04/29/2008 12:00AM

Initial tour enjoys growth spurt


The road to the 134th Kentucky Derby has nearly reached its destination in Louisville this Saturday, while the road to the 10th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, to be held Jan. 23-24, 2009, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, continues to add stops along the way

The two roads will intersect with the NHC Tour's Kentucky Oaks and Derby Challenge on Friday and Saturday. While most NHC qualifying tournaments are open to all comers, only NHC Tour members are eligible for this contest.

The NHC Tour, in its inaugural year, is a year-long competition that uses the NHC qualifying events as a circuit to earn points for separate prizes. As of Tuesday morning, there were 870 who had paid the $125 membership fee. The Tour champion will collect $100,000 and be eligible for a $2 million bonus if he goes on to win the NHC. Prizes will be paid to the top 50 Tour members, with the three highest point-earners who haven't already qualified for the NHC getting a seat.

Tour members finishing in the top 10 percent of tournament fields earn points, collecting 3,500 for winning a tournament, 2,100 for second, 1,575 for third, 1,400 for fourth, 1,225 for fifth, 900 for sixth, and then a graduated scale depending on the number of entries.

Entering this weekend, Cheryl Kauffman of Hacienda Heights, Calif., is the Tour leader with 4,921 points despite the fact she hasn't won a tournament. She earned her NHC berth last Saturday by finishing fourth at the Ellis Park Traditional Handicapping Tournament, which was supposed to award seats to the top three finishers, but second-place finisher Don Allen had already qualified with his third-place finish at Bay Meadows the previous weekend.

Allen's 2,100 points moved him into second place behind Kauffman at 3,675. A group of seven handicappers are tied at 3,500, including six tournament winners (Joseph Perry, Eric Kurzhal, Jay Sloan, James Henry, Jeff Sotman, and Harry Seaman) and William Shurman, who earned 1,400 for finishing fourth at Santa Anita on March 8-9. Despite earning his NHC berth there, Shurman still played in the nhcqualify.com tournament in April and picked up 2,100 points for finishing second last weekend.

Mel Moser of Lexington, Ky., qualified for the fifth straight year last Saturday at Ellis Park. He was part of a horseplayer's advisory panel last summer that helped the NTRA formulate the rules of the Tour.

"One of the goals was to give people incentive to keep playing even after they qualify," Moser said. "I don't have statistics to prove it, but I see examples every week of how the Tour has increased participation. Tournaments are selling out much faster. You also see it in the standings. Where people might have started playing under their wife's or friend's names, they're playing under their own names to get Tour points, and we've already seen twice where people have finished high in tournaments even after they qualified and they've had to give those spots to players farther down the list."

As for this weekend's Kentucky Oaks and Derby Challenge, contestants will make mythical $2 win and place wagers on five races on Friday's Churchill card and five more on Saturday. Prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

"This is a great time to enter because you get a free roll in the tournament this weekend, and it's a contest that a lot of people won't be able to play if they're not online," Moser said. "At $125, it's less than you'd pay for an entry fee in a lot of other contests that offer NHC berths."

For full details on registering or on the contest, go to ntra.com/nhctour.

NHCqualify.com expands entries

As Moser pointed out, because entries have been selling out faster this year, the official online qualifying site of the NHC, aptly named NHCqualify.com, is increasing the number of entries in its $100 buy-in preliminary rounds from 200 to 300 for its June contests.

In months that it runs tournaments, NHCqualify.com typically has three Saturday contests in which 10 percent of those fields advance to the finals on the fourth Saturday of the month, and then 10 percent of that final field earns NHC berths. So, the increase in the earlier fields will mean that 30 people advance from each round instead of 20, and that 90 people will be playing for nine NHC spots instead of six.

Entries for the first two rounds of June 7 and June 14 will be taken starting Monday at NHCqualify.com.

NHC host sets qualifying schedule

Jason McCormick, race and sports book director at the Red Rock, which will host the NHC for the second straight year, on Tuesday announced the schedule for qualifying tournaments at the Station Casinos family of properties.

The Red Rock will host the first one, a $200 buy-in event on June 21 with two NHC berths up for grabs. Identical events will be held July 26 at Santa Fe Station, Aug. 30 at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, and Dec. 6 at the brand-new Aliante Station in North Las Vegas, which is expected to open in November or December (hopefully by Dec. 6).

The Red Rock will also host a Dec. 13 event for 100 players who qualify in 10 separate $40 buy-in contests throughout the year and who will play for two NHC spots, and then a last-chance tournament on Jan. 21 with a $500 entry fee and the last five spots in the NHC field available.