01/22/2002 12:00AM

Top horseplayers converge on Vegas


A purse of $212,000 and the title of Handicapper of the Year will be at stake when 177 of the country's best and most accomplished Thoroughbred horseplayers converge upon the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for the third annual Daily Racing Form / NTRA National Handicapping Championship January 25-26, 2002.

The two-day National Handicapping Championship brings together the top finishers in 65 sanctioned regional qualifying events held at 48 different racetracks, OTBs, casinos, and Web sites throughout 2001. The field of 177 will be divided-up into 44 different four-person teams, plus defending champion Judy Wagner, who received an exemption.

Players will compete both as individuals and as teams representing their qualifying sites. The top 10 individual finishers will split $158,000 in prize money, while $32,000 more will be divided among the top three teams. Another $22,000 will be up for grabs to the daily winners and to the winners of a daily horse vs. horse bonus proposition contest.

Every national championship participant advanced to Las Vegas on the strength of a top preliminary finish, and every qualifier is already a winner. All have had their Las Vegas travel and hotel expenses paid, and all will be getting a free shot at the $100,000 grand prize. Based on their qualifying performances, many have already racked up considerable prize money at local contests on their road to the National Handicapping Championship.

This year's qualifiers - 160 men and 17 women - hail from 26 different states and come from all walks of life. They range in age from 21-year-old Randy R. Gallo (Foxwoods), a student from Jupiter, Florida, to 82-year-old Ruth Beaufait (Oak Tree), a former mobile caterer from Arcadia, California.

Many qualifiers work within the racing industry in positions such as writer, handicapper marketing director, track announcer, horse owner, trainer, and professional gambler, just to name a few. Others list their occupations as everything under the sun from animal trapper, to nuclear submarine technician.

California is represented by the most national finalists (39) followed by Kentucky (17), Illinois (14), New York (14), and Texas (10). Other states represented by finalists include Arizona (5), Connecticut (3), Florida (5), Georgia (1), Indiana (8), Iowa (4), Louisiana (5), Maryland (6), Massachusetts (6), Michigan (1), Minnesota (4), Nebraska (5), Nevada (5), New Jersey (3), New Mexico (1), Ohio (4), Oklahoma (6), Pennsylvania (2), Rhode Island (2), South Dakota (2), and Washington (3).

The contest format has remained basically the same throughout the three-year history of the event, and is designed to be the best possible test of overall handicapping ability. Players will be given 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on each day of the contest. Eight of those bets will be mandatory plays for every player in the contest. The remaining seven bets will be left to the discretion of the players. This year, nine tracks have been designated as tournament tracks including Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Laurel, Golden Gate, Gulfstream, Sam Houston, Santa Anita, Turf Paradise, and Turfway.

DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker leads a panel in charge of selecting the contest's mandatory plays. The mandatory races will represent all of the different tracks involved and will be designed to go from one end of the class spectrum to the other. Races with large, evenly-matched fields have been the norm for the mandatory races in the first two editions of the national championship, and Watchmaker is guaranteed to make the races as difficult as possible again this year.

Both past National Handicapping Championship winners, Judy Wagner (2001) and Steven Walker (2000) will be in this year's field, as well as several other repeat qualifiers who played in one or both prior national championships. In addition to Walker (finished 23rd last year), other three-time qualifiers include Brian MacClowry (4th in 2000, 99th in 2001), and Michael Shane Deville (123rd in 2000, DNP in 2001).

Players making their second NHC appearance this year include Lance Pearson (72nd), Alan Wheeler (70th), Tim Holland (34th), James Thomas (21st) from the 2000 contest, and Mike Labriola (140th), John Hruntas (196th), Ross Gallo (183rd), Peter Van Zandt (145th), William Jackson (181st), T.J. Taylor (185th), Don "Hee Haw" Alvey (201st), Rich Neilsen (44th), Marc Gordon (169th), Frank Auriemma (192nd), John Maclin (43rd), Guy Vitale (195th), and Ron Salerno (182nd) from the 2001 event.

Some additional players to watch for at the top of the standings include handicapping tournament veterans like horseracing writer, handicapper and television analyst Dave "The Thoroughbred Maven" Gutfreund, American Turf Monthly Magazine associate editor Joe Girardi, Delaware Park track announcer John Curran, multiple tournament winner Mike Mayo, pick six whiz Paul Zubernick, and syndicated sports handicapper Mike Lasky (Warren).

In addition to the invitation-only National Handicapping Championship, there will also be a separate media charity tournament held alongside the main contest. The NTRA is putting up a $10,000 purse, and media members representing ESPN, Thoroughbred Times, Backstretch Magazine, Penthouse as well as several Las Vegas publications will be teamed with Daily Racing Form team captains for two days of competition.

The contest will end at the conclusion of the final mandatory race at approx. 6 p.m. Pacific time Saturday. The National Handicapping Championship winner will be honored first at a post-contest dinner, and later at the Eclipse Awards on Feb. 18 in Miami Beach, Florida when the new DRF / NTRA Handicapper of the Year will be officially crowned.