01/26/2007 12:00AM

Horse owner early NHC leader

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LAS VEGAS - A field of 254 broke from the gate Friday morning in the eighth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, competing for the $400,000 first-place prize out of a $836,750 purse.

The field was supposed to have 255, but one Texas player was a no-show.

Dennis Bicsak, 60, of West Palm Beach, Fla., took the early lead with a score of $63.60 through the day's first mandatory race, the third at Fair Grounds. After the second mandatory race was run - the fourth at Oaklawn Park - Susie Grensing, 35, of Lexington, Ky., moved into the lead at $64 with Bicsak still at $63.60 in second.

After the fifth mandatory race, the third at Santa Anita, Dennis Decauwer, 57, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who is the majority owner of the Black Diamond Racing stable, took over the lead with a score of $92.40. Toby Turrell, 41, of Westminster, Calif., publisher of the "Winners Card" tipsheet and a well-known clocker, moved into second place at $81.80.

The NHC runs through Saturday. Contestants make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day with eight being mandatory races that everyone has to play and seven optional plays from six contest tracks. With Aqueduct canceling its Friday card, Tampa Bay Downs was added to the list of Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oakland, Golden Gate and Santa Anita. Scores are based on horse's parimutuel payoffs and capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

Day 1 action was to continue through approximately 4:37 p.m. Pacific, the scheduled post time for Santa Anita's eighth and final race.

The top scorer from Friday's opening day will earn $10,000 with $7,500 going to the second-highest score, $4,000 for third and $1,875 for fourth. The daily prizes will be the same on Saturday.

With the exception of defending champion Ron Rippey, 62, of Wayne, N.J., and those who earned their berths at nhcqualify.com, the rest of the field be broken into three-player teams based on where they qualified and shoot for the $15,000 team prize.