01/27/2006 1:00AM

Please, Mr. Postman, pick a winner


LAS VEGAS - It would be nice to say that the 225 contestants in the seventh annual National Handicapping Championship, which began here Friday, are a rainbow coalition reflecting all walks of American life. If that were true, though, the Social Security system is in far greater imminent danger than anyone has imagined, and it is a miracle that the mail ever gets delivered.

The demographics of these happy handicappers, all of whom had already cashed in a regional contest and were now getting a free trip to Vegas and a free roll at $250,000 to $1.2 million, are unusual and perhaps instructive to an industry that continues to struggle with identifying and targeting its audience.

The average NHC finalist is 49.4 years old and probably a male (89 percent) Caucasian (96 percent). These white males, however, have historically underperformed against their numbers, given that two of the first six NHC winners were Judy Wagner, who is female, and Herman Miller, who is black.

Of the 207 who volunteered their ages, the 70-and-ups (12) outnumber the under-30's (8), while 58 percent of the group is between 40 and 59. Different regional qualifiers produced some startling age swings: The top three finishers in the Nov. 25-27 qualifier at Calder, near more than a few shuffleboard courts in Miami, were 50, 85, and 87. The three winners from Kentuckyderby.com, an Internet-only contest that required five weeks of managing a fantasy stable online, were 29, 33, and 34.

What do contest-winning horseplayers do for a living? Only 14 listed wagering as their primary occupation, including four public handicappers who make picks for newspapers or tip sheets. The others include a candy maker, a furniture mover, a carpet layer, a boilermaker, a bowling pro-shop owner, a supervisor of mechanics for the New York City Department of Sanitation, the chief financial officer of the Kentucky State Police, a chief of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a bus driver, and a nursing home owner.

The truly strange occupational results, though, are the high concentration of representatives from just a few professions. The field included 10 accountants and actuaries, nine computer specialists, and seven stock traders.

If there is a serious point to all this, it is that racing's grass-roots marketing efforts may sometimes be pointed in the wrong direction. The people likeliest to become serious enough devotees of the game to enter and succeed at handicapping contests are likelier to come from the vinyl-LP than the iPod generation, and they may well already enjoy working with numbers and data. Rather than broad-based youth and family marketing that rarely emphasizes the problem-solving nature of handicapping, the sport's promoters might also want to consider targeting a more mature audience that might be predisposed to enjoying a complicated and challenging game.

Contests themselves could be part of the answer. More than 30,000 people entered the 76 NHC qualifiers, and it is becoming clear that tournament play itself is a special skill. The fact that 10 of this year's contestants had qualified for the NHC for the fourth time in seven years illustrates that contest results are not the random, anyone-can-win events that poker tournaments are becoming. Consistent success at handicapping is an excruciatingly difficult challenge, but it is not impossible.

Interestingly, only two contestants said that tournaments are their favorite way to play the races, and both are women. Stephanie Davis, a 27-year-old office manager from Brooklyn who won the Nov. 13 Aqueduct Handicapping Challenge, said she does not even wager on races outside of tournaments.

The NHC format calls for contestants to make 30 mythical win-place bets over two days, but this is almost nobody's preferred method of betting real money the rest of the time. The finalists were asked what their favorite bet is, and only 20 of the 273 responses (multiple answers were permitted) mentioned both win and place. The favorite mutuels were exactas (42), pick fours (40), trifectas (38), and pick threes (36). In all, contestants narrowly preferred multirace bets (104) to intrarace bets (93), with good old win, place, and show getting just 56 total mentions.

Perhaps the most startling result from all the contestant data is that four of the finalists are current or former employees of the United States Postal Service. Projected over the national population, this would suggest there are 5 million American postmen, all of them doping out the daily double instead of sorting the mail.