03/29/2011 1:09PM

National Handicapping Championship to be held at Treasure Island on Vegas Strip

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LAS VEGAS – Treasure Island, the hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip owned by billionaire Phil Ruffin, has reached an agreement to host the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship for at least the next two years, the NTRA announced Tuesday.

This will return the NHC, in its 13th year, to the Strip after being held the last four years at the Red Rock Resort on the west side of town. The NHC finals, which culminates a year of qualifying tournaments at websites, racetracks, OTBs, and casinos throughout North America, was held the first three years at the MGM Grand from 2000-2002 and then at Bally’s Las Vegas from 2003-2007 before moving to the Red Rock.

DRF BETS TOURNAMENT LEAGUE: Online NHC qualifying contest starts April 1

One reason that Treasure Island was chosen to hold the NHC is because its ballroom is available to hold the growing event. Plans this year call for an increase to as many as 500 finalists (compared to about 300 during the Red Rock era) competing for a $2 million purse with $1 million to the winner, who also earns an Eclipse Award as Handicapper of the Year. Another reason was the enthusiasm Treasure Island showed, said Keith Chamblin, the NTRA vice president of marketing.

“We put out a [request for proposal] late last year, and Phil Ruffin was one of the first to respond,” said Chamblin. “He’s big on racing and wants to grow the business to his race book.”

Tony Nevill is the race and sports book director at Treasure Island, which has one of the few independent books on the Strip. He said he was excited about his bosses’ interest in hosting the NHC and was at the Red Rock this past January scouting out how things were run.

“Mr. R has owned greyhound tracks and loves horse racing, which is obviously good for me in operating a book with a supportive boss,” Nevill said. “He enjoys the work ethic that goes into handicapping on a day-to-day basis, so he jumped at the chance when he heard the NHC might be available and bring national attention to our property, especially with the NHC growing at this time.”

The date for the NHC XIII finals hasn’t been set. Traditionally, it’s held the last weekend of January during the bye week before the NFL’s Super Bowl, which fits nicely in the calendar with the host hotel having rooms to fill.

“For starters, there’s some uncertainty about when and if the Super Bowl will be played, with the labor negotiations still up in the air,” Nevill said. “We’re also just starting discussions with our other departments in picking the best time to host it.”

Nevill said he also plans to host three to five qualifying tournaments to send players to the finals.

“We’re aiming for the first one to be in August as we’d like to get one or two in before the football season starts,” he said. “We have some things we have to get approved by [the Gaming Control Board] before we can finalize dates.

“I joked with Keith that if there’s no NFL that we’ll hold a tournament every other week in the fall, but obviously we want to have both going on concurrently.”

Ruffin’s work ethic and shrewd business sense have been on display in Las Vegas for a long time. Ruffin previously owned the New Frontier, which he bought for $167 million in 1998 and sold for $1.2 billion to the El Ad Properties (who intended to put a version of New York’s iconic Plaza hotel on that location but have yet to break ground) in May 2007. His timing there was perfect as he sold at the peak of the market and the $33 million-per-acre price stands as a Strip record.

Treasure Island was built by Steve Wynn and opened in October 1993 just north of its sister property, the Mirage. Wynn sold his company to MGM Grand Inc. in June 2000, and the combined MGM Mirage ran the property until Ruffin bought it in March 2009 for $600 million in cash (plus $175 million in secured notes). That’s also considered one of the best deals in Vegas history.