Rhonda Sylvester, a 50-year-old former American Airlines employee from North Little Rock, Ark., rode the strength of two tournament victories, plus third- and fifth- place finishes in two other tournaments, to capture the top prize of $15,000 for topping the first-half leader board of the 2012 Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship Tour. The Tour’s first half concluded on July 31, with the second half of the Tour year running from August 1-December 31.

A total of $50,000 was paid to the top 10 first-half finishers, ranging from Sylvester’s top prize of $15,000, to $1,000 to the 10th place finisher. Another $50,000 will be awarded to the top 10 finishers in the Tour’s second-half standings. And an additional $150,000 will be paid on a graduated scale to the cumulative top 20 finishers throughout the entire contest year. The full-year 2012 NHC Tour leader will receive $75,000. The total NHC Tour prize structure of at least $265,000 (first-half plus second-half plus overall monies, plus multiple-win bonuses) is more than double last year’s then-record NHC Tour payout of $125,000.

By virtue of her first-half success, the retired Sylvester is one of 166 competitors who have already qualified for the the January 25-26, 2013, Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship presented by Sovereign Stable and Treasure Island. To be held for the second consecutive year at Treasure Island Las Vegas, next January’s NHC Finals will offer a total purse of at least $1.5 million, with first-place worth a guaranteed minimum of $750,000.

This is Rhonda’s first year as an NHC Tour member, though her husband Mike Sylvester, a major in the Pulaski (Ark.) County Sheriff’s Department, has participated for the last several years. Rhonda and Mike frequently traveled together to tournaments and when Mike qualified last year for the NHC Finals at Treasure Island, that taste of the NHC excitement last January helped convince Rhonda to give it a go herself this year.

“I’ve been very lucky and, being relatively new, have definitely been learning a lot as I go along,” said Rhonda. “I’ve gone with Mike to many tournaments, but now that I’m participating, I realize it’s a lot more high-stress than I used to think.”

With the first-half crown safely secured, Rhonda now looks forward to the second-half of the Tour year and the prospect of a $75,000 prize if she can secure the full-year Tour lead.

“I think we’re up to the challenge,” said Rhonda, speaking from Wynn Las Vegas, while participating in yet another NHC qualifying event. “I may get worn down a little from all of the travelin, but as long as I’m still in contention, we’ll give it everything we have.”

Mark McGuire of Newbury Park, Calif., finished second during the first half and received bonus money of $10,000.  Mark Streiff ($7,250), Christopher Larmey ($5,000) and Edmund Teicht ($4,000) rounded out the first-half top five.

Sylvester, McGuire and Streiff also received an additional $5,000 each for capitalizing on a new NHC Tour bonus provision that pays an extra $5,000 to anyone who finishes first in more than one qualifying tournament.  A player may earn up to three such bonuses during the Tour year.

The NHC Tour is a yearlong bonus series offering additional prize money and qualifying berths to the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. Tour members receive NHC Tour points for top finishes in NHC qualifying events held during the year. Membership in the 2012 Daily Racing Form NHC Tour is open to adults 21 years of age or older and requires a one-time membership fee of $50. Membership in the 2012 Daily Racing Form NHC Tour is mandatory in order for top finishers of sanctioned NHC qualifying events to be eligible to compete in the January 2013 NHC Finals in Las Vegas. The NHC Tour membership must be in place prior to the start of any given qualifying tournament in order for one to qualify for the NHC Finals at that qualifying tournament. In addition to potential prize money and berths in the NHC, benefits for NHC Tour members include automatic enrollment in the Horseplayers’ Coalition. The Coalition seeks legislative and regulatory solutions to tax and business issues that impact pari-mutuel racetracks and their customers and provides grass roots support for the NTRA’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Tour members also are automatically eligible to participate in NTRA Advantage, offering preferred pricing on products and services from leading suppliers, including John Deere, Sherwin-Williams, UPS and OfficeMax.

In just its 14th year, the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship presented by Sovereign Stable and Treasure Island is the most important tournament of the year for horseplayers and is the culmination of a year-long series of NTRA-sanctioned local tournaments conducted by racetracks, casino race books, off-track betting facilities and horse racing and handicapping websites, each of which sends its top qualifiers to the national finals. There is no option to “buy in” to the NHC Finals—all competitors must have earned the right to compete. Each year, the NHC winner joins other human and equine champions as an honoree at the Eclipse Awards. In addition to the founding title sponsor, the NHC is presented by Treasure Island Las Vegas and Sovereign Stable. The 13 NHC Champions since the event’s inception, in chronological order, are Steven Walker, Judy Wagner, Herman Miller, Steve Wolfson Jr., Kent Meyer, Jamie Michelson, Ron Rippey, Stanley Bavlish, Richard Goodall, John Conte, Brian Troop, John Doyle and Michael Beychok.