12/10/2002 12:00AM

Twenty earn berths in national final

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NEW YORK - The qualifying process for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship IV reached a peak last weekend: 20 spots in the national finals were awarded to the top finishers in five major contests. In all, more than 3,500 horseplayers participated in handicapping tournaments over the weekend, including 570 who paid entry fees of $100 or more to play.

The flurry of contest activity comes in the final weeks it will be possible to qualify in the National Handicapping Championship. There are now only seven contests offering a combined total of 15 qualifying slots remaining on this year's tournament schedule. The Championship will be held on Jan. 17-18, 2003 at Bally's-Las Vegas.

Octet qualifies at Turf Paradise

The most notable contest of the weekend was the $65,000 Turf Paradise Regional Qualifying Tournament in Phoenix, Ariz., which offered a total of eight berths to the National Championship to its top finishers.

The winner of the contest was Todd Horwitz, a shoe salesman from Riverwoods, Ill., who earned first prize of $25,200 for finishing first in a full field of 200 entries.

Horwitz finished with a final contest-winning bankroll of $166.60 based on $2 win and place bets on 18 Turf Paradise races over the course of the two-day tournament. His total was just enough to hold off runner-up Jimmy Nestegard, a groundskeeper from Sparks, Nev., who finished second with a total of $164.80. Nestegard earned a cash prize of $12,600.

The contest cost $300 to enter, and returned to players 100 percent of all entry fees - plus an additional $5,000 - in the form of prize money. The tournament attracted a field of players hailing from 23 different states and Canada, including players from as far east as New York and as far west as Hawaii.

Turf Paradise's eight qualifiers to the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship also include third-place finisher John Stewart ($152.90), a contractor from Coalgate, Okla., and fourth-place finisher Don Marconi ($146.20), a candy and tobacco wholesaler from Philadelphia. Both Stewart and Marconi earned $6,300.

Team Turf Paradise will be completed by fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-place finishers, who, in order, are: Jim Kinslow of San Diego, Calif. ($134.40); Edward De'Ath of Henderson, Nev. ($131.70); Dennis Seagle of Las Vegas, Nev. ($124.20); and Ben Lester of Sedona, Ariz. ($124.20). Kinslow, De'Ath, Seagle, and Lester each earned $3,150 in prize money.

Top four qualify at Great State Challenge

A free online handicapping contest revolving around the six Great State Challenge stakes races held Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park had more than 2,000 entries.

The winner, Anji Daniels of Las Vegas, and the other three top-four finishers each advanced to the National Handicapping Championship. The four-person team representing the Great State Challenge is completed by second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers Frank Price of San Marcos, Calif.; Gerry Alvarado of San Diego, Calif.; and Danny Martin of Whittier, Calif.

Keeneland sends team to finals

Howard Owens of Lexington, Ky., defeated a field of 257 players from 14 states en route to victory in the Keeneland Handicapping Challenge, also held on Saturday. Owens earned first prize of $10,000 and also qualified for the National Handicapping Championship.

Second place went to Tim Holland of Midway, Ky., who earned $3,000. Holland will be making his third trip to the national finals. He represented Turfway Park in NHC I and Keeneland's team championship-winning squad in NHC III.

The Keeneland Handicapping Championship cost $100 to enter and had a purse of $19,250. The tournament's format consisted of mythical $2 to win and $2 to place wagers on 12 races, including six mandatory races and six optional races.

Also on Keeneland's four-person Championship team are third- and fourth-place finishers, respectively, James Southall of Columbus, Ohio ($1,500); and T.J. Taylor of Burlington, Ky. ($1,200).

Wright wins another at Fair Grounds

Donald Wright of Eastpointe, Mich., won Fair Grounds's $15,000 DRF/NTRA qualifying tournament, held Dec. 7-8. Wright earned first prize of $10,000 for the win in a field of 112 contestants. The victory was Wright's second of the year; he also earned $8,300 for a win in the Bettor Racing OTB's Midwest Classic in South Dakota in June.

Since Wright has already qualified for the National Championship, he was ineligible to qualify again. Fair Grounds's three spots in the national finals therefore go to second-, third, and fourth-place finishers, Marcy Jordan (won $3,000), Jody Ortego ($1,000), and Leslie Biggs ($600).

* Last weekend's fifth and final contest, hosted by the Twin Spires Club, was won by Karen Richards. She was tops among the 800 handicappers who competed at Twin Spires locations throughout Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Florida.