04/07/2005 11:00PM

Tracks offer bonus to NHC winner

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LAS VEGAS - Part of the thrill of last year's Kentucky Derby was that Smarty Jones was also running for a bonus of $5 million for any horse that won Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and then the Kentucky Derby.

And he did it.

This year, two companies - Emerald Downs and Churchill Downs Inc. - have decided to do the same thing for the handicappers who compete in their qualifying events for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Champion-ship.

Churchill Downs, Inc., in sponsorship with Daily Racing Form, is offering a $1 million bonus to anyone who wins one of its eight qualifying tournaments and goes on to win the NHC. To be eligible, a contestant must be a member of the Twin Spires Club (or an affiliated customer-reward program such as California's Golden State Rewards Network) prior to playing in the qualifying tournament. Membership is free.

The qualifying tournaments will be at Hoosier Park on July 2, Calder Race Course on July 10, Churchill Downs on Aug. 20, Arlington Park on Sept. 18, Ellis Park on Nov. 5, Hollywood Park on Nov. 25-27, a second contest at Calder on Nov. 25-27, and Fair Grounds on Dec. 3-4.

Emerald Downs hosts the Ultimate Qualifying Tournament on July 31, with the top nine finishers earning berths in the NHC, to be held in Las Vegas next January. If any of the nine qualifiers goes on to win the NHC's $200,000 first-place prize, Emerald Downs will award him an additional $300,000 for total winnings of $500,000.

"We had brainstorming sessions in our marketing department and looked for ways to make our tournament even better for horseplayers," Emerald tournament director Adrian Buchan said. "The bonus programs for horses have been around for a number of years, and we looked at the Oaklawn bonus last year and saw the marketing possibilities.

"The NHC is great because its honors the champion handicapper with an Eclipse Award each year. We thought it was a natural to offer a bonus for the horseplayers that make this sport what it is."

Because of a Washington state law, Emerald Downs's annual tournament, in its fourth year, is free to enter. Traditionally, it has offered the most NHC qualifying spots; most sites award three berths.

According to Buchan, 100 spots in the 400-player field at Emerald will be by invitation. Another 100 will be awarded to the top 100 players in the Emerald Rewards Program, based on total handle between opening day, April 15, and June 12.

The remaining 200 spots will be determined by random draw on June 26. To enter the drawing, you can register online at emeralddowns.com on June 23-26, by mail, or by signing up in person June 26. Complete details can be found at the track or on the website.