01/21/2004 12:00AM

Horseplaying hotshots aim for Wolfson's title

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When Steve Wolfson Jr., the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association Handicapper of the Year, arrives at the Bally's race book in Las Vegas to defend his National Handicapping Championship title on Friday, an extraordinarily strong group of rivals will be waiting for him. This year's 261-player field is the best ever assembled in the five-year history of the event.

Dozens of the most successful handicappers in the land have qualified for this year's NHC field. The group includes tournament veterans, pick six sharpshooters, and public handicappers with a wide array of credentials at racetracks, in print, or on the air.

For starters, Wolfson, a 36-year-old teacher from Florida, will have to face two other past champions. Steven Walker of Lincoln, Neb., the winner of the inaugural NHC in January 2000, qualified for this year's tournament at Hawthorne, and NHC II winner Judy Wagner of New Orleans qualified for a return appearance with a victory in Sam Houston's tournament at Valley Race Greyhound Park in Harlingen, Texas. Wagner will be playing in her third NHC. Walker is the only player who has qualified for all five national finals.

Another player Wolfson will need to look out for is fellow Florida resident Ross Gallo, a professional handicapper, pick six specialist, and tournament enthusiast who comes into the national championship on quite a roll recently. In the span of four months, Gallo has had many things to celebrate, including the birth of his first son, Ethan, on Oct. 2, and an $11,500 win in the Autotote On the Wire phone-betting contest on Oct. 11. He also hosted the inaugural Ultimate Handicappers Invitational, a handicapping contest that he created, on Oct. 26. And Gallo is the brother of J. Randy Gallo, who had one of two winning tickets for $1.12 million in last weekend's record pick six at Aqueduct.

If pick six scores are how you measure a great handicapper, this contest is packed with talent from top to bottom. At least 18 players in the field list themselves as pick six winners, or winners of other exotic payoffs in excess of $15,000. That group includes Bobby Brendler of Rockville, Md., who said he once cashed a pick six for $110,000, and John Kayden of San Gabriel, Calif., who said he hit two pick six bets for more than $100,000 in one week back in the 1980's.

Not surprisingly, some of the most successful players in the history of handicapping contests have also made their way into the field for the NHC. Mike Labriola, a winner of seven major titles and more than $250,000 in tournament play over the past 15 years, qualified for the finals at the Reno Hilton. He will be joined by other hot-shot tournament champs such as Dennis Sudul, Mike Mayo, Robert and Mark Bertolucci, and Joe Hinson, the winner of eight major titles on his own or in partnership with his wife, Valerie, from 1988 to the present.

Dave Gutfreund, a player who made a name for himself in tournaments and then used that notoriety to go on to other jobs in racing, earned his third straight national finals appearance this year thanks to a win in Hawthorne's North Aurora Illinois OTB qualifier. Gutfreund, more commonly referred to as "The Maven," started with telephone handicapping lines and a Las Vegas radio show. He now works in television, formerly as a host on The Racing Network and currently as co-host on Horsin' Around TV, a horse racing magazine show on Fox Sports Net in Chicago.

The other co-host of Horsin' Around TV - the show's producer, Joe Kristufek - is also a National Handicapping Championship qualifier this year. Kristufek was a host on the now-defunct The Racing Network as well as a former on-air host at Hawthorne and Rockingham Park. Kristufek also makes Chicago racing selections in the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, where he has been a turf writer for the past four years.

Other players in the NHC with racing-industry ties include former Daily Racing Form handicapper Randy Franklin (current handicappers cannot play), and DRF's former national advertising director, Richard Witt. Bill Downes, the track announcer at Beulah Park and River Downs, is in the field, as is Ron Rippey, the handicapper for the Newark Star-Ledger for the past 26 years.

If experience counts for anything, then Wolfson will really want to keep his eyes on 78-year-old Gerard Oberle of Revere, Mass., and 87-year-old Raymond Miller of Louisville, Ky. Oberle remembers seeing Seabiscuit run in 1937, and Miller, the oldest person ever to qualify for the NHC, said he worked on the crew that built Keeneland in 1935.

Finally, if none of the players listed above is up to the task of unseating Steve Wolfson Jr. this weekend, then perhaps the champ's father, Steve Wolfson Sr., will once again be his main rival. Steve Sr. is back for another shot at the title after leading for much of last year's tournament, before Steve Jr. passed him late in the contest.