01/14/2005 1:00AM

Handicapping contests take spotlight


For the next two weeks, this gaming capital will be the center of horse racing's handicapping universe.

The sixth annual National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship will be held at Bally's Las Vegas on Jan. 21-22, and the first One Million Dollar Horseplayer World Series will be held at the Orleans Hotel Casino the following week, Jan. 27-29.

The NTRA/DRF tournament will feature 215 players, who have qualified throughout the year at events from coast to coast. The players will compete for $400,000 in total prize money, of which $200,000 goes to the winner. The Horseplayer World Series hopes to be the first horse racing tournament ever to reach a $1 million prize fund, with a cool $500,000 going to the winner. Although there have been qualifiers for the World Series as well, those who like the arithmetic of putting up a $1,000 entry fee to go for half a million can enter right up to the opening-day deadline.

And, in true Las Vegas style, those who read this now still have a chance to qualify for both.

Bally's Las Vegas holds the final two seats at the NTRA/DRF tournament. The "Win a Place to the Big Show" one-day shootout at Bally's on Wednesday will give the winner and runner-up a spot at the NTRA/DRF finals that weekend.

The Bally's shootout has an entry fee of $250 with an additional $750 live bankroll play, consisting of 15 $50 contest bets. The Coast Casinos has a two-day shootout that will qualify the top 15 finishers to the World Series. The "Coast 2 Coast Last Chance Shootout" at the Barbary Coast or Suncoast will be held Wednesday and Thursday. Entry fee is $300, with $840 in live play covering 14 $60 bets over the two days.

Some players are sitting on the sidelines until the last minute before jumping into the final qualifiers. Although the Bally's shootout is the only way for those not yet qualified to get into the NTRA/DRF finals, the Coast 2 Coast offering is a way to turn the $300 entry into a qualifier for the World Series and save $700 if you make the cut. The Bally's contest has reached the 100-entry mark, while the Coast 2 Coast sits at around 40 entries. With 15 of the top slots at the Coast shootout guaranteed to qualify for the World Series, the odds for success are much better there.

Many of the top tournament-tested players plan on getting a new pair of track shoes for the sprint from the Barbary Coast to Bally's - which, by the way, are right next door to each other. For those who have already qualified for the NTRA/DRF contest, a warm-up in the Coast 2 Coast shootout can be played at the less hectic surroundings of the Suncoast.

The shootouts will inevitably give way to the main events, which will be covered, to some extent, by the industry's television outlets, and the stories from the competition will be worth the experience - win, lose, or draw.

And, for all the changing terrain in the competitive world of gaming, horse racing will shine front and center on the fabulous Strip this month, showcasing its greatest asset: the horseplayer. Let the tournaments begin!

Ralph Siraco is turf editor of the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.