01/22/2008 12:00AM

Red Rock Resort rolls out red carpet for NHC


LAS VEGAS - Thursday is arrival day for the vast majority of the 278 contestants in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship that will be held Friday and Saturday at the Red Rock Resort.

It's assumed that the five people who earned berths in the Last Chance Qualifier at Red Rock on Wednesday will already be in town, as well as the six Las Vegas residents who had previously qualified, but the rest of the field will be flying in and registering for the tournament. Even NHC veterans will be in for a new experience as the Red Rock serves as host for the first time. The tournament was held the first three years at the MGM Grand and the past five years at Bally's.

The Red Rock opened in April 2006 as the first billion-dollar resort-casino off the Las Vegas Strip. But even though it's a locals property in the heart of the valley's west suburbs, it would fit just well in the middle of the Strip. To get there, contestants arriving at McCarran International Airport will take Red Rock's free shuttle (unless they choose to pay the estimated $50 cab ride). Upon arrival, they will receive a Boarding Pass player's card from the Red Rock with $25 in free slot play.

"That's a surprise we decided to add to congratulate the players who qualify for the NHC," said race and sports book director Jason McCormick. "Even though their top priority here is to compete in the tournament, we want them and their friends and family to enjoy everything about the resort. We want to blow them away with our rooms, the spa, the theaters, and the other amenities. We want to show them what top-notch service is all about."

After getting settled, players will follow the signs from the hotel to the registration area, which is just to the left of the state-of-the-art race and sports book. Registration starts at noon Thursday. Contestants will given a gift bag that will includes a very nice mini-cooler on wheels, a Red Rock polo shirt, hats from DRF and Churchill Downs, a Keeneland calendar, and coffee from Emerald Downs, among other trinkets. They will also receive $10 food vouchers for lunch each day at the Turf Grill, which is adjacent to the sports book, or for Villa Pizza in the nearby food court.

During the tournament, players make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets with eight being mandatory races and seven being player's choice. Friday's mandatories will be available at registration. On Thursday night, the NTRA will host a cocktail party at 7:30 for the contestants in the Red Rock Ballroom.

The Red Rock does not normally have seating for 278 players, so the book will look different even for regular customers. The standard layout of the race book has three sections with 52, 54, and 52 seats, but extra seats will be added to make it 54 apiece. The chairs in the sports book will be replaced with 45 new seats and tables. The remaining 71 contestants will be at tables set up in the lounge behind the book.

"When we signed on to host the tournament, I thought we would do it in a ballroom upstairs," McCormick said, "but I think the way we've been able to reconfigure the room it'll be the best experience for the players with the overall atmosphere of the book with the big screens."

For the first time, the NTRA is randomly assigning seats. The player's area will be roped off. There will be 14 betting windows dedicated to entrants for their contest plays and real-money wagers. Another six windows will be open to the public and for sports bets. There will be no seating in the book proper for friends and family of the contestants or for the general public, but there will be tables and chairs that will be added on the perimeter of the book, seating in the Turf Grill, plus some tables in the poker room right next door will be available.

"We're going to try and accommodate everyone we can," McCormick said. "The NHC is a great event for horse racing and we want to be a big part of making it do what the World Series of Poker did for poker and working with the NTRA and the Form to make it even bigger."