01/26/2004 12:00AM

A large group went home with assorted cash prizes

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LAS VEGAS - This year's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship had a record purse of $240,000 - up from $212,000 the past four years.

In all, 27 of the 260 finalists (10 percent) collected at least $1,000, and that's in addition to prize money that everyone won in the qualifying tournaments to get here, plus the free round-trip airfare and three-night's hotel accommodations at Bally's.

The biggest chunk of the purse obviously went to first-place finisher Kent Meyer's $100,000 check and runner-up David Krosunger's $40,000, but the NHC pays out to the top 10.

Third place of $15,000 went to 47-year-old Randy Franklin of Scottsdale, Ariz. Franklin is a former DRF handicapper and now works as a money runner for an Indian casino. He finished with a score of $210.70, and also finished with a scare. After deciding to go with the No. 1, Texiano, in the last contest race, he switched to another horse and then watched in horror as the 14-1 Texiano made a four-wide rally before settling for third.

The highest female finisher this year, Martha Carl of Los Angeles, was fourth with a bankroll of $201.10 and won $8,000. "All this fun and money, too?" said Carl, a 63-year-old teacher, grinning from ear to ear.

Brendan Leehy, a 41-year-old customer service rep from Omaha, Neb., was fifth with a bankroll of $183.40 and earnings of $5,000.

Daily prizes add to winnings

Of the top 10 finishers, five picked up added money for finishing in the top three on either Friday or Saturday.

Krosunger received an additional $3,000 for having the top score ($151.20) on Friday, with Meyer ($151.20) picking up $2,000 for second and Carl ($123.10) another $1,000 for third.

Saturday, Larry Kaplan of Northbrook, Ill., scored $146.60 to add $3,000 to his 10th-place winnings and John Hirsch ($138) of Leesburg, Va., added $2,000 to his eighth-place showing. Ross Gallo of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla,. tallied $135.20 on the final day to collect $1,000, but that wasn't enough to get him in the top 10 after only having $20 on Friday.

* Another daily bonus that was available to players was a contest involving Head2Head bonus matchups in each mandatory race with the top scores splitting $5,000. With scratches, only seven matchups were live on each day. Friday, Kelly Kirby of Tulsa, Okla., was the only one to go 7 for 7 and she won the entire $5,000 pool.

Saturday, five contestants went 7 for 7 to win $1,000 apiece: Juan Lopez of Albuquerque, N.M.; Joe Pastor of Point Roberts, Wash., John Ray of Honey Brook, Pa.; Stacey Wagner of Warren, Mich., and Ron Hopkins of Nicholasville, Ky.

Team Colonial triumphs

There is also $40,000 in team prizes. Once players fall out of contention for the individual prizes, it's quite common for them to meet with the players who qualified from the same venue to see if they're in the running for the team prizes.

Teams from Keeneland won this competition the past two years, but their reign ended.

Team Colonial didn't have anyone finish in the top 10 of the individual standings, but its players were consistent enough to combine for an impressive $542.60. Teammates, who split $25,000 ($6,250 apiece), were Harry Damgaard of Charlottesville, Va.; Dave Durkin of Peachtree City, Ga.; Berkley Kern Jr. of Elkridge, Md.; and John Vitale of Virginia Beach, Va.

Horsemen's Park was a distant second at $499.90. Team players split $10,000 ($2,500 apiece). Leehy led the way with his fifth-place finish. Other team members were Steve Merrill of Omaha, Neb., and Wayne Pearey and Wes Watson, both of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Arlington was third with a combined score of $493.10. Team members divided $5,000 ($1,250 apiece). Kaplan led the team, which also consisted of James Coffey of Arlington Heights, Ill.; Judith Gonsoulin of St. Bernard, La.; and John Pappalardo of Staten Island, N.Y.

Charities also benefit

In addition to the $240,000 paid out to the contestants, the NTRA pledged to donate $10,000 to charity for the winners of a media/celebrity tournament that followed the same rules as the NHC.

Team TV - consisting of TVG's Todd Schrupp and Frank Lyons, ESPN's Randy Moss and Jeff Medders, and myself as team captain - was the only team to show a flat-bet profit with a score of $614.60 and beat the runner-up, Team National ($513.60), by more than $100.

Adding color to the event were Team National members Jerry O'Connell, one of the child stars in "Stand By Me" who has grown up to star in such movies as "Kangaroo Jack," "Tomcats," and "Scream 2," and George Karl, ESPN basketball analyst and former coach of the SuperSonics and Bucks. Karl also brought along fellow NBA analyst Tom Tolbert.

They were all interviewed by TVG over the course of the two days, but none of them got as much camera time as Team Penthouse, which included 2004 Pet of the Year Victoria Zdrok, runner-up Courtney Taylor, and 30th anniversary Pet Alexa Lauren.