01/20/2011 2:40PM

NHC purses trending upward again

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In a national economy struggling to come out of a recession, the horse racing industry has continued to see its share of stories about falling attendance, handle, and purse money.

But often overlooked is the success of the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship. The NHC, which requires contestants to earn their way to the finals through a series of qualifying tournaments, will be held for the 12th time next Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28-29, in the finals at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

The purse at the NHC finals is expected to be at least $1 million for the second time and may even break the record set three years ago in NHC IX, in which the finalists battled for $1,017,700. Purses dropped the last two years but only slightly; it was $962,000 for NHC X in January 2009 and $947,850 for NHC XI last year.

To understand the growth of the NHC, you need to go back to the beginning. It was 1998, and DRF publisher Steven Crist was meeting with then-NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, who asked him for suggestions for the Eclipse Awards. Crist, who has always been an advocate for the horseplayer, said he thought it would be great to have an award for Handicapper of the Year.

NHC ON DRF.COM: Visit drf.com/nhc during the tournament for videos and updates

In early 1999, the NTRA and DRF worked together to formulate the rules for the national championship and unveiled the concept to the tracks and then to the public that spring. It was determined that any venue hosting an event had to be an NTRA member.

The first qualifying tournament was held in June 1999 at Foxwoods in Connecticut and was the first of 40 events held by the end of the year. NHC I was held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and the contest would be held there for the following two years. Steven Walker of Lincoln, Neb., won the $100,000 first-place prize from a purse of $200,000 in NHC I. Judy Wagner of New Orleans won NHC II the following year and has been the only woman to date to take the title.

Starting with NHC IV in January 2003, Bally’s Las Vegas was the host for five years. The first-place prize remained $100,000 for NHC IV and V at Bally’s, though the total purse rose gradually to $240,000. It ballooned to $412,400 in NHC VI, in which James Michelson Jr. of West Bloomfield, Mich., won the top prize of $200,000. The next year, Ron Rippey of Wayne, N.J., won the $250,000 first-place prize in NHC VII, in which the total purse hit $500,000 for the first time. Rippey’s victory was televised on tape-delay on ESPN2 in hopes of having the tournaments embraced in the way poker had boomed.

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That didn’t quite work out, and the contest has not been televised since, but the NHC continued to grow unabated. NHC VIII in January 2007 had a purse of $850,000, with Stanley Bavlish of Virginia Beach, Va., winning $400,000. The winner’s share was increased to its present level of $500,000 at NHC IX in January 2008, when the finals moved to the Red Rock Resort. The last three champions have been Richard Goodall of Las Vegas; John Conte of Oceanside, N.Y.; and Brian Troop of Barrie, Ontario.

There will be 304 finalists competing for this year’s first-place prize, with Tom Noone of Redondo Beach, Calif., having a shot at a $2 million bonus if he pulls off the NHC Tour/NHC double. He accumulated the highest score from racking up top finishes at qualifying tournaments throughout the year.

The NHC Tour in 2010 had registration fees of $100 for Level 1 membership and $500 for Level 2 membership; the Level 2 fee will help fund the season-long title for those who wanted to shoot for that.

The top 10 scoring members in the NHC Tour who hadn’t already earned berths were awarded spots: Yu’Min De’Ath of Henderson, Nev.; Gary Johnson of Cleveland, Ohio; Howard Hong of Scottsdale, Ariz.; the aforementioned former champ Rippey; Michael Ray of Las Vegas, Nev.; Michael Teal of Suffolk, Va.; Don Allen of Bradley, Ark.; Keven Engelhard of Franklin Park, N.J.; Dan Kaplan of Las Vegas, Nev.; Paul Parker of Norcross, Ga.; and Dave Picarello of Baltimore, Md.

For those who still want to join the fun, there are five berths up for grabs in the appropriately named “Last Chance” Qualifier being held at the Red Rock on Wednesday, Jan. 26. There is a $500 entry fee, and 70 percent of the fees will go toward the NHC XII purse. Players will make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on the day under the same daily format used in the NHC: Eight of the races will be mandatory, and the other seven will be up to each player.

With the increasing popularity of the NHC finals, Daily Racing Form is boosting its online coverage at DRF.com with videos featuring myself; DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker; and Bob Nastanovich, a former jockey agent and a member of the rock band Pavement. There will also be updates on Twitter for followers of @DRFInsidePost.

But when it comes to the growth of the NHC, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

At NHC XIII next January, the first-place prize will balloon to $1 million, and total purse is expected to be $2 million. This expansion was made possible when the NHC dropped the requirement that qualifying tournaments can only be hosted by NTRA members. Racetracks, OTBs, casinos, websites, and account wagering companies that previously didn’t want to become full-fledged NTRA members can now hold sanctioned tourneys and pay higher fees to send their qualifiers to the finals. This is expected to grow the number of finalists to around 500 next year.

In addition, players who want to qualify for NHC XIII must pay a $45 membership fee before playing in a qualifying tournament. Those who don’t sign up will be playing only for prize money in those events. Registration can be done at ntra.com/nhctour

NHC XII AT A GLANCE

What: The finals of the 12th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

When: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28-29.

Where: Red Rock Resort will host for the fourth straight year.

Who: 304 players from 110 qualifying tournaments at 50 NTRA-member racetracks, OTBs, casinos, websites, and organizations throughout North America; they will compete for prize money and the title of 2010 Handicapper of the Year.

Format: Players make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on each of the two days, with eight races being mandatory and the other seven being player’s choice; prices capped at $42 to win and $22 to place.

Purse: $1 million (estimated)*
Grand prize: $500,000
2nd place: $150,000
3rd place: $100,000
4th place: $50,000
5th place: $35,000
6th-10th places: ranging from $27,750 down to $12,000
11th-19th places: ranging from $8,000 down to $2,500
20st-30th places: $2,000 apiece

* Subject to changes/additions from Last Chance Qualifier held at the Red Rock on Wednesday, Jan. 26.