03/26/2004 1:00AM

$1 million reasons to play in this one


There was a buzz throughout the week leading to this weekend's handicapping tournament at the Orleans hotel casino. The buzz went beyond the tournament - the Championship at The Orleans - itself and its prize money of about $400,000.

There were rumors that the Orleans was going to announce the creation of a mega-tournament, bigger than the $425,000 tournament that drew a record 936 entrants in 2000.

As players filed into the Orleans for the start of the tournament Thursday, the announcement came from Coast Casinos president Harlan Braaten: a $1 million tournament called the Horseplayer World Series will be held on Jan. 27-29, 2005, at the Orleans, and the winner will receive $500,000.

The three-day Horseplayer World Series will have a field of 1,000 players who will qualify in tournaments worldwide. It will be the first American tournament to have a seven-figure prize fund and qualifying locales beyond the boundaries of the U.S. Qualifying locations are in the process of being determined.

The more than 800 players at the Championship at The Orleans reacted to the announcement with delight. They became even more excited when race book manager Randi Muniz announced that the top 50 finishers would be the first qualifiers for the Horseplayer World Series. And, Coast Casinos CEO Michael Gaughan said, the top 200 finishers from the Coast Casino tournaments throughout this year would qualify for the World Series.

It's no surprise that this $1 million tournament was created by Coast Casinos. In the last five years of conducting tournaments, Coast Casinos has handed out more than $5 million in prize money from 14 tournaments that have attracted some 9,000 contestants. Coast runs five tournaments a year, two of them at the Orleans.

Even the most oblivious player on Thursday had to notice something big was brewing. The Orleans race and sports operations director Robert Gregorka was wearing a suit. There was a camera crew positioned directly in front of a podium, and Orleans representatives that had nothing to do with the race book lingered with press kits in hand.

Horseplayers, not certain what the announcement was going to be, were hoping for something good. They were not disappointed.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.