01/29/2008 12:00AM

King of the handicappers

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Last weekend, a perfect storm for handicapping contests descended upon Las Vegas, while a more traditional storm almost derailed the Sunshine Millions at Santa Anita.

The venerable Orleans Hotel and Casino - located a few blocks from the famous Las Vegas Strip - presented its annual Horseplayer's World Series with a gross purse in excess of $650,000 from Jan. 24-26.

About 10 miles away in the northwestern corner of Vegas, the modern Red Rock Resort and Casino played host on Friday and Saturday to the ninth edition of the National Handicapping Championship sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Daily Racing Form. This was the first time this event took place at the beautifully appointed Red Rock and the first time total prize money for the NHC finals was $1 million.

A few hundred miles to the west, in Arcadia, Calif., the disaster that has been Santa Anita's Cushion Track was at the mercy of more rain, which left Magna Entertainment officials with two choices: Pray for a window of sunshine to scrape the upper layer of the water-logged surface off the track or accept the need to cancel the heavily advertised Sunshine Millions Day card on Saturday.

Santa Anita's prayers were answered long enough to put on its Saturday card, but after two more weather-related cancellations on Thursday and Friday, many horseplayers in the two Vegas contests (and everywhere else) had no clue what to expect other than the fastest racing surface of modern times.

I won't go through the litany of track and world records that have been set on this aberrantly fast track in January, other than to say in my view, it would be in the interest of all handicappers as well as speed and pace figure makers for Santa Anita to declare that a whole new set of main track records will be established when the Pro Ride polymers are added to set up fairer conditions sometime soon.

For players in both Las Vegas contests last weekend, the problems at Santa Anita led to cancellations Thursday and Friday. The Friday card at Oaklawn also was canceled due to an ice storm. Rain in New Orleans and wet turf courses in Florida led to much switching of grass races to dirt and the usual array of scratches.

This certainly dampened enthusiasm at both contests, while forcing players who specialize in turf racing and SoCal racing to find other preferred plays. None of this however, deterred Richard Goodall of Las Vegas from turning in a thoroughly dominating performance over 277 other players to win the record $500,000 first prize in the NHC.

I met Goodall and his wife, Sally, almost a year ago, in the Wynn Hotel Racebook. My impressions were of two avid, skilled players who travel to several tracks a year and actively play tournaments at California tracks. It was hardly a surprise to learn that Sally and Richard have qualified a combined 11 times for the NHC finals, with Sally winning six berths and Richard five.

Yet, I was surprised last month to see Richard at Red Rock when I hosted a handicapping seminar prior to a qualifying tourney for the NHC. Having already earned his NHC Final seat, Goodall explained he was there "for practice" and "to get familiar with the layout," while getting the feel of Red Rock's kiosks as well as "the way information would be presented there."

This professional preparation also was seen in Goodall's approach to a few key NHC wagers that vaulted him to an insurmountable lead on Saturday.

"I saw where Tampa Bay was favoring outside horses in their dirt sprints," he said Saturday evening. "So I got off to a good start playing the outside (No. 12) in the (third) race."

That horse, Angle of Attack, was the first of Goodall's eight mandatory $2 win, $2 place wagers with his imaginary bankroll.

He explained that he decided to hold onto his seven optional wagers until later on Saturday, he said, "even though I feared that Santa Anita might have to shut down if it rained. . . . Holding on to those optionals gave me a chance to see what other leaders were doing."

When Angle of Attack won the Tampa sprint at $18.60 and $8.40, Goodall picked up $27 in mutuel points to vault into the lead for the first time. Later, he would catch a 23-1 winner in a maiden sprint at Fair Grounds and hit his last two bets to finish with $272.30, a record $78 ahead of his closest competitor. Goodall even used a 7-5 favorite in the last race at Golden Gate Fields to ensure his winning margin, even if a rival was going to catch a limit 20-1 win, 10-1 place payoff in the final race at Santa Anita 20 minutes later.

Don Beardsworth of Peoria, Ariz., finished second to win $150,000; Roberta Cote, 62, of San Diego, won $100,000 for third, and Albert Wong of Calgary, Canada, took down $45,000 for fourth, with only 40 cents in imaginary bankroll money separating second through fourth. For more NHC prizes and contest details, please see the NHC icon on the drf.com website.

As for the $683,000 Orleans tourney that had 683 players, the top five winners all had to cope with the same problems that affected players in the NHC.

Based on 11 imaginary $20 win, $20 place wagers for each of the three days, the top point totals averaged about $1,000 per day.

Ken Hopkins compiled 2,985.80 points to win the $307,350 first-place cash award. Gwyn Houston finished second with 2,368.40 points to collect $54,640. Rounding out the top five were James Henderson, 2,119.80 points for $47,810; Kenneth Maier, 2,082.00 points for $34,150; and Tony Marzolla, 2,049.00 for $20,490.

I was at the Orleans Tournament helping a world-class poker professional navigate his way through this contest before he departed for a rich poker tourney in Dortmund, Germany. Frankly, he might have done a lot better without my so-called help as I almost, but did not, pick a 45-1 shot (with an outside post) to win a maiden race at Tampa and similarly was between two horses at 25-1 and 35-1, respectively, in a race at Fair Grounds, only to go the wrong way. We needed both longshot winners to reach the top five.

As everyone who won serious prize money in any of these contests through the years can confirm, it takes a few winning longshots to climb to the top handful of spots on the leader board. That fact alone makes me wonder if there is any chance for either contest to install a money management quotient into these rich tournaments that carry so much prestige.

Although Orleans officials say "not likely," Jason McCormick, who is the manager of the Red Rock Racebook, says there is a chance for that to be put into play for 2009.

"We'd really love to do a live money contest, with a modest bankroll and some optional handling of the money," McCormick said. "Or, maybe we can figure out a way for players to invest two or three imaginary bets on horses they like the most."

Most horseplayers would welcome such innovations, including Goodall.

"I like the present format, obviously," he said. "But, it would be great to play in a tournament where you can manage your bankroll a bit."

As we turn the page, qualifying tournaments for the NHC and The Orleans tourney are already in progress. The Autotote Tournament at New Haven OTB on Feb. 9, for example, will supply contestants to both of these rich tourneys. Of course, Goodall already has his ticket to the 2009 NHC Final as part of his 2008 NHC first prize. Indeed, after generously giving his winning check to his wife, Sally, for her long-term support, Goodall would love to see Sally qualify for her seventh NHC berth. Maybe she can win it and return the gift.