01/29/2010 1:00AM

NHC contest begins with pair of longshots


LAS VEGAS - The 11th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship got off to a roaring start at the Red Rock Resort here Friday morning - at least for those who fired away on the right early longshots.

Shoe Babe won the first race at Aqueduct at 9:31 a.m. Vegas time to kick off the two-day tournament, returning $37.60 to win and $8.10 to place, and was followed almost immediately by Draw the Tap winning Laurel's first race and paying $139.80 to win and $41.80 to place.

The 300 contestants in the Red Rock race book are shooting for a $500,000 first-place prize and title of 2009 Handicapper of the Year.

Each contestant makes 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on both Friday and Saturday. Eight of the races each day are mandatory and the other seven are player's choice from the contest tracks of Aqueduct, Laurel Park, Gulfstream Park, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita, and Golden Gate Fields. Prices are capped at $42 to win and $22 to place, so anyone with Draw the Tap received $64 total points. Scores are updated after each mandatory race.

The scoring slowed down the rest of the morning. The first two mandatory races, the fourth at Gulfstream and the sixth at Aqueduct, were both won by short prices.

The leaderboard update after those races saw Verina Puga of Post Falls, Idaho, in the lead with a score of $86.60, followed by Daniel Touchette of El Paso, Texas, at $68.30, Jerry Bannister of Baltimore, Md., at $67.10, and James Henry of Torrance, Calif., at $58, with the rest of the top 10 within $5.20 of him.

The final field looks like it will number 300 players. Fair Grounds replaced previously announced cancellation Ross Yelverton with John Bindner to bring the expected total to 302, but then Roy Dorman of New York, N.Y., and Donald Nally of Middle River, Md., hadn't arrived by noon.

The committee that chose the mandatory races - Jason McCormick, Red Rock director of race & sports; Mike Watchmaker, DRF national handicapper; and Eric Wing, senior director of NTRA communications - didn't use any turf races at Fair Grounds, where it is raining heavily. Oaklawn Park canceled its Friday races due to a power outage.