04/22/2010 12:00AM

NHC Tour's second free tourney a two-day event


This year's crop of 3-year-olds is just a week away from having their shot at immortality, but it's also time for handicapping tournament players to make sure they're in the field of 300 at the 12th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship finals on Jan. 28-29, 2011, at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

Just like the Kentucky Derby contenders have to earn their way in by being high enough on the graded stakes earnings list, Handicapper of the Year hopefuls have to earn their way into the NHC field by winning or placing high enough at qualifying tournaments held throughout the year.

The qualifying events are also used as a circuit for the NHC Tour, which awards spots in the tournament to its top finishers. This year, the NHC Tour has two membership levels with the $100 level giving players a chance to play in five free members-only online tournaments that award three NHC seats apiece as well as a chance to earn a spot by being among the top point-earners over the course of the year, and a $500 level for those who also want to play for prize money for the most points earned.

Those who haven't registered yet have missed the first free tourney - held on Fountain of Youth Day on Feb. 20 - but the second free tournament is next Friday and Saturday, April 30 and May 1, with the Kentucky Oaks and Derby Challenge. Players make mythical $2 win-and-place bets on five races each day at Churchill Downs. The top three finishers who haven't previously qualified for the finals will earn NHC berths. There is no prize money, but the qualifiers also receive round-trip airfare from the airport nearest their home as well as hotel accommodations during the finals. Go to ntra.com/nhctour for full details.

The other free tourneys for NHC Tour members are July 24, Aug. 28, and Oct. 9.

* Another indirect perk for NHC Tour members is the online contest at publichandicapper.com that awards another three NHC berths. It's a free contest but it requires an NHC Tour membership. It runs from next Friday through the Breeders' Cup and involves making 60 mythical plays on stakes races during the contest period. See the site for full details.

* For those in Las Vegas this Saturday, the Sunset Station is hosting an NHC qualifying as part of its monthly contests. The winners of the $20 buy-in preliminary contests held each Friday at the Station and Fiesta casinos throughout the Las Vegas area earn an automatic entry with everyone else paying a $200 entry fee. The top two finishers will earn NHC berths. These are held each month through August. Visit a Station Casino or call 702-797-7798 for details.

NHCqualify.com tourney changes

There has been some confusion this year with the tournament schedule at NHCqualify.com. The site, though not owned by DRF or the NTRA, works closely with both organizations in running pay-to-play online qualifying tournaments. Most of the tournaments NHCqualify.com held in recent years required a $100 buy-in for preliminary contests held on the first three weekends of the month with the top finishers in those contests earning spots in the monthly finals where the NHC berths are awarded. The website also hosted one-day tourneys with a higher buy-in of $400, including one on Saturday. As of Thursday, there were 88 spots available in the field of 200 with eight NHC berths up for grabs.

The confusion came earlier this year when it was announced there would be $100 buy-in contests in April and June per usual, but then the April contest was canceled and replaced with separate one-day $400 events on April 3 and April 24.

"Our site is operated by Heartland Jockey Club/Beulah Park, and when it was announced in early March that Penn National Gaming was buying Beulah, it raised uncertainty as you always have with new ownership," said McKay Smith, tournament director for NHCqualify.com. "We wanted to make sure we met our contractual obligations to sending 50 finalists to NHC 12, so we needed to move some of our other planned tournaments earlier in the year and it's easier to give away spots with the one-day format. We know a lot of players like the $100 format because it's more affordable, so we reinstated that contest in June."

Those preliminary contests, limited to 300 entries apiece, will be held on June 5, June 12, and June 19. The top 10 percent - 30 with a full field - from each of those will compete June 26 for nine NHC berths (assuming Round 1 sellouts). Entries, available only through the website, go on sale starting May 18.

* In addition, NHCqualify.com is hosting a $400 one-day buy-in tourney on May 15, Preakness Day, with eight NHC berths on the line. Entries for that tourney go on sale May 4.

* Smith said NHCqualify.com may hold more tourneys later this year if it is awarded more spots from the NTRA. He said those would more than likely be the $100 format.

cNeil back on leaderboard again

Donald McNeil of Chicago is atop the NHC Tour leaderboard as of the most recent update at ntra.com/nhctour. He was among the leaders last year on the Tour through the summer before being passed late. McNeil moved into this year's lead when he won the April 3 NHCqualify.com event to earn his spot in the NHC as well as 3,000 tour points to give him a total of 4,400.

He got his victory by having five winners: Abilio ($26.60) in Aqueduct's fifth race, Spa City Princess ($16) in Aqueduct's sixth, Highly Favoured ($20.20) in Santa Anita's fifth, Sidney's Candy ($9.60) in Santa Anita's sixth, and City to City ($11.60) in Santa Anita's ninth.

Tim Catlett, Mark Everhart and Thomas Noone are tied for second place with 3,000 points apiece.

McNeil is a Level 2 member and thus playing for the $75,000 year-long prize.