01/28/2002 12:00AM

Lots of ways to win - or lose

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As the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship wound down to the final races on Saturday, the standings showed that Tim O'Leary, a 45-year-old budget manager from Newville, Pa., was holding a narrow lead over John Martin and Herman Miller. The media began circling.

Most notable were the writer and photographer from Sports Illustrated, who approached O'Leary to document his progress.

Questions were asked, photos were snapped . . . until O'Leary was passed by Miller, the eventual winner, who then became the focus of the media spotlight. Did the Sports Illustrated jinx strike again?

O'Leary finished second. He had a bankroll of $189 from his 30 $2 win and place wagers over the two-day tournament, and earned $30,000.

Don Speaks, a 65-year-old retired accountant from Oceanside, Calif., made a late charge to finish third at $183 and earn $10,000.

Sid Weiner, a 71-year-old business consultant from Saugus, Mass., also rallied. He finished with a bankroll of $179.30 and claimed fourth-place money of $5,000.

Martin, a 50-year-old car salesman from Lexington, Ky., was blanked on the late races and finished fifth, with a bankroll of $167.30. Fifth place was worth $3,000, plus Martin earned an additional $3,000 for having the best score on Saturday ($113.60).

The sixth- through 10th-place finishers picked up $2,000 apiece. They were Frank Auriemma of Brooklyn, N.Y.; David Brownfield of Toledo, Ohio; Rich Nilsen of Lexington, Ky.; Bobby Brendler of Rockville, Md.; and Jesus Bravo of Long Beach, Calif.

Surprise media winner

Team Penthouse shocked the establishment by running away with the media title of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship against people who bet horses for a living.

Team Penthouse, captained by DRF's Mike Watchmaker, included Penthouse Pets Alexa Lauren and Cheyenne Silver, senior editor Ed Dwyer, and director of communications Michael Moi.

Lauren was the top finisher, compiling a two-day bankroll of $175.60 based on 30 $2 win and place bets. That would have finished fifth in the overall tournament.

"We knew people were laughing at us and figuring we're just models who take our clothes off and don't know anything," Lauren said, "but that inspired us to do better. It makes the victory even sweeter."

"I just did it logically," said Lauren of her handicapping method. "I started by looking at each horse's lifetime record and then also how they did in 2001 and if they ran in 2002. I've never bet on the horses before, and I've never screamed for a sport in my life. I couldn't believe how much I got into it."

Moi would have finished 20th overall out of 197 competitors if the 20 media members had been included in the official standings. Silver would have been 26th and Watchmaker would have been 30th. Team Penthouse's combined bankroll was $688 (the only media team to show a positive ROI) and the team collected $10,000 to be given to charity.

Team Industry, captained by DRF handicapper Mike Hammersly, was a distant second with $513.90. Felix Taverna, executive producer and host of the "Thoroughbred Hot Line" radio show out of San Diego, had the team's top score of $145.60.

Keeneland "A" team claims title

While everyone was shooting for the individual awards, 176 of the 177 contestants were paired into groups of four based on where they qualified for the National Handicapping Championship. Defending champion Judy Wagner was given an exemption and was not part of a team.

Keeneland sent two four-player squads to the tournament, and it was the track's "A" team that got the job done. Each player picked up $5,000. The team racked up a combined bankroll of $506.10 to outdistance the second-place team, from Suffolk Downs ($478.10).

Keeneland's team was led by Rich Nilsen, a 31-year-old marketing director at Brisnet who finished eighth in the main tournament. His teammates were Don "Hee Haw" Alvey, a 58-year-old professional handicapper and bloodstock agent from Louisville, Ky.; Tony Martin, a 33-year-old railroad worker from Lexington, Ky.; and Tim Holland, a 39-year-old broodmare manager from Midway, Ky.

Not so fast . . .

When someone gets out to a big lead in a contest, the saying goes that "they'll come back to the pack."

That was never more true then last Friday, when Allen Howell, a 53-year-old blasting technician from Los Angeles, jumped out to a huge lead with winnings of $108.30. But Howell approached the tournament organizers and said, "I think I did something wrong."

It turns out Howell played only two mandatory races and 13 optionals instead of the required 8/7 split. Tournament director Jeff Sotman ruled that Howell's first seven optionals would count and the others would be voided. Howell lost a $56 winner and had his bankroll reduced to $23.80. He finished the tournament at $69.60.

Howell qualified in a free contest at Oak Tree and wasn't prepared for the big-time contest atmosphere in the MGM Grand.

But he wasn't alone. Tournament champion Herman Miller missed out on a play Friday because he was distracted from his task by the bustle of the event.

"It got really difficult when all the cameras were on me at the end," Miller said. "I had to concentrate because I had already made some mistakes. There's a lot going on, and you have to be very focused."