entry fees per player, compared to $1,000 in past years, and they each are sending three players, rather than four, to the NHC.

One thing that has remained the same is the format. Contestants will make 15 contest $2 win and place wagers each day. Eight of the races will be the same for everyone. The committee of NTRA tournament director Jeff Sotman, Bally's race book director John Avello, and DRF handicapper Brad Free will try to find big fields for the mandatory races and use a mixture of different kinds of races, on dirt and turf, from several tracks.

The other seven plays can come from any of the contest tracks, which will include Aqueduct,

Laurel, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and Turf Paradise.

As is the case every year, the NHC field has people from virtually every walk of life, including 25 female qualifiers, not counting qualifiers who will come out of a last-chance tournament held Wednesday at Bally's.

In a major tournament like this, the conventional wisdom is that experience counts. So it's no surprise that when Avello made odds on each contestant to win this year's NHC, it was top-heavy with veteran handicappers of the tournament circuit.

Avello made Joe Hinson of Germantown, Tenn., the 35-1 favorite, based on his nine major tournament victories and countless in-the-money finishes. The second choice is NHC IV champion Steve Wolfson Jr. of Holly Hill, Fla., at 40-1. Defending champ Meyer is next at 50-1 followed by seven handicappers, all veterans, at 60-1: Robert Bertolucci of San Mateo, Calif.; Dave Gutfreund of Chicago, Ill.; Tim Holland of Midway, Ky.; Larry Kaplan of Northbrook, Ill.; Mike Labriola of Richmond, Calif.; Trey Stiles of Houston, Texas; and NHC II champion Judy Wagner of New Orleans, La.

"I looked at the bios of every player and, obviously, gave more credit for past champions and others that have competed in the National Handicapping Championship or a similar format or big-money tourney before," Avello said. "Qualifiers who got in from free contests or don't have much experience in this type of environment were downgraded. It's all in good fun; it's not meant to offend anyone, but we'll see how it plays out. Maybe at the end I'll look like a fool, but that will be fun, too."

It could happen. A favorite has yet to win in the first five years of the NHC. It has been a relative unknown outsider taking down the top prize each year, from Stephen Walker in 2000, to Wagner in 2001, to Herman Miller of Oakland, Calif., in 2002, to Wolfson to Meyer. None of them would have been in the top 10 betting choices in any of his or her championship year.

So who will win this year? Whether it's a big-time tournament player or a small-timer, he or she will be living large in Las Vegas on Saturday night.