01/15/2004 12:00AM

The more, the merrier in NHC

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Las Vegas is the mecca for poker and horse racing tournaments. The World Series of Poker and championship of the World Poker Tour are held here, and the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is set for next Friday and Saturday at Bally's Las Vegas.

The NHC is in its fifth year, and a testament to the increasing popularity of the event is that there will be 261 handicappers vying for the $100,000 first prize and title of Handicapper of the Year, up from 213 last year and 177 the year before.

NTRA spokesman Eric Wing said the increase stems from a combination of more NTRA member track, casinos, OTBs, and websites holding contests, and also many of those holding multiple qualifiers and sending more than one team of four. The field breaks down into 65 teams of four, plus defending champion Steve Wolfson Jr. of Holly Hill, Fla. Each handicapper will make 15 mythical $2 win and place bets each day. Eight will be mandatory races as selected by a panel, with the remaining seven selections at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Laurel, Turfway, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Turf Paradise, Golden Gate, and Santa Anita.

Because of the increase in the field, the purse has also grown from $204,000 last year to $240,000 for this year's event. Second-place money was increased from $30,000 to $40,000; third place was increased from $10,000 to $15,000; fourth place, from $5,000 to $8,000; and fifth place, from $3,000 to $5,000. Team prizes were increased to $25,000 for first, $10,000 for second, and $5,000 for third, all at an increase of 25 percent from last year.

The NTRA will also be giving $10,000 to the charity designated by the winning team in the media contest that will mirror the format played by the NHC contestants.

This will be the second NHC held at Bally's. The first three were at the MGM Grand. To accommodate the bigger field, race and sports book director John Avello said the lounge area behind the book and the seating area outside the book will have added tables, TVs, and betting windows.

Coast gets players to arrive early

Last year, in an attempt to lure players that were coming to town, anyway, the Coast Casinos ran a tournament at the same time as the NHC. The Coast to Coast Super Tournament was held at the Suncoast on the west side of town and the Barbary Coast, a short walk from the Bally's race book.

But this year, the Coast properties decided to move their tournament to the two days before the NHC, next Wednesday and Thursday. That seems to be a better fit. People who want to play in both can arrive a few days earlier and be able to concentrate on one tournament at a time.

The Coast contest will again be held concurrently at the Suncoast and Barbary Coast. It has been renamed the Coast to Coast Shootout and has changed to a live-bankroll format. The entry fee is $300, and players must make 16 $50 bets over the two days for a total of $800 in live wagers. Players can get creative and bet win, place, or show, as well as exactas, quinellas, trifectas, or superfectas. No multiple-race wagers are allowed. Plays can be made all in one day or in any combination.

In addition to keeping any winnings from cashed tickets, the purse is being estimated at $75,000, based on 217 entries, as Coast Casinos has added $10,000 to the prize pool. The winner is expected to receive $30,000, or 40 percent of the pool, with prizes paid through 10th place.

A lot of people say the only way to win money at the races is to bet win only. Well, the only way people can qualify for a separate bonus in this contest is to bet win only. Five percent of the pool, or $3,750 based on the expected 217 entries, will be awarded to the person cashing the most $50 win bets.

Vegas celebrates New Year's again

Falling right smack dab in the middle of the two tournaments is Chinese New Year on Thursday. The year 2004 is the Year of the Monkey. This holiday ranks right up there with New Year's, the Super Bowl, March Madness, and Derby Day with casino marketers, as they cater to the Asian population, which is rich with high rollers.

Most casinos have events planned for their guests and generally keep those plans under wraps, but the biggest public celebration will be 10 p.m., next Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Lydia Sum, an entertainer from Singapore, will be joined by Johnny Yip, Alice Lau, Alisa Chan, and Danny Summer. Tickets are $48, $108, and $168.

Yucca Mountain debated in D.C.

Nevada got its day in court Wednesday, as it laid out six cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to derail the federal government's plans to store the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

In 2002, President Bush signed a bill designating Yucca Mountain as the choice to store the waste, and Congress approved it. That left Nevada's best chance to defeat the measure in the judicial branch. Nevada's lawyers argued that the fact 49 states are imposing a hazardous situation on a 50th is in violation of the Constitution, but that was mostly dismissed by the judges because Yucca Mountain is on federal land.

Cases were also made on the grounds that, despite the original plans that a national nuclear waste repository would have to be natural, the Department of Energy changed the rules to allow man-made barriers when Yucca Mountain's geology was found to be inadequate. Lawyers argued that if that was the case originally, a lot of other sites would have also been suitable. Questions were also raised about the Environmental Protection Agency's negligence of a report from the National Academy of Sciences that the risk of radiation would last much longer than 10,000 years. There are also concerns over the length of time the containers can safely store the waste, and Nevada claims that these issues haven't been properly addressed.

The judges have thousands of pages of documents to pore over, and their final decision could take several months. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected by whichever side loses.