01/25/2012 2:30PM

Handicappers chase $1.5 million in prize money in DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship

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Greg Cava/Treasure Island Hotel & Casino
The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship this weekend will be held at Treasure Island for the first time.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the classic novel “Treasure Island” 130 years ago, but he missed out on the modern-day version on the Las Vegas Strip. The Treasure Island Hotel & Casino is where 482 handicappers go for their share of more than $1.5 million in prize money this Friday and Saturday at the 13th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

There are many reasons for a horseplayer to try to win the NHC: the thrill of competition, measuring yourself against the best, and the camaraderie among fellow contestants being among the less tangible reasons, but the champion is also recognized as the Handicapper of the Year and gets an actual Eclipse Award. Then there’s the money, and this year there literally are a million reasons for a horseplayer to go after the NHC, as the first-place prize is a cool $1 million for the first time.

Paul Shurman, a 57-year-old worker’s compensation attorney from Dix Hills, N.Y., is shooting for even more. He’s eligible for a $2 million bonus if he pulls off the double as the winner of the NHC Tour’s season-long title from accumulating the highest point total from the series of qualifying tournaments in 2011.

[NHC 13: Live updates, leader board, and video reports from Las Vegas]

The top prize had been $500,000 the past four years, when the event was held at the Red Rock Resort on the west side of town, but now the “X” that marks the spot on this treasure map is back on the Las Vegas Strip. The Strip is where the first seven NHC finals were held – the first three at the MGM Grand and the next four at Bally’s Las Vegas. Phil Ruffin, Treasure Island’s owner, pursued the tournament when it became known that the field would be expanding from the average of 300 finalists the past few years to closer to 500 and that the contest would need to be held in a ballroom instead of a traditional race book.

The Treasure Island Ballroom is an 11,808-square-foot room that has 18 high-definition projections screens, each measuring 9 feet by 12 feet. There is one in each corner of the room with four along each side wall and three on each end. Contestants will be able to easily see the odds and watch the races from the seven designated contest tracks – Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita. There are 60 tables with eight seats apiece, and then there’s another smaller ballroom with nine TVs and 18 tables for the overflow.

In the main room, there are 18 betting windows for making contest plays and cash wagers (some windows will be designated for contest-only), plus another 10 self-service machines.

“We held our December qualifier in the ballroom and it was very well received,” said Tony Nevill, Treasure Island’s director of race and sports. “That helped us test it out before the big tournament. We knew the players would like the big screens, but it was more important to make sure everyone is able to get in their plays and bets, and we were happy to see how many used the self-service kiosks.”

NHC finalists make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers, with eight races being mandatory as selected by Nevill, DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker, and NTRA senior director of media relations Eric Wing. The other seven are player’s choice from the seven contest tracks. For scoring purposes, prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. The record NHC score is $305.40 set by Steven Walker of Lincoln, Neb., in the first NHC, but that was when it comprised 20 races per day before dropping to the current 15 the following year. The record under this format is $279.60 by Steve Wolfson Jr. in 2003; the lowest winning score was Stanley Bavlish’s $189.20 in 2007. The average winning score the past 11 years has been $238.99, or roughly doubling the two-day bankroll. John Doyle, a 50-year professional horseplayer from Scottsdale, Ariz., won last year with a score of $234.80.

Official prize money was set after the Last Chance Tournament on Wednesday at Treasure Island with the final five NHC seats up for grabs and 70 percent of those entry fees going to the NHC XIII purse. In addition to the $1 million first-place prize, $150,000 goes to the second-place finisher, $80,000 for third, $50,000 for fourth, and $37,000 for fifth. Prizes are paid to the top 50, with the last cashing spot worth $1,003. There are also daily prizes for the top scores with Friday’s pay scale set at $2,500 for first, $1,500 for second, and $1,000 for third; Saturday’s prizes are $5,000 for first, $3,000 for second, $2,000 for third. The total prizes to be paid out this weekend will be $1,507,003. An additional $125,000 was paid to the top finishers on the NHC Tour and another $174,337 in airfare and hotel rooms for qualifiers at the finals for total payouts of slightly more than  $1.8 million.

Daily Racing Form is providing updated coverage and videos at drf.com/NHC as well as on Twitter (@DRFInsidePost).

Let the treasure hunt begin.