Updated on 09/18/2011 12:17AM

NHC purses get a late boost

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LAS VEGAS - First prize in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship, being held this Friday and Saturday at the Bally's race book, has been increased from $225,000 to $250,000.

The overall NHC purse has also been increased to $540,000, up from the previously announced figure of $500,000. The added money comes from the two last-chance qualifying tournaments held Sunday and Wednesday in which participants paid a $250 entry fee, with $50 going to the prize pools for those events and $200 going to the NHC purse. Seventy-eight handicappers played in the Sunday contest and 124 played Wednesday.

In addition to the $25,000 from those contests that went to the NHC's first-place prize, the NTRA decided to double Saturday's daily prizes in order to give those who were out of the running after the first day a shot at more money. The prize for the top Saturday score increased from $5,000 to $10,000, second place went from $3,000 to $6,000, and third place from $2,000 to $4,000.

Three make most of last chance

Things didn't go as smoothly as planned Wednesday morning at the Win a Place at the Big Show contest, which in addition to the $250 entry fee called for contestants to make 15 live $50 parimutuel wagers on the racing cards at Aqueduct and Santa Anita.

Problems with the tote system during the start of the Aqueduct card caused a delay in the start of the contest. After trying to figure out if they could hand-book the tournament, officials decided to change the contest to Santa Anita and Bay Meadows and scrap the live bankroll stipulation. The 90-plus contestants who had signed up were refunded their $750 bankroll and given the chance to withdraw if they chose. The format was changed to a flat $250 entry fee with a mythical $2 win-and-place bet on 15 races at the California tracks.

That was welcome news to Jon Kenas, a 63-year-old retiree from Clearwater, Fla. He was in town for last week's Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and was sticking around this week to cheer on some friends in the NHC. He was upstairs at Bally's playing poker when he got the call from friends who encouraged him to take a shot.

Considering the small fields and the lack of longshots coming in, Kenas posted an impressive score of 150.40 to blow away the rest of the field.

"I wasn't just playing favorites," Kenas said. "I had the maiden winners in the first two races at Santa Anita" - Really Indian at 9-1 and Halo Ms. Lion at 5-1 - "and a lot of my biggest points came from second-place finishers that paid more than the winners."

Kenas, a former horse owner, said he has played in many tournaments, with his previous best finish being 10th in a contest at the Orleans. For Wednesday's victory at Bally's, he received $3,050 in prize money, but more importantly he earned the shot at big money this weekend.

Damian Roncevich, 36, of Honolulu, and Steve Valiant, 43, of Brooklyn finished second and third, scoring 101.20 and 101.10 and earning $1,830 and $1,220. They filled the final two spots in the NHC.

Roncevich finished fifth in last year's NHC, earning $10,000, after being in second place after the first day. He also won $40,500 in the spring 2003 Pick the Ponies at the Las Vegas Hilton and has had top 10 finishes at the MGM Grand, Bally's, Reno Hilton, and Turf Paradise.

He doesn't go all around the country to qualify for the NHC, but usually plays in the bigger tournaments. So, after failing to get into the field for the NHC at qualifying tournaments at Del Mar, Bally's, and Turf Paradise, Roncevich bought a one-way ticket from Hawaii to Las Vegas because he knew he would stick around for the last-chance qualifiers after playing in the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans and didn't know when he would return.

After not faring well at the Orleans, he finished fifth in Sunday's Smart Money tourney at Bally's, which awarded two NHC spots, and admitted to being burned out from looking at so many past performances.

"I spent the past few days at a friend's house, relaxing by the pool and not looking at any races," Roncevich said. "I think that helped clear my head."

A construction contractor, Roncevich said that the tote problems earlier in the day didn't disrupt his mind-set.

"None of that bothered me," he said. "Playing in all these tournaments, you're used to the turmoil. There's always something happening, and you have to just concentrate on your handicapping."

Valiant, like Kenas, was in town to cheer on some friends in the NHC and decided to try to make the field, too. Late in Wednesday's contest, his friends told him he might need a longshot to win the contest. Instead, he played the favorite in the final race at Santa Anita, which won and paid $3.80 to win and $2.20 to place. He finished 6 points ahead of the fourth-place finisher.

"I played conservatively because this contest wasn't about the money, it was just about getting in the field," Valiant said. "This weekend will be about the money."

Meyer a horse for the course?

The 2003 NHC champ, Kent Meyer of Sioux City, Iowa, seems to save his best for Bally's and might be said to have a home-track advantage.

Meyer finished 32nd in the 2003 finals, the first year it was held at Bally's, and followed that up with his championship in January 2004, earning the top prize of $100,000. As defending champ, he received an automatic entry and returned in 2005 to finish 11th, the best finish for a defending champ, earning another $2,000.

This past year, with his reign over, he had to requalify and won the $40,000 first-place prize in the Bally's Moolah $5,000 buy-in contest in April.

Gutfreund to help ESPN team

His streak of qualifying for NHC's has been snapped at four, but Dave Gutfreund will still be busy in the Bally's race and sports book this weekend.

Gutfreund, known as "The Maven" to many horseplayers, will be part of ESPN's on-air team along with Randy Moss and Dick Jerardi when the championship is taped and later edited into a one-hour show to air Feb. 19. Gutfreund will be roving the floor, interviewing players as the events unfold.

"It's a great opportunity, but one that would never have presented itself had I done what I should have, which is qualify again," said Gutfreund, who finished 20th last year. "I should be able to get good things from the players because I'm one of them, and I know what they're going through. I know the right questions to ask, and they should feel comfortable talking to me."

Family connections

With brothers J. Randy Gallo and Ross Gallo both playing as part of Calder Team No. 1, at least one member of the family has competed in each of the first seven NHC's. In all, five Gallos have played. Ross has the family's best finish, 17th in 2004.

Pick-six guru Randy is playing in his third NHC, Ross in his fourth.

There are plenty of other family connections in the tournament. Brothers Bill Shurman (Youbet.com No. 2) and Paul Shurman (Autotote-Bradley) are playing together for the third straight year. Kevin "Duke" Matties (Fairplex No. 1) and Paul Matties Jr. (Delaware No. 2) are also in the contest.

Joe Hinson (Turf Paradise No. 1), often considered the king of the contest circuit, is joined by his daughter Kelly Phillips, who qualified in a last-ditch attempt last Sunday at Bally's.

There are two husband-and-wife teams: Ruby and Tommy Castillo, who both qualified at Valley Race Park, and Sally Wang (Fairplex No. 2) and Richard Goodall (River Downs), who are back for their third and fourth NHC's, respectively.

In addition, Stephanie Davis (Aqueduct) and two-time qualifier Joe Scanio (Arlington Trackside) are cousins.

* The number of was cut from 226 to 225 Wednesday after NTRA officials received news that William Coleman, 85, of Tamarac, Fla., suffered a heart attack and was unable to make the trip.

- additional reporting by Dan Shapiro