01/23/2008 12:00AM

Horseplayers battle for handicapper title

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Red Rock Resort
Red Rock Resort (above) is the home of the ninth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, which carries a record first prize of $500,000.

LAS VEGAS - A field of 278 horseplayers will compete Friday and Saturday here at the Red Rock Resort in the ninth annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

While 271 of them will be playing for the record $500,000 first-place prize, the other seven will be playing for that amount plus a $1 million bonus. The bonus comes from Churchill Downs Inc., which sponsored a tour in which anyone who wins one of its qualifying tournaments and goes on to win the NHC collects the extra $1 million, raising the total payoff to $1.5 million.

The lucky seven are Timothy Aupied (who won the Twin Spires Club tournament) of Houma, La.; Jeff Cookson (Calder) of Weston, Fla.; Samuel Guillory (Fair Grounds) of Beaux Bridge, La.; William Marsh (Arlington) of Oak Lawn, Ill.; April Scanio (another Arlington qualifier) of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Steve Stupka (Churchill) of Ankeny, Ind.; and Tony Taylor (TwinSpires.com) of Independence, Ky.

This is the third year for the bonus, and it has yet to be hit. If any of the seven wins this week, he or she also would take home a 26-by-14-inch glass trophy that has been brought to Las Vegas for the third time by CDI executive Jeremy Clemons.

All 278 finalists except one had high finishes in qualifying tournaments over the past year, including the final five, who qualified at the Last Chance Qualifier at the Red Rock on Wednesday. The exception is defending champion Stanley Bavlish of Virginia Beach, Va., who earned an automatic berth by winning the NHC last year when it was worth $400,000. So, in a way, he earned his way in as well.

No one has won the NHC twice, but there's about a 1 in 46 chance of it happening, because six of the eight previous winners are in it this year: Steven Walker of Lincoln, Neb.; Judy Wagner of New Orleans; Steve Wolfson Jr. of Holly Hill, Fla.; Jamie Michelson of West Bloomfield, Mich.; and Ron Rippey of Wayne, N.J., in addition to Bavlish.

Walker, Wagner, and Wolfson won when the top prize was $100,000, while Michelson earned $200,000 and Rippey $250,000, which illustrates how the prize money has grown.

There's about a 1 in 11 chance of a woman winning the NHC since 25 are in the field, including Wagner.

The finalists come from 87 different contests held at 50 NTRA-member tracks, OTBs, casinos, and websites. If you're looking for where the winner will come from, California would be a good bet, because 45 - or about one-sixth - of the players are from the Golden State. New York is a distant second with 26 entrants, followed by New Jersey (20), Florida (18), Michigan (15), Kentucky (14), Ohio (12), and Texas (11).

Second prize is $150,000, with third place being the $100,000 that each of the first four champions won. While prizes were paid to the top 20 in the past, this year 30 handicappers will cash with a round $1 million to be awarded.

The actual NHC purse is $1,017,700, as 122 people entered the $500 buy-in Last Chance Qualifier at the Red Rock on Wednesday. Seventy percent of those entry fees went toward the NHC purse, and $25,000 was needed to reach the million-dollar goal. The $17,700 surplus will be used for daily prizes. On Friday, the top scorer will earn $3,000, with $1,500 for second, $1,000 for third, and $700 for fourth. On Saturday, the top score will be worth $5,000, with $3,000 for third, $2,000 for third, and $1,500 for fourth. This is the first year there isn't a team competition.

Two of the original qualifiers did not make the trip to Las Vegas, but the NTRA was able to contact the next eligible finishers in their qualifying tournaments and send them to compete. Michael Garafine of Tinton Falls, N.J., told the NTRA that he has a fear of flying and tried to make it on the plane Tuesday but couldn't do it. He was replaced by Robin Buser, a lawyer from Delran, N.J., who was planning to go to Laurel on Saturday to bet the Sunshine Millions.

"I called my wife to scuttle our plans and say we're heading west to Vegas," Buser said. "We can go to Maryland any time."

Sean Alfortish of Kenner, La., didn't give a reason for why he declared himself from the tournament, but he was replaced by Bob Schintzius of Amherst, N.Y.

Each contestant will make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets each day, with eight of bets on mandatory races selected by a panel of DRF's Mike Watchmaker, the NTRA's Eric Wing, and the Red Rock's director of race and sports, Jason McCormick. The remaining seven races are players' choice from races at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita.

Scoreboard updates will be provided throughout both days at drf.com and ntra.com.