Updated on 09/16/2011 7:02AM

Tournament madness in May

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Participants at the NTRA Marketing Summit, held here last week here, stressed the need for horse racing to learn lessons from other major sports leagues.

One segment of the horse racing industry has picked up on that strategy - handicapping tournaments.

When the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship was held at the MGM Grand in January, organizers got the word out that it was the "U.S. Open of handicapping tournaments."

The Reno Hilton is starting a new contest it hopes becomes known as the "NCAA's of handicapping tournaments."

The $3,000 buy-in Sting in the Spring will be held Thursday, May 2, through Saturday, May 4, otherwise known as Derby Day. With a full field of 64 participating in an elimination format, the prize pool would be $192,000 with $100,000 going to the champion.

The tournament's Final Four will be contested on the Churchill Downs card on Derby Day, with finalists' selections being announced to the crowd gathered at the Hilton.

Steve Mikkelson, race and sports book manager at the Reno Hilton, came up with the concept during the Flamingo Reno July tournament last year. Mikkelson said he was driving home and started to brainstorm about having a tournament that could become an event for both contestants and non-contestants, sort of like the World Series of Poker, which is televised on the Discovery Channel.

When he got home at 2 a.m., he called tournament host Steve Fierro to bounce the idea off him, and they starting asking players that weekend for their input. The idea gained momentum as the two Steves solicited more player feedback at the Championship at The Orleans tournament in Las Vegas in August, and they received the go-ahead from Reno Hilton management.

"We wanted to do something really unique," Fierro said. "This could grow into something huge."

The contestants will be split into 16 groups of four on Thursday of the tournament - kind of like the NCAA sub-regionals. Each player will designate by 9:30 a.m. which track they will be betting and will place mythical $2 win, place, and show bets on horses in eight races at that track. Points are based on mutuel prices, with no limits on payoffs.

"Players will have to handicap which tracks will produce the best payoffs as well as choosing which races to play and which horses," Fierro said.

The survivors will be part of the Sweet 16 and will be grouped into foursomes again on Friday. The winners of those groups will make up the Final Four and will compete during the Churchill Downs card, with the Kentucky Derby being the final race of the contest.

"The really exciting part is that it comes down to only having to beat nine other people to win $100,000," Fierro said. "You're not competing against the other 63 players, only the other three in your foursome."

The $3,000 entry fee includes four nights at the Hilton, a dinner on May 1 - where the matchups will be determined randomly - and breakfast and lunch buffets each day of the tourney.

Second place is $40,000, third is $20,000, fourth is $10,000, and fifth through 10th pays $4,000. The 48 people eliminated in the first round aren't sent packing like in the NCAA's. They will be split into groups of four on Friday, and the 12 survivors from that round along with the 12 losers in Friday's championship round will be grouped into foursomes to compete for the fifth through 10th spots on Saturday.

If the field of 64 doesn't fill, Fierro said, the event will be a 48-player tournament, with the first round contested in groups of three to get to the Sweet 16.

An identical tournament, called the Brawl in the Fall, will be held Oct. 24-26, with the Final Four held on the eight Breeders' Cup races.

2002 NEVADA HORSE HANDICAPPING CONTESTS

DATECONTESTHOST HOTELENTRY FEE

April 3-6Championship at The OrleansThe Orleans$500

April 18-19Harrah's Reno TournamentHarrah's Reno$500

May 1-3Pick the Ponies XVIIILas Vegas Hilton$500

May 2-4Sting in the SpringReno Hilton$3,000

June 14-15Summer Showdown IIReno Hilton$800

June 1-2Grand Racing FestivalMGM Grand$3,500

Aug. 2-3Summer Stakes IIIBally's$1,000

Aug. 7-10Suncoast InvitationalSuncoast$1,000

Aug. 17-18Surf & TurfMGM Grand$2,500

Oct. 9-12Championship at the OrleansThe Orleans$500

Oct. 23-25Pick the Ponies XIXLas Vegas Hilton$500

Oct. 24-26Brawl in the FallReno Hilton$3,000