01/25/2006 1:00AM

Prestige and riches in equal measure

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A field of will compete for the most prestigious prize in all of Thoroughbred racing handicapping when the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship returns for its seventh year on Jan. 27-28 at Bally's Las Vegas in the heart of the Strip.

The 2006 National Handicapping Championship will feature a record purse of more than $500,000,up $100,000 from last year. The winner gets $225,000 and the official title Handicapper of the Year.

For the second time, the Bally's race and sports book will be buzzing with ESPN television cameras.The Championship will be taped and condensed into a one-hour special to air on Feb.19 from 6-7 p.m. Eastern. Regular NHC scoring updates will be posted throughout the two-day tournament at DRF.com.

Jamie Michelson Jr., of West Bloomfield, Mich., will be back to defend his title against arguably the toughest field of horseplayers from across North America ever assembled. Michelson, a 40-year-old advertising account director, receives an exemption into the tournament after his win last year over 213 other handicappers. Also in the field is 2004 champion Kent Meyer, a landlord from Sioux City, Iowa, who be playing in his fourth NHC, this time representing team Bally's Team #1. Meyer backed up his 2004 win with an impressive 11th-place finish last year, the best performance by a returning champion.

In addition to the record grand prize, the stakes are even higher for 17 contestants who are eligible for bonus money should they win the Championship. For the first time, to lure the top players in the country to their qualifying tournaments, several racetracks in 2005 offered bonus awards to their players if they go on to win the NHC.

Churchill Downs Inc.is sending seven players who are out for a $1 million bonus after having won satellite tournaments that were part of the Million Dollar Tour at its properties. These players (Dominick Coppla, James Dennis, Steve Duncan, Ross Gallo, William Gonsoulin Jr., Richard Grose, and Eric Isaacson) will be shooting for a $1.25 million prize the highest in handicapping tournament history. Gallo and Isaacson, both playing in their fourth DRF/NTRA Championship, have perhaps the best chance of snagging the bonus.

"It definitely creates more excitement," Isaacson said. "If I am in the hunt late into the second day I will definitely be thinking about it."

"Sam Houston Race Park is also offering a $1 million bonus if the winner of its qualifying tournament - Robert Chandler - can win the NHC.

All nine representatives of Emerald Downs from its Ultimate Qualifying Tournament (Robin Carlson, Don Cook, Peter DeFotis, Donald Fischer, Al Martineau, Eric Schweiger, Scott Sinclair, Marty Smith, and Don Sullivan) are also eligible for bonus money. The track is kicking in an estimated $300,000 to any member of its contingent that can win the NHC,boosting the total first prize money $500,000 for any of these players.

Judging by the number of repeat qualifiers, the competition in this year's National Handicapping Championship will be the best in its seven-year history. Sixty-three of the 226 players (28 percent) have NHC experience, up from 23 percent last year.Of the finalists, 39 have qualified for their second trip to the national finals. (The final three slots were to be determined at the "last-chance" Win a Place to the Big Show tournament held at Bally's on Wednesday.)

The field includes two of the three five-time NHC qualifiers: Louis Constan (Youbet.com) and William Jackson (Belmont Park). A resident of Glendale, Calif., Constan's best NHC finish came in 2004 when he finished 21st in NHC V. Jackson,from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., finished was 29th in the 2004 Championship playing when for Team Aqueduct. The only other five-time qualifier is Steven Walker, of Lincoln, Neb., winner of the inaugural DRF/NTRA Championship in 2000.

The field also includes a select group 10 four-time NHC qualifiers: Robert Bertolucci (Bally's Team #1), Ross Gallo (Calder #1), Steve Hendricks (Turf Paradise #2), Eric Isaacson (Hoosier Park) Michael Mayo (Lone Star Park #1), Kent Meyer (Bally's #1), Paul Shurman (Autotote-Bradley Teletheater), Trey Stiles (Zia Park), T.J.Taylor (Hoosier Park), and Sally Wang (Fairplex Park #2).

In addition, the 2006 field comprises 12 three-time qualifiers, including Joe Hinson, of Germantown, Tenn., (Turf Paradise #1), widely considered the king of the tournament circuit based on his nine major titles alone or in partnership over the past 23 years. Hinson will be joined by his daughter, Kelly Phillips, who earned a last-minute spot at the Bally's Smart Money tournament on Jan.22. Another three-time qualifier is Steve Wolfson Sr., father of 2003 national handicapping champion Steve Wolfson Jr.

The NHC is the culmination of a year-long series of 92 NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments held at 57 different racetracks, OTBs, casinos and websites and organizations across North America in 2005. More than 100,000 horseplayers participated in these qualifying tournaments, meaning just 0.2 percent of them earned berths into the finals. Once players have qualified, their trip to Las Vegas is paid for by the qualifying site.

The finalists represent 34 states and three Canadian provinces. California has the most finalists (36), followed by Texas (18), New York (16), Kentucky (15), Florida (14), Illinois (13) and New Jersey (13). Nine players are from Canada.

The NHC finalists are predominantly male, but there are 23 women in the field, making up 10 percent of the qualifiers. Contestants range in age from 22-year-olds Lisa Kaufman of Hacienda Heights, Calif.,(Gulfstream Park) and David Crone of New Albany, Ind. (Churchill Downs #1) to 87-year-old Dominick Coppla from Hallandale,Fla., (Calder #2), who has been playing the races for more than 60 years and still goes to the track four or five days a week.

The qualifiers come from every walk of life, from an elementary school principal to an aerospace engineer to a horse dentist to many professional gamblers. For retired New Orleans firefighter William Gonsoulin Jr., who lost his home and the homes of his five children and two grandchildren in Hurricane Katrina, a win in the NHC would be a blessing. Gonsoulin Jr., 68, is among those eligible for the $1 million bonus after winning the Fair Grounds National Handicapping Championship qualifying tournament, which was moved to Louisiana Downs in the aftermath of the hurricane. The money would go a long way to rebuilding the lives of his family.

"Every day is a project," said Gonsoulin, who debated on whether to travel to Bossier City to play in the displaced Fair Grounds tournament. "I don't know how to explain it. It's complete devastation. It's been a four-month nightmare.

"The format for the NHC, designed to be the best test of overall handicapping ability, will remain the same. Players attempt to earn the highest bankroll based on 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on each day of the tournament. Eight of those wagers will be on mandatory races as selected by a panel that includes the NTRA tournament director, Jeff Sotman. The mandatory races will include a diverse lineup of contest at various tracks,surfaces, distances,and class levels.

The seven remaining bets will be the choice of the player,from races at the six designated NHC tournament tracks: Aqueduct, Bay Meadows, Gulfstream, Laurel, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita. Tampa Bay Downs will be used as the alternate track should inclement weather force a track cancellation.

A significant change in this year's NHC will in the display of scoring updates. There will be more frequent updates of the leader board, enabling players to adjust their strategy, especially late in the tournament. The updates, which in past years had stopped after the third-to-last mandatory race, will continue until just before the final race of the tournament, the 10th at Santa Anita, which will be a mandatory race. NTRA officials are hoping the updates will add to the drama and make for more compelling television.

Prize money will be paid down to 20th place in the Championship. In addition, all NHC finalists except defending champ Michelson Jr., will be playing in a separate team competition, with the top threesome splitting $15,000. Team Twin Spires Club, representing Churchill Downs' player-reward program, won the top team prize in NHC VI. There is also $20,000 in prize money to be awarded to the three best scorers on each day.

With $500,000 in prize money up for grabs, big-money bonuses on the line, and ESPN TV cameras blanketing the race and sports book, the atmosphere will certainly be electric at Bally's during the 2006 Championship.

"I can't wait to play," aid veteran contest player Ross Gallo. "It's the most anticipated tournament of the year, and when you don't qualify it's a bad ?left out' feeling."

At a glance: 2006 Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship

WHAT: The finals of the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

WHERE: Bally?s-Las Vegas will host for the fourth time

WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28.

WHO: 226 qualifying players from 57 racetracks, OTBs, casinos,websites, and organizations throughout North America.

FORMAT: Players make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on each of the two days.

PURSE: $500,000*

INDIVIDUAL

Grand Prize $225,000
2nd Place $100,000
3rd Place $50,000
4th Place $25,000
5th Place $15,000
6th-10th Places $6,000 each
11th-20th Places $2,500 each

TEAM CHAMPION

Grand Prize $15,000

DAILY PRIZES

Day 1 and 2
1st Place $5,000
2nd Place $3,000
3rd Place $2,000

* Subject to change/additions from last chance qualifiers.