02/03/2003 1:00AM

Beat nine people to win $50,000


March Madness is still a month away, but the handicapping tournament circuit's version of the NCAA tournament takes place this week at the Reno Hilton.

The Winter Challenge, a horse racing tournament with an entry fee of $1,500, is set up with a field of 64. At the opening-night reception on Wednesday, the field will be divided into 16 groups of four that will compete in Thursday's first round. The winner of each group then advances to the round of 16 on Friday, when they will be placed into four groups of four with those winners squaring off on Saturday's Final Four.

Based on a full field, first prize will be $50,000 with $20,000 for second, $10,000 for third and $5,000 for fourth. Fifth through 10th place receive $1,850 apiece, so 10 of the 64 contestants will show a profit. Also-rans on the first day go into a consolation bracket and are still alive for all but the top spot if they end up outperforming some of the finalists.

"Because you're going head-to-head just against your group each day, it's like you have your own mini-tournament each day," said Steve Fierro, tournament director for the Reno Hilton. "And the best part if that you only have to beat nine people - three each day - to win $50,000. But the fact is no one is out of it after the first day, and that makes it exciting for everyone. You can't be eliminated for having just one bad day."

The top four finishers also qualify for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. The berths also include free airfare and hotel accommodations for the NHC next January in Las Vegas.

The $1,500 entry fee scares off the marginal tournament players - though it's not that steep considering the entry fee includes a hotel room for Wednesday through Saturday night and two buffets a day - and attracts only the top handicappers, such as former NHC winner Judy Wagner, Robert Bertolluci, Mike Labriola, David Gutfreund, Steve Terelak, Mike Mayo, Tommy Castillo, Gordon Jones, Tom Quigley, Richard Goodall, and Sally Wang.

This is the third time the Reno Hilton has used this format, and Fierro said he learns something every time to help make the tournament better. For instance: Previously, if the field came up short, there would be some groups of four and some groups of three. Even though the groups were chosen at random, some players felt it gave some people an unfair advantage.

"One of our players, Steve Rappoport, suggested we keep the groups at four apiece, and let the highest second-place finisher advance," Fierro said. "We call it the Rappoport Rule. So, if we only have 60 players, we'll have 15 groups of four and one wild-card entry. That also solves our problem of people who complain that they had a great day and lost to someone with an unusually high score.

"Because of that change, for the first time I'm not stressed out about filling the field."

As of Sunday, Fierro said he had verbal commitments from 64 contestants, but said interested players can call the contest line at 775 250-0688 to see if there have been any cancellations.

Relative calmness after the storm

A week after the biggest betting weekend of the year, the Las Vegas sports books went back to their daily routine. Compared to the millions of dollars that changed hands during Super Bowl week, there was a huge drop-off in the amount of action, but it wasn't for the lack of action for anyone who was looking for it (college basketball around the clock, NBA, NHL All-Star festivities, Arena Football, golf tournaments, etc.). And there was full-card simulcasting from coast to coast.

But even though the betting volume was down, bookmakers still faced some bigger-than-expected decisions on some of last weekend's action, and came out ahead on the biggest ones. It should be pointed out that, however, with reduced limits on most of these games, they weren't looking at huge swings either way; no new hotel towers are being built as a result of last weekend's games.

Defense in an all-star game?

In the NHL All-Star Game, bookmakers opened the total at 16 while making over bettors pay a premium at -115 (lay $1.15 instead of the standard $1.10 to win $1). Because the all-star game rarely features any defense, bettors still pounded the over. Bookmakers stood their ground and instead of increasing the total to 16 1/2 or higher and risking a middle, they adjusted the price on over 16 and it got bet up to -140 at some properties.

The game looked on pace to reach the total with the West, a -135 favorite to win the game, grabbing a 3-2 lead after the first period, but then the defensemen actually starting checking and stick play increased and the game was tied 5-5 after regulation. Neither team scored in overtime period, leading to a shootout.

The West won the shootout 3-1, but many over/under bettors weren't sure if all the goals in a shootout would count toward the final score, keeping the over bettors alive. Adding to the confusion was that ABC posted an 8-6 score (still under the total, but too close for some people's comfort). Bookmakers knew, however, that only one goal would be awarded to the winner of the shootout regardless of the number of goals scored. The official final was 6-5, and bookies kept the majority of the money bet on the total.

Bettors, bookies split on Pro Bowl

There was also a surprising run of money, probably prompted by the Buccaneers' dismantling of the Raiders in the Super Bowl, on the NFC in Sunday's Pro Bowl. The NFC opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite last week and was quickly bet up to 3. The Mirage properties on the Strip even attached a money line to the -3, making NFC bettors lay -115.

The total also got bet up from an opener of 44 1/2 to 47 on the Strip and as high as 47 1/2 at local casino giant Station Casinos.

The books made out well as the AFC rolled to a 45-20 victory (it was 28-6 at halftime and got to 45-6 in the fourth quarter before two late NFC scores), but bettors cashed well with the over.