01/24/2007 1:00AM

Handicapping champ out to retain his crown

Harold Roth/Horsephotos
Ron Rippey

LAS VEGAS - Ron Rippey knows what it takes to win the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship, and he is back to defend his title in the Bally's race book this Friday and Saturday.

As the reigning champ, Rippey, 66, has an automatic berth to go for the $400,000 first-place prize out of a purse of $836,750. He faces 254 other handicappers who had to qualify for a berth over the past year.

"I'm trying to follow the exact same path as last year," he said. "I won't look at a race or past performances for five days until I register on Thursday. Then I'll spend 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 hours handicapping on Thursday night."

Last year was Rippey's second time in the National Handicapping Championship. The first time he arrived the night before from his home in Wayne, N.J., and suffered from jet lag during the tournament. So last year he arrived the Monday before the tournament and was able to relax. This year he had to change his schedule. Instead of arriving in Vegas on Monday he was in Beverly Hills, Calif., receiving an Eclipse Award as the Handicapper of the Year.

"That was one of the highlights of the past year," said Rippey, citing what he called "a glowing introduction," from the Racing Form's chairman and publisher, Steven Crist. "I was overwhelmed," Rippey said.

Rippey, a public handicapper for the past 45 years, the last 29 at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, said he was blown away by the amount of press coverage he received for his championship. He has been featured in just about every horse racing publication and appeared on a half-dozen radio shows.

"After 45 years of quoting people, now people are quoting me," said Rippey.

Rippey has followed through on just about everything he said he was going to do after winning the $225,000 top prize last year. He and his wife of 40 years, Arlene, donated some to the Healing the Children charity, set up college funds for their five grandchildren, and he retired from his full-time desk job at the Star-Ledger, though he is staying on as the paper's handicapper.

The one thing he didn't do was play in more tournaments.

"I played in about a dozen, which was a few less than I've played in the past, but that was mostly because I didn't have to qualify," he said. "I can't tell you how much that's worth to not have to qualify."

Rippey said that when he and Arlene sell their house and buy a smaller one, they will be able to travel more, and he plans to play in a lot more tournaments.

While Rippey is confident in his ability to repeat - he finished third in a tournament at Suffolk OTB and 16th in one at Belmont this past year - he knows it will be tough.

"Some of the friends say I can't lose, which I know is ludicrous," Rippey said. "I asked some tournament veterans what they thought, and they said I'm between 30-1 and 50-1, which sounds about right. I certainly don't feel like I'm 255-1.

"Last year there were 225 players, so the extra 30 players makes it harder. I've also been following the qualifiers and see a lot of very talented veteran handicappers making the field, and there are also a lot of new players who are willing to take chances, which is what you have to do. You have to have a healthy disregard for the odds in a tournament."

The format calls for each contestant to make 30 plays over the course of the two-day tournament. They make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day, with eight of those plays each day being on mandatory races that everyone must use. The remaining seven plays each day can be from the contest tracks, which will include Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita.

"You have to look for longshots, there's no doubt about that," Rippey said, "but sometimes you have to take what they give you and not force a longshot."

Rippey did exactly that last year on the final day, when he played Gold Ruckus, a 2-1 horse in a mandatory race at Bay Meadows. While not as important as his hit on 17-1 Alluring Bel at Santa Anita in the final race of the contest, without the $10.20 combined win-and-place price that Gold Ruckus earned, he would have finished second.

Rippey won't be the only former champ in the field, as the 2005 winner, Jamie Michelson, and 2003's champ, Steve Wolfson Jr., have also qualified. The highest finish by a former champ was Kent Meyer, who 11th in 2005, the year after he won the title. Meyer had not qualified as of this week but was expected to be among those playing in the Last Chance tournament at Bally's on Wednesday.