08/20/2006 11:00PM

$5 show horse clinches contest

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Every horse handicapping tournament is full of great stories, from the winners who hit the right longshot at the right time to the bad beats and close calls of the also-rans. In my eight years of covering these contests, however, I don't recall so many great stories and interesting sidebars atop the leader board as I did in the Pick the Ponies, which was held last Thursday through Saturday at the Las Vegas Hilton.

The 28th edition of Pick the Ponies, which has a buy-in of $500, drew a field of 160. Players who signed up before the Aug. 7 early-bird deadline only had to pay $400, but the Hilton kicks in the extra $100 to make the main prize pool $80,000. The Hilton also pitches in $15,000 in daily prizes with each day's top score receiving $2,500, $1,500 for second, and $1,000 for third.

The father-son team of Francis Chapman and Francis Chapman Jr., who live in Las Vegas, won the top prize of $30,400. The son gave all the credit to his dad, who has lived here since Thanksgiving Day 1942 and has tons of stories from both sides of the counter.

"He's the picker," 58-year-old Junior said. "He's 84, and he's been betting for 84 years."

Obviously the elder Chapman's handicapping expertise goes beyond the racetrack as the Chapmans, under the alias "Chappy," also finished second in the Hilton's prestigious SuperContest, hitting more than 67 percent against the spread.

The Pick the Ponies format calls for 10 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day. The Chapmans got off to a great start with Bobbilinkapoo, a first-time starter in Thursday's seventh race at Laurel who paid $94.60 to win. The other longshot the father found was Baron Von Tap, who wired Saturday's sixth race at Saratoga and paid $91.

But in the end, it wasn't the boxcar payoffs that got the Chapmans the money. Their final play was on Lemons Forever in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. She finished third and paid $5 to show, but it gave them a final score of 15,835.

In second place with 15,700 points, just 135 points behind (the equivalent of $2.70 in mutuel payouts based on the $100 contest wagers), were Alan Hasher of Del Mar, Calif., and Howard Hong of Phoenix. But those two weren't partners; they were different contestants who finished in a dead heat. You might expect that in a contest with a $2 base wager and a score in the 100's instead of a contest with this many points and so many tracks with different breakage, but it happened.

Both received $11,200, splitting the combined second- and third-place prizes. Hasher, who just turned 60, said it was his birthday present from the Hilton, where he has been a longtime customer. When asked for his key winners, Hasher said, "I can't remember the winners, but I certainly remember the losers," before going into a story about a 36-1 shot who finished third. Hasher also played a short price late in the tournament and it made all the difference in getting into the tie for second.

"You can't discount a 5-1 horse here," he said. "Every point counts."

Hasher also won another $1,000 for having the third-best score on Saturday. But he was done one better by Hong, 42, who is best known as the TV commentator at Turf Paradise. Hong had three entries at $400 apiece, and one entry had the third-highest score on Thursday (worth $1,000); the entry that finished tied for second overall had the second-highest total on Friday (worth $1,500); and his other entry had the second-highest total on Saturday (worth $1,500). Those other two entries finished 12th and 19th, respectively, for another $800 apiece, and a grand total of $16,800 in earnings.

In one more interesting sidebar, the winners of the $2,500 daily prizes (Ken Stubenvoll, Patrick Gorgan, and Ira Schwartz) all ended up in fifth through 10th place in the standings to all earn an additional $1,600 for total earnings of $4,100.

* The next big handicapping tournament in town is the Summer Stakes at Bally's this Friday and Saturday. The entry fee is $1,000 with a limit of two per person. Contestants make 15 mythical $2 across-the-board wagers each day, with six races being mandatory races selected by management and nine being player's choice. In addition to shooting for the prize pool, the top two finishers will earn berths into the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, which will be held Jan. 26-27 at Bally's.

Woods does it again

Tiger Woods's PGA Championship victory at Medinah Country Club last weekend was a welcome result for the Hilton sports book. Supervisor Jeff Sherman said that he lowered Woods from 3-1 to 2-1 for the PGA after his British Open and Buick victories and raised odds on other contenders, and that drew action on those golfers and away from Woods. He said bettors also took other golfers vs. Woods (including Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, and Phil Mickelson).

Sherman said a loser for the house was on the "will there be a hole-in-one?" as bettors took the "yes" and were rewarded when Olin Browne sunk one last Thursday.

The Hilton also had a prop up earlier this year asking how many majors Woods would win. "Exactly two majors" was offered between odds of 6-1 and 8-1, but Sherman said the Hilton was glad to pay that as there was much more liability if Woods were to win three or four majors in a year.

Sherman has made Woods the 2-1 favorite for the 2007 Masters on April 5-8 at Augusta National. Mickelson is 7-1, followed by Els at 15-1, Vijay Singh at 20-1, and Furyk, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, and Adam Scott all at 25-1.

* Matt Kenseth won Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 Nextel Cup race as the 10-1 co-third choice at Station Casinos, holding off love-him-or-hate-him Jeff Gordon, who was 12-1.

* Unders cooled off a little in preseason football, going 8-7 this past weekend heading into Monday night's Cowboys-Saints game after going 12-5 the week before. Still, that's an overall mark of 20-12 (63 percent). After entering the week at 10-6-1, favorites went 7-8 this past weekend and still hold a slight 17-14-1 edge.