02/09/2006 12:00AM

Road to next handicapping title begins

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Culminating a year of qualifying tournaments, the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship was held just two weeks ago, but there's no rest for the weary.

Qualifying tournaments for next year's finals start this weekend with two such events. At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, the winner will earn a berth into next year's NHC, set for Jan. 26-27 at Bally's, as well as round-trip airfare to Las Vegas and hotel accommodations. At Sports Haven in New Haven, Conn., this Saturday and Sunday, the top three finishers will earn berths to the NHC while the fourth- and fifth-place finishers will qualify for the Horseplayers' World Series at The Orleans in Las Vegas, also to be held next January.

Last year, Ron Rippey of Wayne, N.J., finished second in the Sports Haven tournament to earn one of the year's first NHC berths. He parlayed that into the $250,000 first-place prize two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, here in Las Vegas there are no qualifiers this month, but upcoming tournaments are right around the corner, and top tournaments players are making their reservations.

On March 10-11, Paris Las Vegas - the sister property of contest host Bally's - is home to the inaugural Prix de l'Paris tournament with an entry fee of $1,000 and a format that requires each player to make 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers each day, including six on races that everyone must play. The top two finishers will receive NHC berths.

Other NHC qualifiers hosted by the Bally's/Paris family will include the Summer Stakes on Aug. 25-26 (same format as the Prix de l'Paris), with two spots on the line, and a pair of last-chance events, also awarding two berths apiece, to be held next January in the week before to the finals.

Bally's will also host the Bang Tail Harness Tournament on Aug. 5, a one-day live money contest in which entrants pay a $300 entry fee and also make $360 worth of parimutuel wagers. That isn't an NHC qualifier, since it doesn't involve Thorough-breds, but the top two finishers will earn spots in the National Harness Handicapping Championship to be held at The Meadowlands in the spring of 2007, plus a $500 travel allowance.

The Championship at the Orleans is slated for March 30 through April 1 with its standard $500 entry fee and 12 mythical $100 win wagers per day. The top 50 finishers earn spots in the Horseplayer World Series. The same format is planned for the Oct. 5-7 Fall Classic at the Orleans, and the Coast Casinos also host the Gold Coast Summer Classic on July 20-22 with a win-and-place format.

The Las Vegas Hilton will conduct three Pick the Ponies contests for the second straight year. The traditional ones are held the three days prior to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup - May 3-5 and Nov. 1-3 this year - with the second annual summer edition to be held on Aug. 17-19 to capitalize on the popular meets at Saratoga and Del Mar. Contestants in those events pony up $500 and make 10 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day.

If the accompanying chart looks smaller than in previous years, that's because it doesn't have any tournaments held up in Reno.

Harrah's Reno has held an annual spring tournament since 1999 and the Reno Hilton has held two to three events a year the past four years, but both casinos have canceled their tournaments in the early part of the year. Reno Hilton spokesman Charles Williams said his company, which is in the process of being sold, is supposed to have meetings in the next week or two that could result in contests being added later in 2006.

South Coast hosts first racing event

On Monday, the newly opened South Coast on south Las Vegas Boulevard hosts its first racing event with a meet-and-greet with jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. and trainer Carla Gaines at 9:30 a.m. The event will be hosted by Ralph Siraco.

For good measure (and added good will), there also will be a free $1,000 handicapping contest on the first five races at Gulfstream.

Derby futures update

With Monday's announcement that Stevie Wonderboy would be taken off the Kentucky Derby trail after suffering an injury in a workout, it certainly shook up the world of Derby futures.

All previous wagers on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile champ, whether in the fixed odds here in Vegas or in the parimutuel Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Future Wager, all are action and now worthless barring a medical miracle. In Pool 1 of this year's Derby Future Wager conducted two weekends ago, Stevie Wonderboy closed at 8-1 as the close second choice to First Samurai among individual betting interests (the field was the 3-1 favorite).

Here in Vegas, more specifically at the Wynn Las Vegas race book, Stevie Wonderboy was the 7-1 favorite when he was taken off the board. As of Wednesday night at the Wynn, Brother Derek, who defeated Stevie Wonderboy in the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 14, had become the favorite at 10-1, with First Samurai at 12-1, and the quartet of Bluegrass Cat, Henny Hughes, Private Vow, and Your Tent or Mine at 20-1.

On the come: Las Vegas horse handicapping contests

DatesContestHost HotelEntry Fee
March 10-11Prix de l'ParisParis Las Vegas$1,000
March 30-April 1Championship at The OrleansThe Orleans500
May 3-5Pick the Ponies XXVIIILas Vegas Hilton500
July 20-22Gold Coast Summer ClassicGold Coast400
Aug. 17-19Pick the Ponies XIXLas Vegas Hilton500
Aug. 5Bang Tail Harness TournamentBally's Las Vegas660*
Aug. 25-26Summer StakesBally's Las Vegas1,000
Oct. 5-7Fall Classic at The OrleansThe Orleans500
Nov. 1-3Pick the Ponies XXLas Vegas Hilton500

* Live-money tournament, includes $300 entry fee plus $360 in live pari-mutuel wagers