02/10/2003 12:00AM

Six handicappers advance to finals

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NEW YORK - Just weeks after Steve Wolfson Jr. of Holly Hill, Fla., walked away with the $100,000 grand prize at the fourth National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas, six players already have qualified for next year's final round.

The players advanced from the first two qualifiers of 2003, at the Reno Hilton and at the Sports Haven Teletheater in New Haven, Conn.

The winner of last weekend's $82,500 Reno Hilton Winter Challenge was Tim Hunt of Rohnert Park, Calif. Hunt took home first prize of $43,000 and qualified for NHC thanks to his win in a field of 55 players. The format of the three-day contest featured tournament bracket-style competition. Hunt advanced through his first two four-person brackets on Thursday and Friday and then cemented his victory in the final four bracket on Saturday - defeating former DRF/NTRA Handi capper of the Year Judy Wagner and two others.

The event cost $1,500 to enter but, with only 55 entrants, offered a stellar 13.75-to-1 ratio of entrants to qualifiers - its top four finishers earning berths to next January's national handicapping finals.

The contest's runner-up was Frank Purkart from Bishop, Calif. who earned $17,000. Joe Kristufek of Chicago, Ill., finished third and earned $8,500, to split with his partner, Tom Walsh of Chicago. Kristufek is the handicapper and turf writer for The Daily Herald, a newspaper based in Arlington Heights, Ill.

Veteran tournament player Mike Labriola of Richmond, Calif., earned $4,100 for fourth-place and qualified for his third National Handicapping Championship finals.

Wagner, the NHC II champion, finished sixth and earned $1,650.

Two qualify at Sports Haven

The first qualifying tournament for NHC was Autotote's $102,000 Sports Haven Handicapping Challenge, Feb. 1-2. The winner of the seventh annual event was Arthur Peters, 66, of Lowell, Mass., who earned first prize of $40,000 for his victory in a full field of 340 players.

Peters cashed four of his 10 mythical $200 bets that Sunday to move into the lead on the second day of the two-day event. Peters finished with a contest-winning bankroll of $11,685, thanks to longshot picks, including Red Opal ($25.20) in Sunday's race 1 at Santa Anita, and Crystal Sea ($74.20 but odds-capped at $44) in Sunday's race 9 at Gulfstream.

The top two finishers qualified for NHC. Second-place and $15,000 went to Robert Englander of Rocky Hill, Conn. ($10,780). Englander is the brother of Eclipse Award-winning owner Richard Englander.