02/23/2005 12:00AM

Action up north starting to pick up


NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Very few of the more than 30 million annual visitors that come to Las Vegas make their way to North Las Vegas.

Most never leave the Strip corridor or the older downtown casinos. Some horseplayers will venture west of the Strip toward the Orleans and even further west to the Suncoast or Rampart. Some will head east to the Boulder Highway casinos of Boulder Station and Sam's Town, or southeast to Henderson and the Sunset Station or Green Valley Ranch.

But North Las Vegas? That's a harder sell. For one, it has a reputation of being, to put it nicely, not the best part of town. For another, the hotels there don't advertise as much as the aforementioned locals casinos, though the Poker Palace does run a local TV ad that states "In North Las Vegas. . . and proud of it."

If a visitor has been to a North Las Vegas casino, it's more likely they've gone to one of the properties along Rancho Boulevard (Texas Station, Fiesta or Santa Fe Station), the road that runs northwest of the main tourist areas and serve those burgeoning neighborhoods as the urban sprawl continues from the center of Las Vegas.

That is not, however, the North Las Vegas most people think of. For years, the Poker Palace on Las Vegas Boulevard has been the most horseplayer-friendly of the NLV race books and still conducts free $500 matchup contests on Wednesday through Friday and another on Saturday and Sunday.

But there is competition coming for the players in that part of town.

The Silver Nugget, exactly the length of the Kentucky Derby (a mile and a quarter) south of the Poker Palace, has started taking pari-mutuel horse racing wagers in its race and sports book, which is run by Leroy's. (Leroy's publicity director, Jimmy Vaccaro, says the Silver Nugget is the fourth horse racing outlet for Leroy's, joining the Riviera, Sahara, and Silverton, with more being planned).

Another competitor is going to be the Cannery, which is located on Craig Road on the even farther north end of town. When the Cannery opened in January 2003, it had a small sports-book counter but no horse racing. The Cannery is run by the same management company as the Rampart, and Eric St. Clair, who runs the race and sportsbook at the Rampart, said the Cannery will have a 130-seat race and sports book with individual TV's at every seat and 13 large screens after its current expansion, slated to be completed by this fall.

The area near the Cannery is among the fastest-growing communities in the country and one that has been grossly underserved without a race book to this point.

Follow the picks or make your own

Friday night is the finale of the Leroy's Challenge college basketball handicapping contest at the Riviera from 10-11 p.m.

In last weekend's semifinal, Golden Nugget race and sports book manager Nick Bogdanovich went 2-2-1 to defeat handicapper-radio host Dave Scandaliato, who went 2-3. Their 4-5-1 combined record actually improved the overall record of contestants to 29-40-1 (42 percent) during the first seven weeks of this first-year contest.

Bogdanovich's victory set up a finale that is being billed as bettor vs. bookmaker, as his opponent will be professional gambler Alan Boston.

Boston and Bogdanovich will each give five plays on Saturday's college basketball card from the lines available at Leroy's books. The winner will receive $5,000, plus another $5,000 will be donated in his name to Sunrise Children's Hospital charities. The show can be heard on KBAD AM-920 here in Vegas or on KPTT AM-630 in Reno.

* The performance of the handicappers is obviously not what organizers of the Leroy's Challenge - Vaccaro and host John Kelly - were hoping for, but critics have a chance to put their own handicapping skills on the line at all Leroy's outlets.

It's worth $5,000 a week. And it's free to enter.

Using a format similar to the one used in its free football contest, picking straight-up winners as opposed to picking against the spread, Leroy's will be having an NBA contest starting this Sunday and running through April 17. Vaccaro said if there are not 15 games on the schedule, totals will be used to fill out the contest cards, which will be available starting Thursday each week.

Contestants must register to get a contest number and then can play each week at any Leroy's outlet, not just the one where they signed up. But it's still only one entry per week per person.

It's important to note that, unlike during the football season, when there are contests at just about every casino, this is the only basketball contest in town. And since this hasn't been advertised as much as the football contests, it is definitely an overlay in terms of the odds of winning for those who participate.

Fantasy camp for poker players

With the popularity of televised poker and increase of tournaments, it was just a matter of time before the World Poker Tour began conducting boot camps for players who want to improve their game.

The first WPT Boot Camp, a sellout at $1,495 a seat, is this Saturday and Sunday at the Mirage. Campers will receive lectures from experts in the game, archived footage of tournament play, and hand-on sessions, including a tournament to earn seats at a WPT event. This weekend's guest lecturer is Mike Sexton, the popular host of the WPT on the Travel Channel, though other experts will be used at other locales.

The next WPT Boot Camp is slated for March 12-13 at the Commerce Casino in Commerce, Calif. A complete list of events throughout the rest of the year can be found at wptbootcamp.com.

Wide-open Nascar race

This Sunday's Auto Club 500 at the California Speedway is as wide-open as any race can get. Station Casinos has four drivers sharing favoritism at 8-1: Daytona 500 champ Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman. Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all 9-1.

The good thing is you're getting a square price on any top contender you want to bet. The hard part is picking the right one out of the pack.