01/13/2006 12:00AM

NHC raises stakes in year 7

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LAS VEGAS - The Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship has grown by leaps and bounds since the inaugural event in 2000.

This year's event, which will take place Jan. 27-28 at Bally's Las Vegas, will have 225 handicappers who had to earn their berths by performing well enough in qualifying tournaments held from coast to coast, as well as on the Internet. Prize money has grown from $200,000 just two years ago to more than $500,000 this year, with the first-place prize increasing from $100,000 two years ago to $225,000 this year.

But if you think that's impressive, you ain't seen nothin' yet, according to Ken Kirchner, the NTRA's senior vice president of product development.

"We've made a lot of progress, but there's even more we want to do," said Kirchner. "Our goal is to have a $1 million purse by 2008 and to increase the hours of TV coverage."

Last year was the first time ESPN produced a one-hour show on the NHC, similar to the way it covers the World Series of Poker, and ESPN will be back this year to do a one-hour show, which will air Feb. 19. Any discussion about the growth and potential of the NHC or handicapping tournaments in general always seems to lead to the comparison to the poker explosion.

"We were happy with the television product last year but certainly feel there were areas to improve," Kirchner said. "If you look at the World Series of Poker, the way they televised it in the beginning was much different from what they do now.

"The biggest obstacle we have is to capture the excitement of the event and condense two days of action into one hour, which after commercials is more like 48 minutes. Imagine if the World Series of Poker just had one hour to tell the whole story," Kirchner said. "So as we continue to grow the event, we hope to expand to additional hours.

"As for this year, we have a new producer who has viewed the tapes from last year and has some ideas for changes he would like to see in the telecast and to put his own stamp on it," Kirchner said. "Viewers will also see more use of graphics. Randy Moss will be back as host, along with Dick Jerardi and Dave Gutfreund, so it should be more horseplayer-oriented."

This year, there will be more frequent updates of the standings throughout the tournament, and the updates - which in past years had been stopped after the third-to-last mandatory race - will continue until before the final race of the tournament, the 10th race at Santa Anita, which will also be a mandatory race for all contestants.

"We just had a meeting and decided that would add significantly to the TV production," Kirchner said Friday. "Every one will know where they stand, and that should add to the drama."

There are still two more opportunities for handicappers to try to get in the NHC field.

Next Sunday, Jan. 22, Bally's will host the Smart Money tournament, where contestants put up a $250 entry fee and wager a live bankroll of $750 on the day's races. Players keep any winnings from their contest plays, since they're put through the parimutuel system, and the two highest finishers earn an NHC berth. Of the $250 entry fee, $50 will be paid back in the Smart Money prize pool and $200 will go to the NHC purse.

The Smart Money qualifier is held the day after the Horseplayer World Series concludes at The Orleans. Kirchner said that was no coincidence.

"We're hoping people who play in that plan to stay the extra day and try to earn a place into the National Handicapping Championship," he said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Bally's will host the Win a Place to the Big Show tournament, which has the same format as the Smart Money tournament but has three NHC berths up for grabs. Kirchner said this one is geared more to the friends and families who come to town with those who have already qualified for the NHC and also want to try to get into the field.

Kirchner said that between the Smart Money and Win a Place to the Big Show tournaments, he is hopeful that the NHC purse could increase by more than $50,000.