01/20/2004 1:00AM

Handicappers converge on Vegas

The 5th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship takes place on Friday and Saturday in the Bally's Las Vegas race book.

LAS VEGAS - They're coming from all over.

"They" are the 260 qualifiers, plus defending champion Steve Wolfson Jr., who will be taking part in the fifth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Friday and Saturday in the Bally's Las Vegas race book.

Players from 31 states and two Canadian provinces will compete. A whopping total of 53 - a fifth of the field - will be coming from California, with 21 more from Kentucky, 18 from Illinois, 16 apiece from New York and Texas, 15 from Washington, and 12 from Florida.

The group consists of 228 men and 33 women, ranging in age from 21 to 89.

They earned their right to be here by winning or finishing high enough at 94 tournaments at 56 different racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites, outlasting an estimated 50,000 other hopefuls who took part in qualifying events from coast to coast last year.

All qualifiers received round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations to come here and vie for a share of the $240,000 purse, with dreams of taking home the $100,000 first-place prize and the title of Handicapper of the Year.

Members of the media will be grouped into their own teams, with a DRF handicapper as team captain, in a $10,000 winner-take-all contest for charity.

Team TV, the defending champs, will include commentators Todd Schrupp, Randy Moss, Jeff Medders, and Frank Lyons. I will captain the team.

DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker will again captain Team Penthouse, which won the media event two years ago and this year includes spokeswoman Lainie Speiser and models Alexa Lauren, 2004 Pet of the Year Victoria Zdrok, and Courtney Taylor.

Team National, captained by DRF publisher Steve Crist, is the most eclectic group, with ESPN analyst and former NBA coach George Karl, actor Jerry O'Connell, $2.7 million Breeders' Cup pick six winner Graham Stone, and sports executive Basil DeVito, who has helped promote the NTRA, WWF, and XFL.

Team Industry Media, captained by DRF pedigree columnist Lauren Stich, includes Ed McNamara of New York Newsday and ESPN.com; Ralph Siraco and Richard Eng, DRF columnists and hosts of the Race Day Las Vegas radio shows; and Felix Taverna of Thoroughbred Hotline radio show out of San Diego.

The media will be competing in the same format as the qualifiers. Everyone will make 15 mythical $2 win and place selections each day, with eight being mandatory races (chosen by John Avello, director of race and sports for Bally's and its sister property next door, Paris; Jeff Sotman, NTRA tournament director; and Watchmaker) and seven optional selections from nine available tracks.

Contestants, with the exception of Wolfson, will also be competing for team prizes based on where they qualified. 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 $212,000 that was given out the past 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 Head2Head matchup contests that pay $5,000 each day.

The handicappers will be arriving Thursday, going through registration, and checking into their rooms.

There will also be a cocktail reception at 7 p.m. Thursday hosted by Avello.

"We're honored to welcome all the players to this year's National Handicapping Championship," Avello said. "This is something I went after a few years ago and I'm glad I did. This is another way to get the Bally's name out there, and to introduce horseplayers to our race book so hopefully they'll want to come back and visit again. With the off week before the Super Bowl, our staff is really excited to have the players here and to have a full book this weekend."

Last year's NHC involved 213 players who fit perfectly within the race book proper, so this year Avello needed to make some adjustments with the expanded field.

"We have a lounge in the back of the book that will have school-room seating facing eight televisions, plus two plasma screens," he said. "We'll also have extra betting stations set up so people don't have to walk all the way to the front. Really, it's just an extension of the entire book, so everyone can feel like they're part of the action."

Avello is also setting up TVG with a set overlooking the entire race book, as the network will be providing wire-to-wire coverage of the tournament.


WHAT: 5th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship

WHEN: Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Bally's Las Vegas race book

WHO: 260 horseplayers who earned a berth in 94 qualifying tournaments held coast to coast, plus defending champion Steve Wolfson Jr., who received a sponsors' exemption.

WHY: To crown the 2003 Handicapper of the Year, who will be honored at the Eclipse Awards Dinner on Monday in Hollywood, Fla.

FORMAT: Each contestant makes mythical $2 win and place bets each day on eight mandatory races and seven races of their own choosing from nine available tracks.

PRIZE MONEY: $240,000 total purse (including $178,000 distributed to the Top 10 finishers, $22,000 in daily prizes and $40,000 in team prizes, based on where players qualified) with $100,000 going to the champion. Media teams also battle for $10,000 to go to the winners' designated charities.

INTERNET: Coverage will be available on www.drf.com, including a list of mandatory races, player profiles, and a leaderboard.