08/08/2004 11:00PM

Bally's winner barely believed it

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When the final standings were posted at the Bally's Summer Stakes V handicapping tournament last Saturday night, no one was more surprised than Ira Schwartz.

Schwartz, 45, of Miami, was the leader heading into the final day of the two-day event after amassing a score of $244.40 on 15 mythical $2 across-the-board bets, including six mandatory races, on Friday. His winners included Senda, the 47-1 upset winner of Calder's fourth race as Schwartz stuck to his game plan of playing horses at odds of only better than 10-1.

"A lot of tournament players look only at full fields or maiden races to find their longshots, but you can find very good value in short fields when the favorite is vulnerable," he said.

Schwartz, whose previous top finishes include third at The Orleans, third and fourth up at the defunct Flamingo Reno events, and a ninth-place finish in the record 936-player Orleans field in October 2000, said he didn't alter his strategy on Saturday despite having a comfortable lead.

"I don't know how to act on the lead. I'm usually coming from behind," he said, "but I know that there were a lot of great handicappers in the room, and I couldn't pick chalk and expect to hold on for the win. I only played one chalk, and it served me right when it finished second. It was a wasted pick."

That wasn't the only thing that went wrong on Saturday.

"To be honest, I got shut out of a 15-1 shot at Monmouth," Schwartz said of Ruby Brad, who paid $32.80 in the second race. "If I had hit that, I would have had an easier day."

The contest day didn't end any better for Schwartz. He had built his contest score up to $357.90 but kept seeing and hearing the other contenders cheering home winners. Everyone in the room seemed to know that tournament veterans David Guttfreund, Robert Bertolucci, and Joe Hinson were all within striking distance. After hearing rumors of other players totals, Schwartz figured he needed to win with his last selection in the seventh race at Del Mar, the final mandatory race of the tournament, in order to hold off the challengers.

Schwartz debated between the 2 horse, Haitian Hit at 40-1, and the 10, Retirees Three at 12-1.

"I wrote a ticket with the 10 and went back to change the ticket to the 2," he said. He watched in horror as Haitian Hit never fired, and Retirees Three stormed down the stretch and pay $27.80 on the front end. Making matters worse for Schwartz was that Bertolucci and his brother were going nuts cheering on the winner.

"As soon as the 10 won, I stormed out of the room and told everyone, 'I'm finished,' " he said. "I was really upset. I went and played some blackjack to blow off some steam. I then head back to the room after about an hour and a half, figuring I would be in fourth place or something, pick up a few thousand and crawl home.

"When I got there, everyone was saying I had won, but I told them all, 'You're nuts.' It was excruciating, but when they posted the final results I couldn't believe it."

Schwartz's score of $357.90 was well clear of Guttfreund's $318.70, Bertolucci's $309.30, and Hinson's $276.40.

"I feel very luck to hold on against some very good players," Schwartz said. "It just goes to show, never believe the rumors you hear at these tournaments."

He collected the first-place prize of $60,750, along with an additional $8,100 for having Friday's top score. Guttfreund earned $20,169 for finishing second, plus $8,100 for Saturday's high score.

The Summer Stakes awarded berths in the Daily Racing Form/ National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship to the top two finishers, but since Guttfreund has already qualified in a tournament at Belmont, the second berth goes to Bertolucci, who also picked up $8,019 for finishing third. Both Schwartz and Bertolucci will receive round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations along with their berths in the NHC.

Major challenge in PGA

It's not the Masters. It's not the U.S. Open. It's not the British Open.

"The PGA Championship has always been considered the stepchild of the four majors," said Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Las Vegas Hilton, "but this year it might get more respect because it should be a true test for the players."

Sherman was discussing this weekend's PGA, to be played at the Whistling Straits course in Kohler, Wisc.

"It's being described as a mix between the U.S. Open and the British Open type of course," he added. "It's long at 7,500 yards, but it's a links-style course like they have overseas, so players also have to be accurate."

Tiger Woods, who is winless in the last nine majors, and Ernie Els are his co-favorites at 13-2. Sherman did have Woods at 7-1 in recent weeks, but lowered him based on his current form. I don't generally recommend favorites, but at 6-1 or better, it might be the time to start betting Woods in the majors.

Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh are in the next tier at 7-1 and 10-1, respectively. Sherman said that among longshots, Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank have been receiving the most betting action and were 40-1 as of Monday morning.

Sherman said the public still loves to bet John Daly, who is 60-1 after opening at 100-1. Another hot commodity is British Open champ Todd Hamilton, who has been bet down from 100-1 to 75-1.

Hamilton, said Sherman, "doesn't appear to be from the same mold" as 2003 British Open upsetter Ben Curtis, citing Hamilton's 12th-place finish this past weekend in The International, while Curtis has had a hard time even making cuts.

Sherman said he is waiting until Tuesday to put up his usual offering of proposition wagers because of uncertain wind conditions at the course, which was also the case before this year's U.S. and British Opens.