02/26/2009 12:00AM

Handicapping contests in full swing in March

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For those on the horse handicapping tournament circuit, the annual quest to qualify for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship started earlier than usual with eight people already having qualified, but the pace really picks up over the next week.

The eight who are already in the NHC XI finals, to be held Jan. 29-30, 2010, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, are: John Conte, who won the $500,000 first-place prize in NHC X last month; the top five finishers of the 2008 NHC Tour (Sam Brooks, Ross Gallo, William A. Shurman, James M. Henry, and Ricky Zimmer); and the top two finishers in the Red Rock Shootout (Gary Johnson and William Haliziw), which was held the day after NHC X.

For the rest of us, NHC berths will be up for grabs in a variety of ways in the coming weeks, starting this weekend with a pair of contests on the opposite ends of the low/high roller spectrum. The NHC Tour will be holding a free online contest Saturday for its members while Santa Anita is hosting the Battle of the Handicapping Stars live-money tournament that requires a $5,000 bankroll.

As in other sports, the NHC Tour uses all of the qualifying tournaments held at racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites throughout the course of the year to reward those who consistently score well in those contests, even after they earn NHC berths. It costs $125 to join the tour, which also includes membership in the Horseplayers' Coalition lobbying group and the NTRA Advantage purchasing program. Full information is available at ntra.com/nhctour.

Those who register by Saturday will be eligible to play in the Fountain of Youth Challenge, which will include 10 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on selected races from the Gulfstream card with prices capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. All plays have to be made at ntra.com/nhctour. The top two finishers will earn NHC berths. The top 30 finishers will earn NHC Tour points. (Note: The NHC Tour plans to hold at least four more free member-only tourneys this year: an Oaks-Derby contest on May 1-2, Travers Day on Aug. 29, a Breeders' Cup contest on Nov. 6-7, and a "maiden" contest for non-qualifiers on Dec.o19.)

The Battle of the Handicapping Stars is a lot more complicated.

It runs both this Saturday and Sunday, using the live races at Santa Anita. All wagers are allowed, with the exception of superfectas, Super High Fives, and multi-race bets - and since it's a live-bankroll tournament, there are no caps on payoffs. Plus, players keep any money they earn. A minimum of $2,000 must be wagered Saturday (and a minimum of eight races must be played, with at least $250 on each of those races). Contestants must then make at least $3,000 in wagers on Sunday (with minimums of at least six races and $500 per race). Beyond that, there are no maximums either on races played or money wagered. The grand prize winner will collect $20,000 in addition to his or her real-money profits, with the runner-up taking home $5,000. The top five finishers will earn NHC berths, including round-trip airfare to Las Vegas from the major airport closest to their home, plus hotel accommodations at the Red Rock during the finals.

Also on Sunday, Twinspires.com launches its Leaderboard contests for those with wagering accounts. The Leaderboards run through Nov.o30 and are six separate contests split into "points" (for most winning selections) and "ROI" scoring formats and broken down further into win, place, and show categories. See the site for details.

On March 7, the East Coast will have its first NHC qualifier, with three berths available in the Maryland Jockey Club's Spring Champions Tournament at Laurel Park. The tournament costs $300 to enter, with an entry fee of $100 plus $200 to be used as a live bankroll. First prize is a guaranteed $5,000 with $2,000 for second and $1,000 for third, plus contestants again keep their live-money winnings.

NHCqualify.com is again running the most online tournaments and giving away the most overall NHC seats. The first two-tiered monthly contest - in which players finishing in the top 10 percent of entries in the preliminary rounds (which will have 300 entries this year) gain a spot in the end-of-the-month finals where the actual NHC berths are awarded - costs $100 to enter and takes place in April. However, keep in mind that registration for the first two pre-qualifying events (April 4 and 11) is at noon Eastern on March 6, at NHCqualify.com. These sell out very fast.

Another preliminary round will be April 18 with a sign-up date to be determined. Thirty contestants will advance from those rounds to play in the April 25 finals for nine NHC berths.

Also online in March, XpressBet.com will have a Beat the Host contest on March 14, and another event on March 21, with three NHC berths up for grabs each time.

Back at an actual live racing track, Fair Grounds hosts the Big Easy Bucks Handicapping Challenge on March 21, with a $500 entry fee and three NHC berths on the line.

See the ntra.com/nhctour page for a full list of tournaments this year.