04/19/2002 12:00AM

Advice from tourney champion: Just be the fastest camper


There is an unofficial tour of major handicapping contests in Nevada. Two big ones are coming up the week of the Kentucky Derby at sister Hilton properties.

The 20th Pick the Ponies Invitational is May 1-3 at the Las Vegas Hilton and the Sting in the Spring is at the Reno Hilton May 2-4.

Other than the Hilton name, the contests bear no resemblance. Pick the Ponies is limited to 200 entries and contest points are earned using the win, place, and show parimutuel prices. Sting in the Spring is limited to 64 players, who will be bracketed in head-to-head competition like the NCAA basketball tournament.

Sting in the Spring costs $3,000 to enter. Pick the Ponies costs only $400 through the early bird period, which closes at 5 p.m. on Monday. After that the fee is $500. Early bird players are eligible for daily cash prizes of $5,000 on each of the three days of the contest.

Pick the Ponies defending champion Mike Markham, a sports book supervisor at the Suncoast, will be back to defend his title. Markham won $39,000 last October, $38,000 for first and a $1,000 daily prize.

"My philosophy is you're going against 200 people," said Markham, a seasoned tournament player. "If those 200 people were betting on the races, there's a chance no one would win any money. But in a tournament, one of the 200 will walk away a big winner."

Markham compared playing in a tournament to the joke about a bear chasing two campers. One camper stops to change into his running shoes. His friend says incredulously, "That's stupid. There's no way you can outrun that bear." The camper replies, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."

Markham's joke applies to the recently completed Orleans tournament. Herman Gordon of Las Vegas narrowly won, with 10,886 points, over Steve Mikkelson, who had 10,832. Mikkelson is the race and sports book manager at the Reno Hilton.

"I know Steve well from when we worked together back in San Diego," said Markham. "I remember telling Steve just make sure you go by the leader before you do anything else. At the end he tried 3-5 and 8-5 shots and he couldn't get by him. He needed just one winner like Take Charge Lady to make $100,000."

Both Gordon and Mikkelson were 0 for 12 on day three, but their scores were strong enough to maintain first and second place.

Markham likes the win, place, and show format of the Las Vegas Hilton tournament.

"Every contest has its own personality," he said. "You don't want all the contests exactly the same. Here you can play an 8- or 9-1 shot because if he runs well, you'll still get paid for place and show. To win any contest, though, you still have to pick winners."

Richard Eng is turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.