08/16/2001 12:00AM

663 players and only one thought: Victory

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Electricity was in the air as the Championship at the Orleans started at 10 a.m. Thursday, but it had very little to do with the long row of betting windows, the 81 televisions (including nine huge projection screens) or the laptop computers of the new generation of handicappers.

Nope, the real electricity was being generated by the 663 people who paid $500 apiece to go for the contest purse of $331,500. Each and every one of them, from past champions to first-time starters, was dreaming of winning the first-place prize of $109,395. And just like in baseball's spring training when optimism is at its peak, everyone here is a contender on the first day.

By the time you're reading this, a lot of those hopes will be dashed and many players will be bombing away on any 50-1 shot with four legs, but that type of desperation wasn't on anyone's mind when the horses left the gate in Thursday's first race at Saratoga.

Actually, they didn't leave a gate at all as the first race was a steeplechase race, but it was a contest race nonetheless. And as in all contest races, the ballroom was relatively quiet as the horses made their way around the Saratoga turf course. But when they hit the top of the stretch, players were yelling for their horse. And if they didn't have a horse in that race, they were cheering for the 8-5 favorite, It's a Giggle, who ended up winning going away.

The first longshot winner of the day came in the second race at Saratoga as Boy Willy won a maiden turf race. Many players were cheering for the favorite, On Rye, to spoil the longshot's chances, but Boy Willy got the victory and paid $44.80. A handful of players were high-fiving and hugging in the Mardi Gras Ballroom as they got off to a great start in the contest, while everyone else knew they had to go back to the drawing board. The tournament had really started.

Four contest windows were set up for players to get in their mythical $100 win wagers (players make 12 contest selections each day of the three-day event). But a big reason the Orleans started this tournament, which has grown into the world's largest, was for the betting handle that it generates. There are 19 live betting windows, including two $100 minimum and one $500 minimum window. These are serious horseplayers.

The Orleans's Mardi Gras Ballroom was jammed with 84 tables (each table seats nine, though most had six players spreading out their Daily Racing Forms). Another ballroom had to be used to handle the overflow with 36 more tables.

The excitement actually started Wednesday with the early-bird contest for people who entered before July 25. Dominic Ippolito racked up a winning total of $41.60 in the last five races at Del Mar to collect the $10,000 first prize.

That's not a bad way to start the tournament.