08/10/2005 11:00PM

NTRA seeking new tourney site

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If you have the desire to be affiliated with a strong and growing horse racing event and the facilities to host 200-plus top handicappers for a weekend each January, then the National Thoroughbred Racing Association wants to talk to you.

The NTRA is shopping around the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, which is held each January. Qualifying tournaments are held at NTRA-member tracks, OTB's, casinos, and websites throughout the year, with top finishers getting free trips to Vegas to compete for the title of Handicapper of the Year and an Eclipse Award.

The first three NHC's were held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas from 2000 through 2002. The last three were held at Bally's, as will this upcoming January's event (Jan. 27-28), but all of the agreements were done on a year-to-year basis. Call it a seven-year itch if you want, but the NTRA is looking for a change.

"We've had a great relationship with Bally's and the MGM before that, but the time is right to look at our options," said Ken Kirchner, the NTRA's senior vice president of product development. "With this year's championship already in place, we have time to plan for 2007 and beyond."

Kirchner conceded that part of the timing has to do with Bally's recently being purchased by Harrah's Entertainment Inc., and that Bally's former race and sports book director John Avello, who aggressively pursued the NHC in 2002, has left for Wynn Las Vegas. Harrah's owns the rights to the World Series of Poker and it would be a great fit for one of its casinos to host horse betting's championship as well, but with the uncertainty of the situation - which casinos will Harrah's keep, which will it sell, which will it tear down and rebuild? - it becomes a perfect time for the NTRA to play the field.

While certainly not matching the explosion in poker purses, prize money for the NHC has grown from $200,000 to $500,000, with $225,000 going to this year's champion, in just the past two years, and Kirchner said the goal is to reach $1 million by 2008.

"We obviously feel it's the industry's premier championship," said Kirchner, noting that the tournament is well established and hard to qualify for, which makes qualifying an achievement for players. "And we're looking to develop a relationship with a host to grow it even more."

Some of its growth potential was realized this year when ESPN (also home to the World Series of Poker shows) aired an hour-long special on the NHC, creating post-tournament publicity for Bally's. Kirchner said the NTRA is in discussions to expand the TV coverage, which would obviously benefit the host.

Kirchner said the NTRA is also offering a full sponsorship package that would extend beyond the hosting of the finals and the publicity that it generates year-round from the other qualifying tournaments. He said the host could be labeled the "official racebook of the NTRA," and could also become involved in the numerous TV productions the NTRA does each year, such as the Road to the Breeders' Cup, as well as hosting additional tournaments.

"We can be pretty creative with potential sponsors," Kirchner said.

Kirchner said the NTRA is first looking at Las Vegas because of its past relationships and the city's reputation as a resort destination, but the NTRA is certainly open to discussions with casinos or tracks in other locations. Reno and Atlantic City are obvious possibilities. Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Conn., has been mentioned as a possible host in the past, and with the proliferation of casinos from coast to coast there are more potential sites than ever before.

So, while tournaments players continue to aim for a trip to Bally's this January, who knows where they'll be shooting for next year?

Let the negotiations begin.