01/25/2008 1:00AM

NHC opens with a longshot

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LAS VEGAS – The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship had its rabbit.

The NHC, the end of a year-long process to name 2007's Handicapper of the Year, started Friday morning at the Red Rock Resort and will run through Saturday. A field of 278 handicappers were entered and are competing for a purse of more than $1 million with $500,000 going to the winner.

William Marsh of Oak Lawn, Ill., broke from the gate fastest in the first race of the contest, the opener at Tampa Bay Downs, as Crafty Grey won at 31-1 and returned $64.80 and $25.80 to place.

Contestants make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets each day with eight races being mandatory and the other seven being player’s choice from the remaining contest tracks, with payoffs capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. That means that Crafty Grey’s win was worth just $64 contest points for Marsh, the only contestant to use an optional on that longshot, but that still gave him nearly a $50 lead ahead of his nearest competitors when the first standings were posted at 10:15 a.m.

Santa Anita and Oaklawn canceled racing Friday, so that left just Aqueduct, Tampa Bay, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds and Golden Gate as the available tracks.

As of the first mandatory at 10:55 a.m., the fourth race at Aqueduct, one contestant was a no-show, Jay D. Clark, who had qualified at Santa Anita. In the standings posted at 11:04 a.m. after the first mandatory, Joseph Boyle, 46, of Monmouth Beach, N.J., moved into the lead with $68.90. Lawrence Katz, 58, of Toronto, tied Marsh for second at $64. Steve Stupka, 44, of Ankeny, Iowa, was a distant fourth at $30.60.

But there's plenty of racing to go.