10/28/2003 1:00AM

Handicapping contest a hit


The Ultimate Handicappers' Invitational, a new handicapping contest that may revolutionize the way handicapping contests are created, hosted, and played, was a success in its debut last weekend at Dover Downs racetrack and casino in central Delaware.

With handicapping contests continuing to explode in popularity thanks to the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association's National Handicapping Championship, many tournament hosts have been looking for ways to replace mythical money contest betting with real money handle that can boost their bottom lines. The Ultimate Handicappers' Invitational seems to have found a way to incorporate real money betting into a tournament format that also interests core players.

The contest cost $2,000 to enter - a $1,000 entry fee and a $1,000 bankroll to be wagered on a minimum of six of the eight Breeders' Cup races. Players could make any wager or combination of wagers (excluding multi-race bets such as a pick three), and were required to bet at least half of their existing bankrolls on each of their six plays. The result was a total of $162,000 in real money tournament handle for Dover Downs, not including other handle from side wagers placed by contest entrants and their guests on races throughout the weekend.

The Invitational is the brainchild of professional horseplayer Ross Gallo, an avid tournament player and three-time National Handicapping Championship finalist who spent thousands of dollars to get his idea off the ground.

"I wanted to create a new kind of contest and invite the best players from around the country to play, and hold it on racing's biggest day," said Gallo. "My idea was for a tournament like no other with real money, a leader board, and big dollars. We approached Dover Downs because they use United Tote, which was the only tote company that was able to write a program for our betting format, and we sold them on the idea because we were able to promise them huge handle."

Gallo invited 200 past contest winners and National Handicapping Championship finalists to the inaugural event. Despite its high entry fee and out-of-the-way location nearly 75 miles from the nearest major airport, the contest attracted a field of 36 tournament enthusiasts from as far away as California. Gallo also produced a hour-long show along the lines of the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour, which is currently being pitched to cable networks.

The winner of the contest was Paul Messel of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who won the first prize of $21,600 after turning his original $1,000 bankroll into $9,528. Messel built his total with small exactas and trifectas involving Breeders' Cup winners Adoration, Six Perfections, and Islington, among others.

Gallo's contest and ideas for producing a television show have attracted the attention of NTRA vice president of marketing Keith Chamblin, who is looking for ways to make the National Handicapping Championship an even bigger event in the future.

"A real money tournament is something we need to look at, and this is a very intriguing format," said Chamblin. "This would certainly add another layer of excitement in our tournament."