01/14/2003 1:00AM

Bally's gives big contest a grand stage

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During the first three years of the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at the MGM Grand Hotel-Casino, John Avello was a frequent visitor.

Avello, director of race and sports book operations at the Bally's and Paris hotels just up the Las Vegas Strip from the MGM, was there to network with industry leaders and the media, and to meet some of the players, many of whom also were customers of his.

He would also look at the room full of horseplayers and imagine the tournament at his Bally's property.

"I approached Keith Chamblin" - the NTRA's vice president of marketing - "last January and asked if they had any interest in holding the tournament at another property," Avello said. "He said it was a possibility and gave me a list of requirements."

That list included a need for adequate hotel rooms and banquet facilities (Bally's has 2,800 hotel rooms with another 2,900 next door at Paris, plus acres of banquet space), lowered hotel rates for contestants (paid by the sponsoring tournaments across the country that send their winners), meals for the players during the competition (they will receive $12 each day from Sbarro's pizza or the Stage Deli, both located right next to the race book), and an awards dinner on Saturday night.

"We were very happy with our three years at the MGM," Chamblin said, "but we were intrigued by John's interest. He runs a great race book and has had an existing relationship with the Daily Racing Form, having hosted a seminar with the Form and James Quinn and other events.

"We also were assured that they would do everything, within reason, to make sure the participants were treated in a first-class manner from the time they arrive until the time they leave."

Avello said: "We're used to doing a lot of big events - Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup, March Madness - so this was right up our alley. My assistant, Chris [Eggers], is a great coordinator, and we were hoping we could add this event."

Chamblin said it wasn't until late summer that it was decided the MGM wasn't going to renew as the host. He told Avello, who then talked to the people above him on the corporate ladder and they gave him the go-ahead. Avello said there are many advantages to hosting the championship.

"In the short term, there's a lot of exposure for the property," Avello said. "For a couple of days, the focus is on this tournament. In the long term, a lot of these players are coming to Las Vegas for the first time. This gives us the chance to showcase our property, and if they have a great time - which I'm sure they will - we hope that on their next trip they make this their home."

For returning qualifiers, the setup will be a little different. At the MGM, players were split into the race book with other players in the sports book lounge.

At Bally's, all 213 players will fill the combined race and sports book in one room (Avello said another factor in pursuing the tournament was that he is able to move his regular clientele next door to the Paris book). Media representatives will be seated in the adjoining lounge overlooking the race book. All betting windows will be able to accept contest plays and actual live wagers, with designated "contest only" windows during mandatory races that everyone must play. The glass-enclosed VIP room in the back of the book will be used for registration and as a hospitality suite, complete with high-speed Internet access and printers.

This coup adds to the way Avello has separated his properties from the rest of the marketplace. Bally's, along with its sister properties in the Park Place Entertainment family, is the only Nevada race book to offer fixed-odds future book wagers on all eight Breeders' Cup race each year. Three years ago, Avello started his Summer Stakes tournaments in August, with a $1,000 entry fee, and this year Bally's Moolah will be added with a record-high $5,000 entry fee on April 18-19.

Team Penthouse seeks repeat

Team Penthouse will be back to defend its title in a $10,000 media charity tournament that uses the same format as the National Handicapping Championship. Last year, Team Penthouse, captained by DRF national handicapper Mike Watchmaker, shocked its competitors with an easy victory as the only team to show a positive return on investment.

In fact, Penthouse contestant Alexa Lauren's score would have placed her fifth in the NHC tournament. We will see if the bounce theory applies this year. Lauren will be joined by Kyli Ryan, Courtney Taylor, and editor Linda Giustino.

Their competition will include:

Team National (captained by Steven Crist): Jay Cronley, ESPN.com; Larry Crowley, Arizona Republic; Jason Levin, NTRA.com; and Steve Unite, Horseplayer Magazine.

Team Radio (captained by Lauren Stich): Rich Eng, Raceday Las Vegas on KSHP; Jerry Klein, At the Races in San Francisco on KNBR; Ralph Siraco, Raceday Las Vegas; and Felix Taverna, Thoroughbred Hotline in San Diego on KOGO.

Team TV (captained by Brad Free): Caton Bredar, TVG; Randy Moss, ESPN; Kenny Rice, ESPN; and Todd Schrupp, TVG.