11/20/2002 12:00AM

Better comfort for betting creatures

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Casinos in Las Vegas are always changing, both inside and out.

While the building boom has slowed since the end of the last century (the only current projects being The Cannery to open in North Las Vegas in January and Steve Wynn's La Reve to open on the Strip in 2005), owners continue to reorganize their casino floors to maximize profits.

A disturbing trend in recent years was the downsizing of race and sports books to make room for slot machines, which make more money per square foot and don't require as many salaried personnel.

But not every place is cutting back. In fact, many have expanded their books, especially those that cater to horseplayers.

The locals' casinos devote a lot of space for horseplayers because they have a loyal fan base that fills the books on a daily basis, not just on weekends like in some Strip properties. The two biggest operators, Station Casinos and Coast Casinos, have upgraded all of their properties in the past year, making crystal-clear plasma screens the standard, and expanding VIP areas.

But those two multiple-property outfits are not alone:

* The Gold Coast, which totally refurbished its book last spring, has competition on both sides of Flamingo Road from the Palms and the Rio.

When the Palms opened a year ago last week, it devoted more space for its race book than any new property since Mandalay Bay, which opened in March 1999. In addition to having plenty of space to spread out your Racing Form, the Palms also has individual betting terminals so players can make wagers from their seats.

The Rio had to keep up with its neighbors, so its race book now has 80 seats with individual monitors, as well as 15 VIP booths. The Rio's video monitors have also been upgraded, with six 70-inch TV's making a "video wall" in front of 75 sports book seats.

* Because of its small race and sports book, the Hard Rock is using the adjacent Sports Deluxe lounge to cater to horseplayers. There are spacious booths with individual monitors (and six big flat-screen TV's behind the bar), plus frequent cocktail service.

"We want people to know they can play the horses here in comfort," said Jamie Shea, the Hard Rock's race and sports book manager.

Previously, the Hard Rock race and sports book kept banker's hours, but it now opens at 9 a.m. daily (7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sunday) and closes at 10 p.m. (2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday). In addition, the Hard Rock used to take only five major tracks, but now offers up to eight tracks on weekdays and 14 on weekends.

Faces change, too

The surroundings aren't the only things that change at race and sports books. New faces appear all the time, and old faces reappear with great regularity.

o The most widely reported change is Joe Lupo leaving the Stardust after the Super Bowl to accept a senior management position at The Borgata, which opens next summer in Atlantic City. Bob Scucci has assumed Lupo's role as the race and sports book manager at the Stardust and has named two new shift managers: Doug Castaneda, who was promoted from sports book supervisor, and Jake Kolleth, who returns to the Stardust after a four-year stint at the Mirage.

o Stations Casinos have had a bunch of changes. Bert Cirincion, formerly the race and sports book manager at the Fiesta Rancho, has replaced Brad Bryant at the Sunset Station. That has caused a domino effect, with Chris Davis moving from the Wild Wild West to oversee the operations at both the Fiesta Rancho and Fiesta Henderson properties (both owned by Station Casinos), and Tim Peters, moving from his post as assistant manager at Barley's to take over Davis's former job at the Wild Wild West.

* Fred Crespi, who preceded Bryant at the Sunset Station, became the race and sports book manager at the Palms at the start of the football season, replacing sports book manager Perry Swanson and race book manager Marcus Hurd.

2003 tourneys coming together

Handicapping tournament players love to mark their calendars and plan their vacations and road trips to hit as many big events as possible. Another has been added to the 2003 list with the Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament on April 9-11.

The entry fee is $500 and the field will be limited to 100 players, but regardless of the number of entries there is a $25,000 first-place prize.

The tournament is the week after the Championship at The Orleans, slated for April 3-5 in Las Vegas. That event also has an early-bird contest on April 6, and players can make the eight-hour drive or short plane ride to Reno for an action-packed two weeks of tournament play.

Other Nevada tournaments on the 2003 calendar: Coast to Coast Super Tournament at the Suncoast, Jan. 16-18; Winter Challenge at the Reno Hilton, Feb. 6-8; Pick the Ponies XXII at the Las Vegas Hilton, April 30-May 2; Summer Showdown III at the Reno Hilton, June 20-21; Gold Coast Tournament (name to be determined), July 10-12; Summer Stakes III at Bally's Las Vegas, Aug. 1-2; Brawl in the Fall at the Reno Hilton, Sept. 4-6; Championship at The Orleans, Oct. 9-11; and Pick the Ponies XXIII at the Las Vegas Hilton, Oct. 22-24.

The Bally's and Reno Hilton tournaments are qualifiers for the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association national championship.

Football contest updates

"Papa" Joe Chevalier, nationally syndicated host on the Sporting News Radio network, went 6-1 with a best-bet winner in the Stardust Invitational to defeat Karol Lucan, marketing director of Olympic Sports, who went 3-4.

This week's quarterfinal match in the Invitational, a single-elimination winner-take-all handicapping tournament, is between Notre Dame legend Rudy Ruettiger and Houston radio talk show host Lance Zierlein.

* "Hollywood Al" went 4-1 last week to take over first place in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. Picking five NFL sides per week, he now has a record of 37-16-2 for 38 contest points (a win is worth 1 point and a push is worth a half-point). Former leader "I Walk A Beat" went 1-4 to slip into second place with a 36-19 record.

* "Mbay Dice" maintained its lead in the Gambler's Challenge at Station Casinos with a record of 37-18. "J.P.N" and "Roland Phillip" are two games back at 35-20. Selections for the leaders in both high-end contests are available in their respective sports books by Friday afternoon.