06/23/2010 11:00PM

NTRA defections change qualifying for NHC

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LAS VEGAS - When Churchill Downs Inc. and its tracks opted not to renew membership in the NTRA last month, it left many in the handicapping tournament community wondering about the impact on the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

NHC rules require that racetracks, OTBs, casinos, or websites be NTRA members in order to host qualifying tournaments. Churchill Downs Inc. - which includes Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Calder Race Course, and Fair Grounds - sent 34 contestants to the NHC finals last year, but Keith Chamblin, an NTRA senior vice president and the NTRA tournament director, said the NTRA has been able to fill the void.

"Based on current commitments, we're at 304 finalists for NHC XII," Chamblin said. "We're not happy to lose the Churchill tracks, but the good news for the NHC and those who try to qualify is that the demand out there is very high to host qualifiers and there will be no impact on the number of qualifiers or on the purse."

Last year, 300 finalists played for a purse of $947,850 at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, with Brian Troop of Barrie, Ontario, winning the $500,000 first-place prize. Red Rock will host the NHC finals on Jan. 28-29, 2011, for the fourth straight year.

Chamblin said the NTRA wasn't totally caught off-guard by Churchill Downs Inc.'s defection.

"They hadn't added any contests to our schedule, so that could have been a clue, but they were still participating in other NTRA programs," he said. "We didn't know for sure that they were pulling out until we received the letter in early May."

The NHC finals have contestants make 30 plays over the two-day event, with eight mandatory races each day and the other seven being up to the player to choose from the contest tracks. Fair Grounds is the only Churchill Downs Inc. track that runs in late January.

"We will determine down the road about whether we use non-NTRA-member tracks for contest races in the finals," Chamblin said.

In the past, some non-NTRA tracks have been used, but the mandatory races (a focal point of the finals) were usually limited to member tracks.

Delaware Park also is no longer an NTRA member. As a result, one of the most popular tourneys on the East Coast will not have any NHC qualifiers this year.

"It was absolutely nothing against the NHC," said Bill Moore, publicity director at Delaware Park. "It was a management decision -- way above me -- to not have the track renew membership."

Instead, Moore held his regular tournament on June 12 with a $100 entry fee and $200 live bankroll and gave away five spots to the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans. Two handicappers from Maryland took the top spots. Gwyn Houston of Fallston won the top prize of $16,000 by building his bankroll to $3,494 and Shawn Turner of Middleton was second at $2,670 and earned an additional $5,250. Houston has qualified for the NHC six times, but he hasn't qualified yet this year. Turner has an exemption in the finals by virtue of finishing fifth on the NHC Tour in 2009.

Colonial Park was scheduled to host an NHC qualifier on July 10, but that has been canceled.

"We haven't received a letter that they're leaving the NTRA, but that's not a good sign," Chamblin said.

Noone still atop tour leaderboard

Thomas Noone of Redondo Beach, Calif., hasn't added to his point total in the past month, but he's still leading the NHC Tour leaderboard with 6,715 points.

The NHC Tour uses the qualifying tournaments throughout the year as a pro circuit. This year, tour memberships were split into a Level 1 tier that costs $100 and gets participants into member-only online contests and a Level 2 tier that costs $500 and gives those people a shot at prize money for the top point-earners throughout the year, with first place at $75,000. The winner of the tour -- regardless of level -- also is eligible for a $2 million bonus if he goes on to win NHC XII. A tournament win is worth 3,000 points, with 2,100 for second, 1,225 for third, and so on, with a graduated scale depending on the number of entries (10 percent of entries can receive points, up to a maximum of 30).

Moving into second place is Eric Yee of Staten Island, N.Y., with 6,325 points. He had been sitting in fifth place but then used a fifth-place finish at Monmouth Park on June 20 to vault over Donald McNeil at 5,625; Joe Jarvie at 5,524; and Steve Meyer at 5,200. There is then a big drop off. Completing the top nine are Joe Scanio at 3,311, Mark Streiff at 3,106; George Smith at 3,070; and Gary Johnson at 3,048.

The top eight are all Level 2 members. Johnson also is the only one in the top 30 that hasn't already qualified for NHC XII. The good news for him is that the top 10 point-earners that haven't already qualified also are put in the field.

Major upcoming qualifying tournaments include June's monthly finale at NHCqualify.com with nine spots up for grabs Saturday; the Station Casinos' monthly finale at Boulder Station in Las Vegas (late entries are $200), also this Saturday; the Belmont Park Handicapping Challenge (with a $400 entry fee) this Saturday and Sunday; the Firecracker Shoot-Out at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas ($300 entry fee) on Saturday, July 3; and the Firecracker Handicapping Challenge at Hollywood Park ($2,000 live bankroll) on Saturday and Sunday, July 3-4.

For the full NHC qualifying schedule, see ntra.com/nhctour or drf.com.