01/28/2002 12:00AM

A handicapping upset by an unlikely crew

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LAS VEGAS - Very much like Seattle Slew's stunning loss in the 1977 Swaps Stakes and Arcangues's shocking victory in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic, there was a giant upset in the world of Thoroughbred racing last weekend. And, I was fortunate to be in on the fun.

The third annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship was conducted here Friday and Saturday. Along with the excitement over who among 177 of the best handicappers in the country would make off with the $212,000 purse was the National Media Handicapping Championship. The media contest, which offers a prize of $10,000 for charity, includes four teams, each captained by a DRF handicapper. The purpose of the media contest is threefold: First, it's a great vehicle to donate $10,000 to charity.

Second, it's a good excuse for some of us to justify spending an extended weekend in Vegas. Last, we provide the foil for all the genuine contestants who qualified. As most of them start to lap us in the standings, our presence is supposed to make all the legitimate contestants look good.

Anyway, three of the four media teams this year were conventional: Team Vegas, the defending champion, captained by Lauren Stich. Team Industry, captained by Mike Hammersly. And Team National, 3-5 to win it all with such heavy hitters as Randy Moss, Jerry Klein, Kenny Rice, Mike Spellman, and DRF chairman and publisher Steven Crist as captain.

Then there was the team I captained: Team Penthouse. That's right, Penthouse.

Even if I had first choice of teams to captain, I would have picked Team Penthouse, which consisted of Alexa Lauren, Penthouse's 30th Anniversary Pet; Cheyenne Silver, December's Pet of the Month; Ed Dwyer, a senior editor at the magazine, and Michael Moi, director of communications for Penthouse.

I wanted this team because I saw it as a spot with no pressure, since no one could have expected this collection, and I'm including myself, to actually beat the other teams. I thought that maybe if enough gray horses or horses with cute names won, someone on the team might actually catch one at 20-1, and we would stay competitive enough to have fun.

It wasn't long before I learned that the expectations for Team Penthouse were even worse. Oh, Dwyer does go to the track about six times a year and he has a good idea of what's going on.

But Moi's total racing experience, aside from tagging along with his dad as a kid to New York City OTB shops in Chinatown (which he remembers as a cloud of cigarette smoke) was one trip to The Meadowlands in 1988. A friend took him because Moi's girlfriend dumped him, and he doesn't remember if Thoroughbreds or Standardbreds were racing there at the time.

Wait, it gets better. Silver does own three riding horses, but had never been to a racetrack, or race book, or off-track facility before.

Lauren had never seen a horse race and had been to exactly one greyhound race in her life, in Alabama. It made such an impression that she doesn't recall where in Alabama it was.

So, how is it that Team Penthouse led virtually all the way in the media contest and won in such a romp that if you subtracted the highest score on the team, Team Penthouse still would have had enough money to beat Team Keeneland, which won $20,000 cash for being the top team in the real tournament? How do you explain that Lauren, with one dog race of experience to call on, accumulated the fifth highest bankroll in the entire tournament, followed by Moi, Silver, and myself, all in the top 30?

As much as I would love to say that Team Penthouse benefited from my expertise, I can't. All I did was give them the occasional "rah-rah" speech and try my best not to drag their totals down. And, the team's success had nothing to do with gray horses with darling names. In truth, there was serious handicapping going on.

Silver was clearly determined to do well, because when she arrived, she revealed she was deep into Betsy Berns's book, "The Female Fan's Guide to Thoroughbred Racing." Her enthusiasm was contagious, and as the winners started to flow, everyone got into it.

Silver immediately recognized the importance of Beyer Speed Figures and developed a philosophy of favoring closers. Lauren rightfully placed emphasis on recent records and understood that higher odds, or value, is critical. Both paid attention to Daily Racing Form's consensus box selections and closer looks.

With each team member making $2 win and place bets on eight mandatory and seven optional races, our team amassed a total of $369.90 on Friday, and everyone wanted to know where Team Penthouse was partying. Lauren and Silver had no such plans. "We've been to Vegas before," they said. "We're staying in and studying. We want to win."

They did, and despite the distraction of every photographer in Nevada being in their faces Saturday, their efforts, not to mention Moi's and Dwyer's, paid off. Another $318.10 went into the kitty on the final day, for an overwhelming team total of $688.

Beginner's luck? Maybe. Or, it could be we've seen the birth of some new handicapping prodigies. The other four members of Team Penthouse are already talking about heading out to the track soon. Before they do, I want to find out who they like.