Large field between Shurman, $3 million handicapping jackpot

Horse racing offers precious few chances to win $3 million. Paul Shurman will have that rare opportunity in the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship at Treasure Island on Friday and Saturday.

Shurman won the yearlong 2011 NHC Tour and the $75,000 that came with it. That made him eligible to win not only the $1 million first prize in the NHC but also a $2 million bonus for winning both the tour and tournament titles.

Shurman is part of a field of 482 handicappers, a big increase from 301 last year. The field includes defending champion John Doyle, who also has a daunting task. This is the 13th NHC, and no one has won more than once.

Six other former NHC champions are in the field: Judy Wagner (2001), Steve Wolfson Jr. (2003), Ron Rippey (2006), Stanley Bavlish (2007), Richard Goodall (2008) and Brian Troop (2010).

There’s a good reason no winner has repeated: Every person in the ballroom is a good handicapper.

Luck can be the difference between winning and being an also-ran. You must win most of your photo finishes, have other factors such as a disqualifications go in your favor, and zig and zag on the right horses in the right races.

And you must hang in there until the end. Last year, Doyle never led until the final race of the two-day tournament.

Handicapping tournaments have continued to show steady growth. We are fortunate that the two major year-end tournaments both are held in Las Vegas — the NHC at Treasure Island and the Horseplayer World Series at The Orleans on Feb. 23 through 25.

Handicappers have traveled from far and wide trying to get into the NHC. Ten didn’t have to travel far because they live in Las Vegas: Bavlish, Goodall and his wife, Sally, John Conte, Steve Davidowitz, Mark Henderson, Dan Kaplan, Gary Kurtz, Michael Rosenthal and Brian Schwade.

The participants always have interesting side stories. The most emotional one belongs to Sheldon Finkelstein, who last year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While on a “bucket list” visit to Del Mar, the 62-year-old qualified for the NHC. His goal ever since simply was to live long enough to get to Las Vegas to play in the NHC. Good luck, Sheldon.

■ QUIGLEY HIRED — Tom Quigley, another NHC contestant and publisher of The HorsePlayer Magazine, has been hired by Santa Anita as its VIP player concierge. It was long overdue for a racetrack to have a conduit between itself and high-volume bettors.

■ RACHEL ALEXANDRA FOAL — The first foal of champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra was a colt born Sunday. John Avello of Wynn Las Vegas hung an interesting future book bet: Will this colt make it to the 2015 Kentucky Derby starting gate? The odds are 60-1 yes and 1-100 no.

■ TREASURE ISLAND SHOOTOUT QUALIFIER — Treasure Island will host the first qualifier for the 2013 NHC on Sunday. Entry fee is $200, and two seats will be awarded to the top finishers.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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