01/17/2003 1:00AM

It's back to basics in contest

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LAS VEGAS - I used to think that while handicapping contests were a lot of fun and a great way for racing to reward and recognize its customers, the contests themselves were exercises in luck rather than skill. Now, I'm not so sure.

The National Handicapping Championship, which began here Friday at Bally's, is now in its fourth year, and there's almost enough data to answer the question. With more than 40,000 people a year entering the 50 regional contests that produce the 200 or so finalists, truly random results would suggest there would be few if any returnees from one year to the next. Instead, the cream continues to rise to the top.

Steve Walker, the state environmental worker from Nebraska who won the inaugural event in 2000, is back for the fourth straight year. Six other players in this year's field have qualified for a third time in four years, and 15 more are making their second appearance. Clearly, these players are more than the proverbial blind squirrels stumbling across acorns or broken clocks that are right twice a day. In addition to being decent handicappers, these players have developed optimal strategies to give themselves the best chance to succeed in tournaments, where players are usually required to play races they might normally pass and are usually restricted to win and place bets.

Yet none of these multiple qualifiers claims to have discovered a lazy man's life of riches playing the horses from the deck of a yacht. None has even given up his day job. What they and racing have discovered in handicapping contests is a new way to be rewarded for the almost quaint practice of picking winners and betting them to win and place. When Herman Miller of Oakland, Calif., won $103,000 at last year's N.H.C., he did it by turning a profit of just $85.30 on $120 worth of bets.

Too many horseplayers nowadays have forgotten the fun in this game. Convinced that they must routinely snare mammoth superfecta and pick six payouts to have any chance at success in the long haul, they no longer enjoy the basic challenge of trying to decipher a tough puzzle and backing a single horse. No one could make a living and few could make a long-term recreational profit making unit win-place bets on races they are forced to play. Contests, however, offer sufficient rewards to make that simple pursuit an attractive one.

Contests also provide a useful reminder of the essence of parimutuel activity: You're not playing against the house or the horses but against the other players. You don't have to discover the secret of racing, if there is one. You just have to be a little better than the people sitting next to you.

"I love contests, and I would play one every day if there were enough of them," said O'Connell Benjamin, a native of Trinidad who now lives in Marlboro, N.J., and who qualified for the N.H.C. by finishing second in the Turf-vivor contest at Gulfstream last spring. "I would pay $50 or $100 to play a contest every time I go to the track. I think this could be a big thing for racing if they did it more."

It has worked for poker. A decade ago, casino poker was a moribund game, with the same lifers and regulars cutting each other up while complaining about the lack of new and young blood in the game - the same lament you can hear at any simulcast parlor on a Thursday afternoon. Today poker is booming, and it's all because of tournaments. Every card room in the country runs contests weekly, and there are dozens of them with six-digit purses that have attracted a new generation of players.

A final element in the success of both poker and racing tournaments touches on something few bettors talk about but most will readily admit: Winning is as much about ego as money, which is why horseplayers yell, "That's me!" rather than "I just won $11.80!" when their horse crosses the wire a winner. You can't have a tournament without a leader board, and of the thousands of blinking lights in the Bally's race book this weekend, the ones the N.H.C. players were following most closely were the ones displaying their names.

What a concept: Your name in lights on the Las Vegas strip, just for playing the horses.