01/31/2005 1:00AM

Road to 2006 NHC begins

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The first group of 2005 qualifying contests has been released by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association for the seventh annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. The preliminary schedule, which will be updated throughout the year, already features 35 qualifying events on the road to next year's national handicapping finals, planned for January 2006 in Las Vegas.

The contest schedule contains several headline events, including two major tournaments in February as well as Emerald Downs's fourth annual Ultimate Qualifying Tournament, set for July 31.

Emerald's contest has always been a premier event for any handicapper aspiring to be a NHC finalist because it offers nine qualifying spots - three times the number of most contests. This year's contest, however, was made even more newsworthy after the track announced it will guarantee a $500,000 first prize if any of its representatives goes on to win the national finals in Las Vegas. Assuming the NHC's first prize is $200,000 again next year, that means Emerald will be adding an additional $300,000 into the pot if one of its qualifiers is able to claim the top prize.

February will be a big month for tournament players, thanks to two of the biggest contests of the year, the $140,000 Sports Haven Handicapping Challenge at Autotote's OTB in New Haven, Conn., on Feb. 12-13, and the $132,000 Turf-Vivor IV Handicapping Contest at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26-27. The top two finishers from the Sports Haven contest will advance to the National Handicapping Championship, while three players will qualify out of Gulfstream. Turf-Vivor will also feature a $100,000 first prize. The Sports Haven contest costs $400 to enter and is limited to the first 350 entrants. Turf-Vivor costs $1,000 and is limited to 125 players. Both contests still have space available but are expected to sell out soon.

The competition gets started Saturday with Canterbury Park's $50,000 Road to Kentucky Tournament, a free tournament that lasts 14 weeks.

2006 Daily Racing Form/NTRA
National Handicapping Championship Qualifying Schedule

DateSpotsTrack/Facility
Feb. 5-May 1 1 Canterbury Park
Feb. 6-May 7 3 www.kyderby.com
Feb. 12 1 Tampa Bay Downs
Feb. 12-13 2 Autotote Sports Haven
March 5 1 Tampa Bay Downs
March 5 3 Maryland Jockey Club
April 9 1 Arlington Park
May 26-Oct. 29 3 PublicHandicapper.com
May 28-29 3 Stampede Park
June (TBD) 3 Los Alamitos
June 4 3 Royal River Racing OTB
June 18 3 Prairie Meadows
June 18 2 Delaware Park
July 2 3 Hoosier Park
July 3 3 Keeneland
July 18 3 Claiming Crown/NTRA.com
Aug. 13-14 2 Canterbury Park
Aug. 27-28 3 Woodbine
Sept. 9-10 2 Fairplex Park
Sept. 10 3 Prairie Meadows
Sept. 17-18 2 Fairplex Park
Sept. 18 3 Arlington Park
Sept. 24-25 2 Fairplex Park
Oct. 2 1 Arlington Park
Oct. 8 2 Delaware Park
Oct. 8 3 Canterbury Park
Nov. 6 1 Arlington Park
Nov. 12 3 Maryland Jockey Club
Dec. 3 3 Keeneland
Dec. 4 3 Turfway Park
Dec. 10 2 Delaware Park
Dec. 11 1 Tampa Bay Downs