07/12/2004 12:00AM

Almost is good in this contest


This Thursday through Saturday is the second running of the Gold Coast Summer Classic handicapping tournament.

The Coast Casinos here in Las Vegas have built a reputation for having the biggest and best tournaments for horseplayers, consistently drawing between 600 and 900 entrants with its win-only formats at the Orleans. Last year, in response to players who fell short with longshots running second, the Summer Classic was created with place wagering added.

Veteran tournament player Paul Yaffe, a real-estate broker from Skokie, Ill., capitalized on the switch by winning last year's event despite not having a winner over $20 and having more runners-up than winners, which would have left him well up the track under the Orleans' format.

For a $400 entry fee, players make 15 mythical $200 win-and-place bets each day. Contest points will be based on each selection's parimutuel payoff, based on the full track odds for the first $20 and the remaining $180 capped at 20-1 to win and 10-1 to place.

Based on 575 entries, the total purse will be $260,500, including $20,000 added to the prize pool by Coast Casinos and daily prizes of $2,000 for the top score each day, $1,000 for second, and $500 for third.

First place will receive $100,000 (based on 575 entries), with second place getting approximately $37,500 and third place $17,500. The top 50 spots will be paid. In addition, the top 35 overall finishers will qualify for the $1 million Horseplayers World Series, to be held at The Orleans next January. Again, that number is contingent on 575 entries, but even with no early-bird sign-up incentives, the field was approaching 530 as of Monday morning. Entries will be accepted until there are 15 contest races remaining Thursday.

Weekly contest updates

With the Coast Casinos crew concentrating on the Summer Classic, the free weekly contests in the Coast race books are taking a week off after a successful run during the Hollywood Park meet.

Coast Casinos used the free contests to help local players qualify for the Horseplayers World Series. Marty Marinsen earned a World Series berth by having the top cumulative score between April 21 and May 21. William Lehrner also earned a free $1,000 entry for the top score between May 26 and June 18. Results of the winner of the June 23 through July 9 time frame, as well as the overall champ from April 21 through July 9, are expected to be announced Wednesday.

o If you're looking for lower entry-fee options this week, the Hard Rock's new West Coast contest moves to its regular Wednesday spot this week after being held Thursday last week. The free contest is on the first five races at Hollywood. The prizes are $800 for first and $200 for second.

In addition, the Excalibur on the Strip and the Edgewater in Laughlin have their free contest on Wednesday's Hollywood card, with the Excalibur teaming with the Circus Circus in Reno for Friday's action. The Poker Palace has a free head-to-head matchup contest Wednesday through Friday, and another on Saturday and Sunday. The Imperial Palace has a $10 buy-in contest Saturday with races from Belmont and Hollywood.

Early tee time for golf bettors

The British Open, golf's third major of the year, runs Thursday through Sunday at the Royal Troon Golf Club in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Reflecting Tiger Woods's lack of dominance, especially since he has not won the last eight majors he has played, Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Las Vegas Hilton, now has Woods as a lukewarm co-favorite at 13-2 along with Ernie Els. In fact, Woods's odds have been raised in recent weeks after being installed at 6-1 after the U.S. Open, and he's even the underdog in the head-to-head matchup vs. Els.

The odds on Masters champion Phil Mickelson have also been raised, from 8-1 to 10-1. The fourth choice, Vijay Singh, remains at 10-1. The rest of the odds on the top contenders have remained pretty steady, with Vijay Singh at 10-1, U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen lowered slightly from 16-1 to 14-1, and Sergio Garcia lowered from 20-1 to 16-1. Other contenders include Davis Love III and Padraig Harrington at 25-1 and my longshot pick, Darren Clarke, at 30-1. John Daly, who won the British Open in 1995 at St. Andrews, is 75-1.

Just like he did for the U.S. Open, Sherman said he wasn't planning to put up any proposition wagers until Tuesday, so he could have a few extra days to look into the weather forecasts. Bettors are also advised to make their wagers by Wednesday night, since play begins early Thursday before the sports books open.

Shaq shakes up NBA futures

There have been a lot of changes in the NBA since the Pistons upset the Lakers in the NBA finals last month.

Despite losing this year's finals to the Pistons, the Lakers opened the 2005 futures as Las Vegas Sports Consultants' 9-5 favorite. But that was before coach Phil Jackson stepped down and before it looked like Shaquille O'Neal and possibly Kobe Bryant would be leaving, as well.

Now, with Jackson gone and the trade of Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat seeming like a done deal, the Lakers are sharing co-favoritism with the Spurs at 4-1.

The Pistons are the third choice at 5-1, down from their opening odds of 7-1, but then come the Heat at 6-1, plummeting from their opening odds of 25-1. The Kings and Timberwolves are also at 6-1, followed by the Pacers at 7-1 and the Rockets, who added Tracy McGrady last week, at 10-1, down from their opening odds of 28-1. The Mavericks, who lost out on the Shaq sweepstakes, are at 12-1.