03/28/2003 1:00AM

Big bucks up for grabs at Orleans


One of Nevada's biggest handicapping tournaments will be conducted for the 10th time Thursday through Sunday at The Orleans Hotel Casino.

The Championship at The Orleans tournament is overshadowed only by the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship finals, also held here.

The semiannual Championship at The Orleans began as The Orleans National Handicapping Challenge in March 1998. That initial contest brought together 435 players in a three-day competition for tournament bragging rights and, of course, cash.

The Championship at The Orleans has a $500 entry fee. Entry fees plus $50,000 added by Coast Casinos make up the total prize fund. That formula has consistently made this tournament one of the richest events of the year. This year, the total prize fund could reach $400,000 if there are 700 entries.

The success of this contest is based on a simple format and a reasonable entry fee that gives contestants a chance to win big bucks for a relatively small investment. Players make a series of imaginary $100 win bets each day and choose from eight tracks.

Tournament coordinator Debbie Flaig said the upcoming contest has already hit the 600-entry plateau and that 700 is a possibility. She said there have been more late entries than usual.

Coast Casinos race book operations director Bob Gregorka is happy with the turnout.

"The Championship has really stood the test of time, especially with all the added tournaments available throughout the year now," he said. "From its inception, this tournament has been a steady date on the tournament schedule, and we appreciate the players' support. I guess cash is king."

A total of 5,876 players have competed in the nine previous tournaments, for an average of 653 entries. The highest turnout was in October 2000 when 936 entered.

Many players point for a specific point total that they think will be enough to win. To reach this total, a player must find good-priced winners.

The average winning total for the previous three-day competitions has been 10,025 points (based on the mutuel payoff on a $100 bet). The highest winning total was 11,080 in the inaugural tourney, while the lowest winning total was 9,148 in October 1999.

With daily cash prizes totaling $10,000, each day also offers a contest within a contest.

The day one average winning total, based on eight tournaments (day one was canceled due to technical difficulties in October 2002), has been 5,723. The highest day one total of 6,890 came in October 2000 and the lowest day one total was 4,080 in March 2000.

The day two average winning total is 5,358 points, with 6,768 in April 2002 the highest total. The day two lowest winning score was 3,822 in October 2002. The day three average winning total is 5,663 points with a high of 7,205 when longshots dominated competition in October 2002, while the lowest day three total came in October 1998 at 3,910.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.