01/26/2010 1:00AM

How to reach Day 1 of NHC in peace


LAS VEGAS - The 11th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship takes place Friday and Saturday at the Red Rock Resort with an estimated $930,000 up for grabs, but Thursday is an important day, as well.

Most of the 302 contestants also won airfare and will be flying in, checking into a hotel, and also handicapping the first day's card. It's a stressful day, but the ones who handle it are often the ones who fare well over the weekend, or at least that's what I've been told by many of the past winners and top finishers over the years.

Here's a look at what contestants can expect "the day before."

Out-of-town contestants will arrive at McCarran International Airport, which is just off the Las Vegas Strip. The Red Rock is located on the far west side of the Las Vegas valley and will have its complimentary shuttle for NHC qualifiers running every even hour (8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., etc.) during the day starting at 8 a.m. Jason McCormick, director of race and sports and Red Rock's host executive for the NHC finals, said they'll have "human arrows" pointing contestants to the shuttles. It's a $50 cab ride, out of the players' pockets, for those who prefer not to wait.

Upon arrival at the Red Rock, finalists can check into their rooms, though many will go directly to the registration counter, which is located just off the left side of the race and sports book. That will be the NTRA's headquarters through the weekend, and McCormick said there will also be "human arrows" in the hotel directing people to the registration desk as well as the cocktail party that night.

Registration will be open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and reopening at 7 a.m. Friday for later arrivals. Contestants will sign a form indicating they understand the contest rules, receive their complimentary Friday editions of Daily Racing Form (East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast), and get their seat assignments.

This has been a point of contention the last few years - some have complained that not all the seats have individual TVs and that it's not fair to those who don't. The NTRA and the Red Rock have worked to make the process more equitable. Instead of a random draw, the first-place finishers in qualifying tournaments earn seats in the main part of the race book, with the next priority going to NHC Tour members and then non-Tour members. McCormick has also added more seats in the main book.

"We don't want to put the NHC in a ballroom; we want to keep it in the exciting atmosphere of our race book with the big screens," McCormick said. "We've added 54 seats on the main floor from what we had last year. We took out the leather seats again from the sports side and also the large rack where we put the sports odds sheets so we could get in more table seating. We're also putting more contestants in our VIP area. In the lounge in the back, we had 87, and now we just have 48, so that should also make more room for spectators."

McCormick said contestants will receive a $25 match play coupon for the table games in the casino, to be used anytime Thursday through Saturday. They'll also receive $10 in food vouchers each day of the tournament at either the Bagel Cafe, formerly the Turf Grill, or Villa Pizza in the food court. McCormick said the Bagel Cafe will have daily NHC specials that will be covered by the vouchers, but contestants can also use the vouchers at the T-bones Chophouse & Lounge or Terra Rossa Italian Restaurant.

The first official event of NHC XI will be a Q&A session from 6-7 p.m. in the Pavilion Ballroom on the fifth floor of the hotel. This is where contestants, especially first-timers, can make sure they know all the logistics of playing the tournament.

The Q&A session will be followed by the official welcoming cocktail reception from 7-9 p.m., sponsored by TwinSpires.com, which for the second straight year will be providing video updates throughout the tournament on its Web site with host Jill Byrne. At the cocktail reception, the top five finishers from the NHC Tour will be receiving their earnings, including New Orleans resident Bryan Wagner, who will receive $100,000 for winning the tour and becoming eligible for a $2 million bonus if he goes on to win NHC XI.

After the party, some contestants might hit the casino or the bars and nightclubs, but most of the serious contenders will probably leave early to get back to their room with plans to burn the midnight oil handicapping and preparing for what they really came here to do: compete for the $500,000 first-place prize and title of Handicapper of the Year.