12/07/2005 1:00AM

It's rush-rush time for tourney players


This is the time of year when everyone is running around trying to do their holiday shopping. But for horse handicapping tournament players, it's also the time to do some last-minute running around to try to qualify for the big championship events here in January.

The Horseplayer World Series will be held at The Orleans on Jan. 19-21, and the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Champion-ship will be held at Bally's Las Vegas on Jan. 27-28. But since the events are billed as the culmination of a yearlong series of contests, time is short to qualify in 2005.

This weekend, 11 Nevada horseplayers are taking the 5 1/2-hour drive or one-hour flight to Phoenix for Saturday and Sunday's Turf Paradise Qualifying Handicapping Tournament. The top six finishers of that tournament will go on to the National Handicapping Champion-ship, and the seventh- through 12th-place finishers will go on to the Horseplayer World Series. The Turf Paradise tournament has been sold out for three months, and there are 27 handicappers on the also-eligible list in case someone cancels at the last minute.

There are also NHC qualifiers being held this Saturday at Louisiana Downs and Delaware Park and Sunday at Tampa Bay Downs, but that's it for the rest of the year.

For World Series hopefuls, the Delaware Park contest will send the third- and fourth-place finishers to The Orleans. Another World Series qualifier this Saturday is at Canterbury Park, and there are qualifying tournaments at the Alberta and Richmond OTB's in Virginia for next Saturday's finals at Colonial Downs, which will send the top two finishers to the World Series.

For Las Vegas locals, the best chance might be to play in the weekly contests on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Coast Casinos race books. The top five scores from the current Hawthorne contests, which began last month, will win World Series berths. The last chances to play are next week.

And then there is the final World Series qualifying event next Saturday at brisnet.com.

Even if you don't qualify for the Horseplayer World Series, you can supplement yourself for $1,000. The NHC doesn't have that option; the only way to get in the field is to qualify at a sponsoring tournament.

Bally's will host two last-minute qualifying tournaments in the week before the finals, on Jan. 22 and 25. The Jan. 22 contest is called Smart Money and will have a $250 entry fee plus a $750 live-money bankroll ($50 bet on 15 parimutuel races during the course of the day), with the top two finishers qualifying for the NHC. On Jan. 25, the same format will be used in the "Win a Place to the Big Show" contest, the last chance to qualify. Many tournament players will likely be staying at Bally's that whole week trying to get in the field. Anyone interested should look into booking their rooms now.

Football contests winding down

The Leroy's and Stardust football handicapping contests are each holding their second semifinals on Friday night.

The Leroy's Money Talks Invitational, held from 8-9 p.m. in the Riviera sports book and aired live on KDWN AM-720 and kdwn.com, will feature veteran bookmaker Nick Bogdanovich vs. gaming writer Buzz Daly. Each contestant will make seven plays on this weekend's NFL card - since there are no college games to choose from - and weight them from a $110 wager for the first play to $770 on the best bet. The handicapper with the most winnings (or least losses) will advance to next Friday's finale vs. professional handicapper Bryan Leonard. Last week, Leonard had a net profit of $700 with a 4-3 record to defeat "Chicago" Pete Ventrella, who was 3-4 and lost $560.

The Stardust Invitational, held across the street from the Riviera from 9-10 p.m. and also aired on KDWN, will pit handicapper Andy Iskoe against the professional bettor known as Fezzik. They will also make seven plays, with a best bet to be used as a tiebreaker and other plays weighted in case of multiple ties. The winner advances to face Marc Lawrence of playbook.com. Last week, Lawrence survived with a 3-4 record to eliminate local radio host Steve Cofield, who went 2-5.

Boxing's year-end hiatus arrives

With the Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins fight of last weekend behind us, there are no major boxing cards in Las Vegas until Manny Pacquiao takes on Erik Morales on Jan. 21 at the Thomas and Mack Center. Pacquiao is a -125 favorite (risk $1.25 for every $1 you want to profit, or the equivalent of 4-5).

But for boxing fans, there is at least a big-name fighter in action this weekend, when Ronald "Winky" Wright faces Sam Solimon at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. Wright is a 1-12 favorite (risk $12 for every $1 you want to profit). The fight will be shown on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern, with a replay of Taylor-Hopkins II as part of the broadcast.