01/28/2008 12:00AM

NHC newcomer enjoys solid run

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LAS VEGAS - Most of us can only dream about making the kind of $500,000 score Richard Goodall made Saturday in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship here at the Red Rock Casino, Resort, and Spa. And to do it the way Goodall did, by a record-smashing margin of $78 over his closest pursuer in a field of 277 of the world's finest tournament handicappers, which was more than double the previous record margin - well, that would be almost too much to hope for.

But for a period of about 22 hours, Dave Neuburger had more of a right than anyone else to fantasize about making just that kind of score. And that is because Neuburger, a 54-year-old painting contractor from Forest Hills, N.Y., was the leader of the NHC after Day 1 on Friday and was still a major threat into the early afternoon of the final day of the contest on Saturday.

Neuburger, who characterizes himself as a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday horseplayer for the last 35 years, bettered Goodall by $1.60 when he amassed a first day total of $150.50. Even though Neuburger couldn't keep pace with Goodall in the critical closing hours during Saturday's action, he still managed to finish seventh overall. That was a thoroughly respectable performance considering these factors: the quality of the NHC field; the fact that in the nine-year history of the NHC it has proven to be more difficult to go wire to wire than it would be for a cheap sprinter to go 1 1/2 miles on quicksand; that, according to the NTRA record keepers, Neuburger on Friday did not use one of the seven optional contest wagers available to him (making it all the more remarkable that he was still in the lead); and that, Neuburger said, this was only the fourth handicapping contest he has ever competed in.

"About 10 or 12 years ago, I came out here with a friend and played in a contest at Caesars Palace," Neuburger recalled after the NHC was over Saturday night. "Then, two years ago, I played in the Aqueduct handicapping contest trying to get into this one. It didn't work out, but I finished third in the Aqueduct contest last November - I should have been second - so this was my fourth contest."

Although it might not really be fair, few remember who finishes second in a contest like the NHC (for the record, Don Beardsworth did by a mere 30 cents over Roberta Cote), and hardly anyone remembers who the leader is after the first day. But as someone who has nothing but admiration for all of the contestants in the NHC, I couldn't help but wonder what Friday night must have been like for Neuburger. Especially given his relative tournament inexperience and the fact that he was the target for 276 formidable opponents. Did he feel pressure? Did he do what comes so naturally in Vegas and go out and party? Did he have visions of a half-million dollars dancing around in his head?

"Of course I had them," Neuburger said on Saturday. "But I knew I did as good as I could yesterday, and to not be clearly in front, I said to myself 'God, these other guys must really be good.' I felt lucky Santa Anita was washed out yesterday, and since I follow New York, Tampa Bay, and Gulfstream, I thought I had a big advantage."

Neuberger said he plays the inner-track meet at Aqueduct especially well.

"I'm sure a lot of people here think the inner track is garbage, and I bet a lot of them don't pay much attention to it," he said. "But I think, frankly, the inner track, with the inside being so strong, it's the best meet of the year for me. A big part of my game is track bias. So even with the turf racing at Belmont, which I enjoy, I find the inner track to be the easiest.

Neuburger said he left the partying on Friday night to others.

"I stayed in and studied," he said. "I have two partners, my friends Bruce and Mark, and we took this seriously. I'm pretty obsessive about this. I did the work on three tracks: New York, which is my main one, Gulfstream, and Tampa Bay. I'm East Coast. My partner Mark does a lot of simulcasting, and he handled Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and the others. We put our minds together, and he was happy, but I said, 'Mark, we're in trouble. We did as good as you can do, and we're ahead by only a dollar sixty, and we should be ahead by 20 to 30 dollars.'

"I'd say we had about seven winners on Friday who paid anywhere from 7-2 to 10-1. The biggest priced horse we had was Big Ira Davis at $23 in the ninth race at Aqueduct. He was my best bet. But we had seven horses that averaged out to $16 winners.

"Today, I did as awful as I can possibly do. I had one winner in 15 races, a 7-1 shot, and one place horse, and still finished seventh in the whole tournament. With one more good-priced winner, we could have been second. We had opportunities, but I'm sure everyone who finished ahead of us also had opportunities. I can't complain. It was a good time."