01/24/2005 1:00AM

Winner's pedigree pure handicapper

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LAS VEGAS - When James "Jamie" Michelson Jr., 39, won the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on Saturday with his father by his side, it was not only a family story but also a story intertwined between two families.

To paint the full picture, you must go back more than 40 years to when Michelson's father, James Michelson, was a fraternity brother with Steve Wolfson at the University of Pennsylvania. They became friends, and Wolfson introduced Michelson to horse racing and took him to the track after classes. The two stayed friends after college, and Michelson was at Churchill Downs in 1978 when Affirmed, owned by the Wolfson family, won the Kentucky Derby.

Even though the Wolfsons resided in Florida and the Michelsons were in Michigan, the two families would vacation together at Saratoga. And their sons also were indoctrinated into horse racing, taking part in family handicapping sessions before going to the races.

"My father taught me how to handicap at an early age," said the younger Michelson. "I was probably reading the Racing Form before I was reading Dr. Seuss.

"There were a lot of very good handicappers at that table," he said. "We were just trying to fit in."

Proving their worth as handicappers is no longer a concern, since Steve Wolfson Jr. won the NHC two years ago and now Michelson has earned the title of Handicapper of the Year, along with a record $200,000 first-place prize.

"I've known Steve my whole life," said Michelson, an advertising account director in West Bloomfield, Mich. "We played together as kids. My first date with my wife [Beth] was at the track with Steve. When I saw him win two years ago, that motivated me even more to want to do it."

When Wolfson won, his father was a qualifier that same year and helped support him down the stretch. The same thing happened Saturday as the elder Michelson, who finished 143rd in the field of 214, joined his son in the front row of the Bally's race book.

"I wouldn't have won it without him," the champ said. "He made me stick to my picks."

When the final race, Saturday's ninth at Santa Anita, was run, Wolfson Jr. was the first person to congratulate Michelson. When asked if he leaned on Wolfson's championship experience, Michelson said, "The best advice he gave me was to forget yesterday [Friday]."

That was great advice, as Michelson was a little down after Friday's action, despite being in fifth place. In the NHC format, each handicapper makes 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets on each of the two days. Eight of the 15 bets are on mandatory races that everyone must play, and seven are players' choices. Points are earned based on the mutuel payouts, which are capped at $42 for win and $22 for place.

Bill Shurman of Danville, Calif., was the first-day leader with a score of $178.60, followed by Damian Roncevich of Honolulu with $171 and Michael Conway of Glencoe, Ill., with $154.80. They received $5,000, $3,000, and $2,000, respectively, in daily prize money. Michelson was a mere $1.80 behind Conway at $153, but earned nothing.

"I thought I missed a great chance," he said. "It's really hard to have two good days in a row."

That was certainly true for the vast majority of the first-day leaders, who came back to the pack. But Michelson's total of $87.40 on a chalk-heavy day was the 13th-highest score Saturday, and it gave him a two-day total of $240.40. The pick that put him in the lead was Joe Pag, who paid $35.60 to win and $16.60 to place in Gulfstream's 10th race.

"I never got conservative," he said. "I only looked at the standings at the start of the day and avoided them the rest of the time. I've got my picks and didn't want to worry about what anyone else was doing."

Michelson had used all of his optional plays by the time the standings were posted that showed him in the lead. He then spent the rest of the tournament cheering for favorites to come in, as he knew everyone behind him would be rooting for longshots.

"The goal on Day 1 was to be in contention," he said at the awards banquet. "Day 2 is about staying in contention, then getting in the lead, and then holding on for dear life."

With no longshots coming in, Conway finished second with $208.80 for second-place prize money of $75,000. Michael Elsass of Anna, Ohio, came on strong Saturday to finish third overall with a score of $205.40 and earn $30,000. Charlie Messina of Slidell, La., was fourth at $204.20 for a $17,400 payout, and Roncevich finished fifth to win $10,000.

Under the current format, Michelson's score is the second-highest in the six-year history of the NHC behind - who else? - Wolfson with $279.60. Michelson might not have topped Wolfson there, but his margin of victory ($31.60) broke Wolfson's record. With the purse increase this year, Michelson is the all-time NHC money-earner at $200,000, almost double Wolfson's $105,833 in winnings.

At the awards ceremony, Michelson concluded his acceptance speech by saying, "I can honestly say I'm ahead for life."

Michelson said the first use of his winnings will be to set up college funds for his two daughters, who baked him a cake before the contest that said, "Good luck, daddy."

Now that's a family story.

 NameTeamTotalPrize
1James Michelson Jr.Youbet #1$240.40$200,000
2Michael ConwayTwin Spires Club208.8075,000
3Michael ElsassChurchill Downs #2205.4030,000
4Charlie MessinaHarrah's La. Downs204.2017,400
5Damian RoncevichDel Mar #1202.8010,000
6Bill ShurmanAqueduct200.605,000
7Richard Gaetano (Tie) Belmont Park197.605,000
7David Kassmier (Tie) Turf Paradise197.605,000
9Don SullivanSam Houston #2183.605,000
10Calvin MannsClaiming Crown178.705,000
11Kent MeyerDefending Champion171.002,000
12Flordeliza NatorBay Meadows168.002,000
13William HaliziwHawthorne Park #2166.202,000
14Larry MooreTurfway Park163.202,000
15Isaac Schultz Hollywood Park157.802,000
16Justin CareyTVG Network157.202,000
17Charlotte CourisTampa Bay Downs156.002,000
18Donald FritzArlington Park155.602,000
19Ron GearyBally's #1153.402,000
20David GutfreundBelmont Park153.002,000