01/21/2003 1:00AM

Handicapping contest a winner for Bally's

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LAS VEGAS - Steve Wolfson Jr., the winner of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, wasn't the only one smiling after the tournament wrapped up last Saturday night at the Bally's Las Vegas race book.

The organizers of the event were also pleased with the results. The race book was filled with 213 players, chasing the $100,000 first-place prize and the title of Handicapper of the Year. With all of them putting in 15 selections a day and with all the live betting also taking place, it was a daunting task to make sure things went off perfectly.

"From my standpoint, this was the smoothest running finals we've had," said Jeff Sotman, NTRA tournament director. "Our audit [of the final scores and standings] was done in record time."

"This event keeps getting bigger and better," said Keith Chamblin, NTRA vice president of marketing. "We couldn't have been happier with the job John Avello and his staff did."

Avello is the director of race and sports at Bally's and its sister property, the Paris. He was able to bring the NHC to Bally's after it was held the first three years at the MGM Grand.

"We're very happy with how everything went," Avello said. "The handle at the windows was low, but that was what I expected. The long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term loss."

* The first qualifier for next year's NHC is the Sports Haven Handicapping Championship in New Haven, Conn., Feb. 1-2. The entry fee is $300. After New Haven comes the Winter Challenge at the Reno Hilton, Feb. 5-8, with an entry fee of $1,500.

Dethroned not deterred

Herman Miller ended his reign as Handicapper of the Year with a disappointing first-day total of $27.60 on his 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets Friday, and he never challenged.

"It just wasn't my weekend," he said on Saturday. "I had a great time and now I just have to try and get back here next year."

Miller was undoubtedly happier on Sunday. He left Las Vegas early in the morning to fly back his home in Oakland, Calif., to attend the Raiders-Titans AFC Championship Game, won by the Raiders, 41-24.

Leader board full of good stories

The NHC has produced a good story in each of the four years it has been held. Steven Walker came from nowhere to win the inaugural event in 2000 (he has since become the only four-time qualifier). Judy Wagner became the first female to win the tournament in 2001. Miller was the final player to qualify for last year's finals, then walked away with the title. And new champ Wolfson is from a family filled with horse racing lore.

But many other top contenders this year had great stories, too. First-day leader Steve Wolfson Sr., the winner's father, would certainly have been a worthy champion. Angela Daniels of Las Vegas, the wife of noted handicapper Ken Daniels was nearly the second woman to win the tournament in a male-dominated field. Jody Ortega arrived late Friday and missed the first mandatory race, yet still finished seventh.

Surely the best story, regardless of who won, remains that of turf writer and New York OTB handicapper Rick Lang of Chelmsford, Mass. He led for a good portion of Friday's action and ended the first day in fourth place. He finished out of the money after Saturday's action, but that's a minor setback considering he was diagnosed with cancer in December 2000 and had tumors removed from his head, neck, back, and intestines. Doctors were unable to remove tumors in his lungs, but those have since disappeared.

Sheets man rules Coast contest

While Angela Daniels used the Ragozin sheets to help win the $30,000 second-place prize at the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, sheets expert Len Friedman did even better.

Friedman, the top analyst for Ragozin, won the Coast 2 Coast Super Tournament that was conducted last Thursday through Saturday at the Suncoast and the Barbary Coast.

His score of 9,082 was 25 percent higher than second-place finisher Bernardo Wiesner at 7,210. The 424 players in the tournament made nine mythical $100 win bets each of the three days. First place earned Friedman $93,100, but that was only part of the story. Friedman had two entries and had identical scores with both on each of the first two days, sitting in 12th and 13th place after Day 1 and in third and fourth after Day 2. On Saturday, he diverged on some of his plays and his second entry finished fourth to earn an additional $10,640. Another $500 award for having the fourth-highest score on the final day brought his overall earnings to $104,240.

Friedman used a similar strategy in the inaugural Suncoast Invitational in March 2001, when he had the top two scores on the first day to claim $7,000 in daily prizes, then wound up finishing second (with earning $52,190) and third (for an additional $27,630).

Wiesner won $46,550 for finishing second, and Doris Smith $22,610 for third. Mike Mayo was fifth, earning $7,980.

The next Coast Casinos tournament is the Championship at The Orleans, April 3-5.