01/30/2010 12:00AM

Pursuers close gap on NHC leader

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LAS VEGAS - The chase is on.

Brian Troop, 61, of Barrie, Ontario, held a nearly $80 lead over the rest of the field in the 11th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship after Friday's first day of the two-day compeititon that awards $500,000 to the winner. But the field of 300 started its pursuit in earnest on Saturday with everyone having the chance to make 15 more mythical $2 win-and-place bets.

Troop entered the day at $232.60. After Saturday's second mandatory race, the fifth at Gulfstream, Troop was still in the lead after padding his total up to $248.80, but closing the gap were Russell Weber of Amityville, N.Y., with $216.20 and Robert Gregory of Durango, Colo., with $200.80.

On Friday, Troop shattered the Day 1 record of $190 set by Gwyn Houston of Fallston, Md., way back in NHC II. For comparison's sake, Troop's score was better than the two-day totals of the three past champions, including the $228 by John Conte of Oceanside, N.Y., compiled last year.

Troop earned his seat to NHC XI at Turfway Park on Dec. 6 when he finished in fourth place but two players ahead of him had already qualified. Ricky Hurd of Lexington, Ky., who was fifth after Day 1 also qualified in that same Turfway tourney.

Weber made the field at NHCqualify.com and Gregory made it through TwinSpires.com.

The contest tracks for the tournament are Aqueduct, Laurel, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Golden Gate and Santa Anita, but Laurel and Oaklawn canceled before the day started and Aqueduct canceled after its third race. Of the 15 contest plays, eight are mandatory races and seven are player's choice. The committee that chooses the mandatory races left off Laurel and Oaklawn, but Aqueduct's eighth was chosen, so now players will be making eight optional plays.