01/28/2006 12:00AM

N.J. public handicapper wins NHC VII

Ron Rippey, handicapper for the Newark Star-Ledger, defeated 224 others to win the first prize of $250,000 at the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship VII at Bally's Las Vegas on Saturday.

LAS VEGAS - Ron Rippey, the handicapper for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger newspaper, nailed a 17-1 shot in the last race of the tournament and dramatically defeated a field of 224 horseplayers in the $500,000 at Bally's Las Vegas on Saturday.

Rippey, from Wayne, N.J., receives the record NHC grand prize of $250,000 and the title Handicapper of the Year.

"This is a lesson for people to never give up. I made a lot of mistakes yesterday and today, but I was able to survive," Rippey said. "I'm a strong finisher. I don't like to be out on the lead. The hardest thing in the world is to be in front."

Rippey, 61, who qualified for the NHC at Connecticut OTB's Sports Haven, lost with his first eight selections on Saturday. He surged to victory by hitting four longshots late in the tournament. It was Alluring Bel's ($36, $12.60) come-from-behind victory in the 10 th race at Santa Anita that vaulted him to the lead. He finished with a bankroll of $237.20, based on mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on 15 races each day of the two-day Championship.

Mark Lowe, the co-leader after Day One, had to settle for second, finishing with a bankroll of $228.60. Lowe, from Bayonet Point, Fla, earns $100,000 in addition to the $4,000 he received for Friday's performance. Mel Moser, from Lexington, Ky., finished a close third with $227.60 and earned $50,000. Cheryl Britt, of Madison, Ala, who led most of Day Two until the last race, finished fifth with $219.30 and earned $15,000. William Gonsoulin Jr., the highest finisher of 8 players in the field eligible in for a $1 million bonus, checked in 12 th after being in contention for most of the tournament.

First-time starter Alluring Bel was Rippey's top selection after handicapping the 10th at Santa Anita, a mandatory race for all contestants, the night before. The filly, trained by Jeff Mullins, closed strongly under Michael Baze and just got up to win by a length over 8-5 favorite Julep Cup.

After Alluring Bel crossed the wire, Rippey immediately left the race and sports book to embrace his wife Arlene, who he credited for keeping him calm during the tournament when his chances looked bleak.

"She's my inspiration and she's my tranquilizer," he said. "I told her to come with me to Las Vegas and help me bring home the check."

Rippey briefly shared the lead early on Friday, but later passed on a key 18-1 winner he liked and finished the day in 28th place with $85.40. On Saturday, he tacked on $151.80. His other winners were: Total Command ($42, $19.40) in Oaklawn's eighth, Gold Ruckus ($6.40, $3.80) in Bay Meadows' fifth and Roman Murphy ($15.60, $8) in Gulfstream's 10th.

Rippey has been a public racing handicapper for the past 43 years, the last 27 as the public handicapper for the Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey. He has been playing in tournaments since 1999 and won the prestigious Aqueduct Handicapping Challenge in 2003 in similar come-from behind fashion. That win qualified him for the 2004 NHC, where he finished 47th.

Paul Yavorski, from Whippany, N.J, earns $10,000 for having the top score on Day Two of $201.50. Louis Licata, from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, gets $6,000 for having the second-highest Saturday score of $177.10. William Haliziw, from Chicago, got $4,000 for having the third-highest score of $168.20.

Sam Houston Race Park won the team competition with a combined bankroll of $543.60 andThe members of the team (Robert Chandler, Matthew Martin and Steve Wolfson Sr.) get to split the $15,000 prize. Team Thistledown was second with $524.50. The Meadowlands Racetrack team finished third with $490.70.