01/22/2010 12:00AM

Last chance for a spot in NHC XI


LAS VEGAS - A berth in the annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is a year-long goal for a lot of horse players.

More than 120,000 have entered qualifying tournaments since early 2009 to try to make it to the NHC XI finals this coming Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29-30, at the Red Rock Resort on the west side of town.

The winner will collect the $500,000 first-place prize and will be honored as Handicapper of the Year at the Eclipse Awards, just like defending champ John Conte was this past Monday night.

The calendar has turned to 2010, but there's one last chance for those chasing the dream - the aptly named Last Chance Qualifier at the Red Rock this Wednesday, just two days before the finals.

Five berths in NHC XI will be up for grabs to join the 297 who have already qualified to make up the record final field of 302, one more than last year.

You can't buy your way into the finals. You must win or finish high enough in sanctioned tourneys at NTRA-member tracks, OTBs, casinos, or websites to earn a seat.

The entry fee for Wednesday's Last Chance Qualifier is $500, with $350 going toward the NHC XI purse and the remaining $150 being returned as prize money to the top three finishers (fourth and fifth only receive the NHC berth). Last year, 113 played in the Last Chance Qualifier, adding $39,550 to the NHC purse. Tournament director Keith Chamblin, who also is a senior vice president with the NTRA, said that estimate was used in setting this year's NHC finals purse at $930,000, with $921,500 going to the top 30 finishers plus $8,500 as prize money to the top scorers on Saturday. Those figures will be adjusted after the actual number of entries in the Last Chance Qualifier is determined.

Except for the fact it's a one-day tourney instead of two, the Last Chance Qualifier format is the same as the NHC finals, with contestants making 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers from the contest tracks of Gulfstream, Laurel, Beulah, and Santa Anita. Eight races are mandatory as chosen by tournament organizers and seven are player's choice. Payoffs are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. There is a maximum of two entries per person. The registration deadline is 11 a.m. Wednesday.

* The five from the Last Chance Qualifier will join the last six who earned berths at the end of 2009: Robin Buser of Delran, N.J.; Eric Kurzhal of South Bend, Ind.; NHC VII champion Ron Rippey of Wayne, N.J.; George Kephart Smith of Chicago; Trey Stiles of Houston; and Steven Wecker of New York. They earned their spots as the top six earners in the 2009 NHC Tour who had not already qualified.

The NHC Tour is a year-long competition using the NHC qualifying schedule as a circuit. Membership cost $125 the past two years (there's a new fee structure for 2010; see ntra.com/nhctour for details) and contestants earn points based on how they fare in the tournaments held throughout the year, with each player's top five finishes used in the standings. The year-long champ earns $100,000 and is eligible for a $2 million bonus if he or she goes on to win the NHC finals. Bryan Wagner of New Orleans won the 2009 NHC Tour and will be on hand next weekend to shoot for the bonus.

The rule that sends the top six nonqualifiers to the finals is another bonus of the NHC Tour.

The top 31 Tour point-earners all had qualified earlier. Kurzhal finished 32nd with 4,575 points, Smith was 44th with 3,943, and Rippey was 49th with 3,791. Buser was 54th with 3,676, Wecker was 59th with 3,501, and Stiles was 60th with 3,463. Smith and Stiles needed the points they earned in the final tourney of 2009, finishing 11th and 13th, respectively, at the Del Mar Surfside Super Qualifier on Dec. 26-27 to make the field.

* How about those qualifying early? Most people point to Conte, who receives an exemption as defending champ, as the first to earn a seat in this week's finals, but that distinction actually belongs to the top five finishers from the 2008 NHC Tour: Sam Brooks of Jarrettsville, Md.; Ross Gallo of Jupiter, Fla.; William A. Shurman of Danville, Calif.; James M Henry of Redondo Beach, Calif.; and Ricky Zimmer of New York.

The top five of the 2009 NHC Tour - Wagner, his wife Judy Wagner (who won NHC II and is still the only woman to be named Handicapper of the Year); Steven Hartshorn of Newport Beach, Calif; Michael Labriola of Richmond, Calif.; and Shawn Turner of Middletown, Md., earn that distinction for NHC XII. They'll be joined by next weekend's champ and then the top two finishers in the first regular qualifying tournament of 2010: the Red Rock Shootout on Sunday, Jan. 31, the day after the finals.

The entry fee for the Red Rock Shootout is $100 and players make eight mythical $2 win-and-place wagers from the contest tracks of Gulfstream, Aqueduct, and Fair Grounds, with four races being mandatory and four being player's choice and the same caps of $42 to win and $22 to place. All entries fees as returned as prize money in this contest, with 50 percent going to the winner, 20 percent for second, 15 percent for third, 10 percent for fourth, and 5 percent for fifth. No West Coast tracks are used in this contest to help those needing to catch planes home Sunday.

* Chamblin assumed the role of tournament director after Fritz Widaman left the NTRA this past fall to take a full-time job with Daily Racing Form. Michele Ravencraft is still the tournament manager and will be assisted by Widaman, who will be at the Red Rock to lend his experience in running the event.