01/22/2004 1:00AM

NHC's final day: Lights, camera, action

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LAS VEGAS - There's nothing like the final day of a horse handicapping tournament.

It's kind of like any other day at the races, in that you're competing against other bettors in the pari-mutuel pools. But there's the added bonus of possibly being crowned a champion.

They say that when you buy a lottery ticket, part of what you're paying for is the right to dream - to dream what car you'll buy, the new house you're going to get, or whatever it is that you would do with the money. Well, entering a handicapping tournament is kind of like that.

For the 261 contestants taking part in this weekend's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in the Bally's race book, they all earned the right to dream that they can win the $100,000 first-place prize and title of Handicapper of the Year.

Even after Friday's first day of the two-day event, everyone still has a shot at the title, with 15 plays remaining Saturday. Even those who went 0-for-Friday can dream that Saturday will be the greatest handicapping day of their lives and they'll come from behind with a legendary rally.

Anyone who has played in a major tournament knows what I'm talking about. But even for those not participating, it's a great place to people-watch. John Avello, the director of race and sports at Bally's, has invited the Las Vegas locals as well as tourists in town for the weekend to stop by and check out the NHC. People that are not here will be able to follow along on TVG or by checking the updated results at www.drf.com.

But there's nothing like being there.

During the final day of the NHC, you can feel the electricity in the room. Contestants are running to the betting windows. Tournament officials are running around to make sure everything is going smoothly. The lights set up for the TVG cameras also give it a big-time feel.

But the focal point is the racing. Every race at every track means something to someone. It's fun to watch the contestants cheering for their picks, but it's just as interesting to watch those who don't have a play in a particular race look at the simulcast feed or scramble for their scratch sheets to see who the favorites are so they can cheer for them. In a tournament, anytime a favorite wins a race you're not involved in, it's no small victory - it means other contestants probably wasted a bullet, thus increasing your chances.

In the NHC, the stakes are raised in the eight races everyone must play each day. Track announcers from those tracks generally give a personal greeting to the contestants as the horses load in the starting gate.

These races act as a microcosm of the whole tournament. Everyone thinks they have the winner. As the race progresses, it becomes clear that some horses are not going to fire. It's just not their day.

In the same way, as Saturday progresses, players will see their contest cards dwindling and begin to realize their chances of winning or even getting in the money are becoming more and more remote.

But for observers, this is when it really gets interesting. The field of contenders narrows. Reporters lurk in the shadows to try to figure out which tracks and horses the leaders might be playing. The TVG cameras and other photographers start circling the leaders to get candid shots. It's clear to see that the contenders feel uncomfortable with all of the attention. We've all sweated out photo finishes, but it's quite another thing to sweat one out under arc lighting.

The husband and wife team of Joe and Valerie Hinson, along with their daughter Kelly Phillips, have probably been in more pressure-packed situations than any other tournament players. It can be argued that they could have an advantage under these circumstances. Other contestants with extensive major tournament experience include Robert and Mark Bertolucci, Bobby Brendler, Ross Gallo, Dave Gutfreund, Howard Hong, Dominic Ippolito, Mike Labriola, Brian MacClowry, Mike Mayo, Dane Moore, Rich Nilsen, Dave Snyder, Dennis Sudul, Bryan and Judy Wagner, Sally Wang, and Steve Wolfson Sr.

There are many possible storylines that develop as the NHC approaches the finish line. But it's usually not worth the effort to anticipate what might happen. No matter who wins, it's bound to be a great story.

And tournament experience doesn't guarantee anything.

Four years ago, Steven Walker was a virtual unknown until he won the first NHC at the MGM Grand. The next year, Judy Wagner proved that a woman could get the job done. Then, Herman Miller won after making the field in the very last qualifier, and, for good measure, met his idol, Tiger Woods, on the way to the awards dinner. Last year, the first NHC at Bally's, Steve Wolfson Jr. rallied to beat his father and brought back many fond memories for longtime racing fans who remembered seeing his family's Harbor View Farm campaign Affirmed to the 1978 Triple Crown.

So, whoever rises to the top in this year's field of 261, it doesn't matter to me.

I can't wait to meet the new champ.