01/17/2005 1:00AM

Original champ takes final shot

"I'm a much better handicapper now than the year I won. It's just gotten a lot tougher to qualify." - Steve Walker, on the National Handicapping Championship

More than a few people breathed a sigh of relief last month when Bally's-Las Vegas announced that it would offer players one last chance to qualify for the finals of the National Handicapping Championship. But nobody breathed deeper than Steve Walker of Lincoln, Neb., who won the first title in January 2000 and is the only player to qualify for each of the five previous championship finals.

Going into 2004, the logical question was not whether Walker would qualify for the sixth National Handicapping Championship finals - but when.

He took six shots: in April at Hawthorne outside Chicago; in May at Horsemen's Park in his home state; again in May at the Bettor Racing OTB in Sioux Falls, S.D.; in July at Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa; in October at Sam Houston in Texas; and finally last month at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. His best finish was at Bettor Racing, where he was eighth in a field of 90 - not good enough to qualify. He was 26th at Sam Houston and far back in the other contests.

On Wednesday at Bally's-Las Vegas, he will try to be one of two players to add their names to the original list of 212 finalists. The full field of 214 players will compete for a $200,000 first prize in the two-day national finals on Friday and Saturday, also at Bally's-Las Vegas. The national championships are sponsored by Daily Racing Form and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"I played in a lot of tournaments and just didn't get the job done," said Walker, who turned 50 last month. "The funny thing is I think I'm a much better handicapper now than the year I won. It's just gotten a lot tougher to qualify."

Walker thought he had blown his last chance at his sixth finals when he finished out of the money at Turf Paradise on Dec. 11. Then, days later, he got a new lease on life when Bally's announced the "Win a Place in the Big Show Tournament," with two slots in the NHC finals up for grabs. On hearing the news, Walker put his $250 entry fee in the mail almost immediately.

"Being the only person to qualify for the championship every year means a lot to me," Walker said. "The streak is something I'm really proud of. I'm still driven to keep qualifying."

It's easy to see why 2004 might have been an off year for Walker. He went through a difficult separation from his wife of 19 years, Caroline, and said that the divorce left him distracted and unprepared for the handicapping tournaments. In fact, he entered a seventh qualifier, at Hawthorne on Nov. 27, but was unable to compete when he had to return home because of issues in the divorce.

"I don't mean for it to sound like I'm making excuses for not qualifying," he said. "I've had my chances, but it's just been a very tough year. It takes a great deal of luck to qualify, and I either didn't have luck this year or made some wrong decisions."

Now that things have quieted down in his personal life, Walker said he is able to concentrate on tournaments again. He said that he would be better prepared for Wednesday's contest and that he has taken off an entire week from his job as an environmental worker to try to qualify and compete in the finals.

"I had more than my share of luck in winning the first national championship and qualifying five years in a row," he said, "so I'm still very appreciative of the luck I've had so far. It takes a desperate person to fly out to Vegas at the last minute, but it gives me hope.

"If I don't qualify at Bally's on Wednesday, I obviously will be disappointed. I'm grateful to Bally's for providing the last chance, and like they say, it's not over until the fat lady sings. I'm not done until they stick a fork in me."