01/25/2008 12:00AM

Resiliency key to this tournament


LAS VEGAS - The ninth annual edition of the National Handicapping Championship being conducted here this weekend is not only the richest one yet, with a $1 million purse and a $500,000 payoff to the winner, but also the strangest, on several counts.

The NHC, which began in 1999 with a winner's purse of just $100,000, has outgrown its former homes in racebooks on the Vegas Strip and relocated this year to the massive Red Rock Resort, a $925 million property that opened two years ago, 11 miles west from the neon lights of town in the midst of desert and mountains. It is as surreal as it is spectacular, the embodiment of a new strain of 21st century Vegas, where opulence trumps action and there are far deeper lines at the bars and nightclubs than the gaming tables. Calling itself "the locals' new favorite," the Red Rock is its own virtual city, complete with a 16-screen first-run Imax movie theater and a 72-lane bowling alley. Its isolation is perfect for tournament players, who spend their non-racing hours holed up in their rooms doing their handicapping for the next day.

In another wrinkle this year, the NHC ended up running directly opposite the World Series of Handicapping tournament at the Orleans. No one planned or wanted it that way, and it happened because this is the only one of the first five weekends of the year without football playoffs dominating the racebooks, creating an opening for a racing event. The two tournaments are not competitors - the NHC is an invitation-only event for players who have qualified in nearly 100 sanctioned tournaments during the year, while the WSH is a freestanding event open to anyone who ponies up a $1,000 buy-in - but there is still some overlap among contestants. So dozens of NHC players are trying to do both, shuttling between the city ballroom and the desert racebook, or dispatching friends and family to make their bets at the Orleans while running dual-tournament command centers from their seats at the Red Rock.

The oddest twist of all, however, has come from a whole new type of racetrack uncertainty - needing to figure out not only which horses will run well but which tracks will be running at all.

The NHC schedules its seven mandatory and eight optional tournament bets each day from a menu of seven tracks - Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Golden Gate, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and Tampa Bay Downs. The first winning handicappers of this year's NHC were those who didn't waste too many of their Thursday night homework hours on the Oaklawn and Santa Anita cards, both of which were canceled Friday morning.

January ice storms have knocked out Oaklawn on tournament weekends before, but Santa Anita, awash in storms its Cushion Track can not absorb, had never been in weather jeopardy. In fact, the Saturday Santa Anita card had ended up being the crux of the tournament every year, and not just for providing at least two of the mandatory Saturday races all contestants must play. Most players saved a couple of their optional-bet bullets for the late California races Saturday, hoping to catch a final price that could rearrange the leaderboard in its final hours and put them over the top. With prospects for the Saturday card looking grim on Friday, players were reformulating strategy: Why save bullets for the late races if they're canceled? Does it make more sense to shoot for early bird longshots in the East and hope it chalks out late at Golden Gate?

Yet the contestants seemed to be adapting quickly to all these curveballs, which when you think about it is what horseplayers do in one form or another every single day. While popular culture depicts racetrack gamblers as hotheaded loudmouths, the genuine articles are world-weary stoics who put up with inconvenience and unfairness on a regular basis, from exorbitant takeouts and onerous taxation to inept technology and cumbersome regulations. So when stuff that you couldn't even make up happens, like Santa Anita's new synthetic racetrack disintegrating when it rains, the resilient American horseplayer just turns the page and starts handicapping another track.

A "Handicapper of the Year" trophy is presented to the NHC winner at the Eclipse Awards dinner each year, and its purpose is not simply to recognize the first-place finisher in a single tournament. It is also meant to acknowledge the loyalty and perseverance of the 277 other NHC finalists, the 100,000 other contestants who didn't qualify for the finals, and the millions of other horseplayers who have never even entered a handicapping tournament. It's really a prize to honor everyone who puts up with so much so often just to keep playing the game.