03/25/2007 11:00PM

Tournament handicapper apparently needs no job

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LAS VEGAS – When most people travel to play in horse handicapping tournaments, they leave their job for a few days. Back in January, Craig Kaufman, 52, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., decided to leave his job for good to play in handicapping tournaments.

Kaufman was the general manager of the small Club Caribe Casino near Los Angeles, but his passion is horse racing and he found that his day job was interfering with his ability to make it to a lot of the tournaments around the country. Kaufman has had a lot of success on the circuit despite not making all the events - he has earned victories at the Mirage, the Las Vegas Hilton, and Fairplex Park, and has qualified three times for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship - but he wanted to see if he could do it full-time.

"I have to credit my wife," Kaufman said, "because without her letting me give this a try I wouldn't be here."

"Here" was the three-day Championship at the Orleans last Thursday through Saturday after Kaufman won the $99,360 first-place prize. Kaufman topped a field of 621 entries at $500 apiece.

He won a war of attrition, as his winning score of 7,446 points was the lowest in the history of twice-yearly tournaments at the Orleans, which date back to 1998 (with just a brief hiatus from 2000-01).

Contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day with the first $20 scoring at full track odds and the remaining $80 capped at 20-1. With a total of $3,600 in contest bets, Kaufman was the only contestant to double his bankroll. Typically, the champion scores around 10,000 points.

The scores were low because of an inordinate number of favorites that came in at tracks across the country throughout the tournament. Heading into Saturday's final day, most tournament veterans were predicting that whoever won the daily prize on Saturday (the tourney also awards prize money to the top scores each day) would probably win the whole thing. That's exactly what happened as Kaufman's entry only had 1,620 points heading into Saturday.

"Usually if a lot of bombs are coming in, I'm not going to do well because I just don't play longshots," Kaufman said. "I use the Racing Form and I consider myself a trip handicapper, but like everyone else I look for value."

He got off to a fast start Saturday as he nailed Mr Cliveden in the second race at Laurel at 25-1 - so he obviously knows a live longshot when he sees it. In all, Kaufman said he had six winners Saturday, with I'm Waiting for U in Hawthorne's eighth race being the only other longshot, at 14-1.

In midafternoon, the final standings update was posted in the Mardi Gras Ballroom, and Kaufman saw that his score of 6,946 was in the lead. He also knew everyone else would be aiming for that number and he had to pad it.

"With the scores so low, I knew a lot of people were within striking distance and I needed every favorite to come in," Kaufman said. "I added the winner of the ninth race at Santa Anita and hoped that was enough."

Forgivable Bob won the Santa Anita race at 4-1 for another 500 contest points. As it was, Kaufman didn't even need those final points as no longshots won in the final races at Santa Anita and Bay Meadows. And his Saturday score of 5,826 also won the top daily prize of $3,500 to push his total earnings to $102,860. Not a bad income for the first four months of the year.

Daniel Trutanich of San Pedro, Calif., finished second with 6,830 points to collect the $49,680 runner-up prize. Howard Dennis of Denham Spring, Calif., completed the Golden State trifecta by finishing third with 6,800 points for earnings of $24,840.

In all, prizes were paid through 80th place, with the top 50 finishers earning automatic berths (worth $1,000) in the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans next January. The 50th spot went to Las Vegas's Walter Seip, who earned a World Series berth for the third straight year in this tournament, with a score of 4,450 when it usually takes 6,000 to be in the top 50.

March Madness nears the wire

When defending champion Florida beat Oregon to win the Midwest Regional on Sunday to set up a Final Four matchup vs. UCLA on Saturday, Las Vegas Sports Consultants sent Florida out as a 3-point favorite. The line went to 3 1/2 at some books during early betting, but by Monday morning it was back to a solid 3.

There might be more volatility in the line on the Ohio St.-Georgetown matchup as LVSC sent the game out pick-'em and the major sports books at the Las Vegas Hilton, Caesars Palace, and Wynn followed suit. However, a few books - primarily the MGM Mirage family and the Palms - went with Ohio St. -1, but early money offshore came in on Georgetown as the line moved to the Hoyas -1 offshore and mostly went to pick-'em in Vegas. By Monday morning, the MGM Mirage books had Georgetown -1.

* LVSC has Florida as the 3-2 favorite to win it all, with UCLA at 5-2 and Georgetown and Ohio St. both at 13-5.

* In the regional finals, the victorious No. 2 seeds Georgetown and UCLA pulled outright upsets while the favored No. 1 seeds Ohio St. and Florida both covered the spread despite receiving scares. For the tournament, favorites are still 31-25-4.

* My NCAA bankroll plays made a comeback as I went 3-1 with my Elite Eight selections on the drf.com website over the weekend, including 2-0 on 2-unit bets with UCLA and Georgetown. My record for the tournament is now 11-13, including 3-2 on 2-unit best bets, for a net loss of 2.5 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). If you want to see a grown man cry, ask me about the 4.2-unit swing on USC's 10-point loss to North Carolina as an 8 1/2-point underdog. In all tournament games, I'm 32-27-1.