08/17/2004 12:00AM

Purse hike, TV for DRF/NTRA tourney

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The sixth annual Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship will be held Jan. 21-22 at the Bally's Las Vegas race book. The purse has been increased from $240,000 to an estimated $400,000, with first place worth $200,000.

The tournament, which for the last two years was covered through live updates by TVG, will be aired by ESPN in a one-hour special in February.

The current trend of "reality" TV and the popularity of gambling shows, especially poker with the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker, has the NTRA optimistic that airing the tournament on ESPN - which has a wider audience than TVG - will result in more tournament players and fans of horseracing in general.

"The National Championship is reality television at its finest," said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of marketing and industry relations for the NTRA. "The event brings together a diverse group of more than 200 passionate, opinionated and competitive participants representing virtually every region and racing association in North America. The addition of ESPN will expose general sports fans to the game within our game - handicapping."

Handicappers can only earn an NHC berth by placing high enough in a sanctioned qualifying tournament held by an NTRA member track, offtrack betting site, casino or web site. At last count, 49 NTRA members were to hold tournaments and send an estimated 200 qualifiers to the NHC. The host site pays a $2,000 entry fee for each player it sends to the championship and also provides round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations at Bally's.

In past tournaments, prizes have been paid out to the top 10 finishers. This year, overall prize money will be paid out to more than 10 people; how many has yet to be determined. There are also daily prizes for the top finishers on each day, plus all qualifiers compete as teams with the others from their host site. The exact prize structure will be set after the purse is determined.

In addition to the cash prizes, the champion receives the title of "Handicapper of the Year" and a trip to the Eclipse Awards to receive the trophy.

"Horseplayers drive our industry, and that's why we're delighted to celebrate and reward some of our game's sharpest, most devoted customers," said Steven Crist, chairman and publisher of Daily Racing Form.

The winner also is given a bye into the next year's NHC. Kent Meyer, a landlord from Sioux City, Iowa, will be invited back to defend his title at Bally's, which is hosting the NHC for the third straight year after the first three were held at the MGM Grand.

A full list of qualifying events can be found at www.drf.com/nhc.