04/08/2002 12:00AM

Bombs away at Orleans tourney

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Longshot players were whooping and hollering throughout the Championship at The Orleans, Thursday through Saturday.

That's not unusual. Because of the format - 12 mythical $100 win bets each day in which the first $20 is paid at full track odds and the remaining $80 is capped at 20-1 - a bomb or two is necessary to be in contention. What was unusual was that the longshot players' prayers were answered time and time again.

Joe Hinson, a winner of several tournaments who is from Germantown, Tenn., began his quest for another major title with a $73.40 winner in Thursday's first race at Pimlico with Bold Quest. Other bold players who paid $500 to be in the field of 665 were quickly putting up big scores, but Hinson led after Day 1 with 6,882 contest points, good for $3,500 in daily prize money.

The longshot bonanza continued Friday as Steve Mikkelson, the race and sports book manager at the Reno Hilton, had the high score on Day 2 with 6,768 points, but it was Herman Gordon of Las Vegas who vaulted into the lead. After Day 2, Gordon had 10,886 points, just barely ahead of Mikkelson at 10,832.

Those totals are usually what it takes to win the three-day tournament, and Gordon and Mikkelson held a 2,000-point lead over Ken Massa of Yorba Linda, Calif. With 12 plays heading into Saturday's action, both Gordon and Mikkelson were within an even-money favorite of surpassing the all-time Orleans contest-winning total of 11,080.

But both went winless on the final day. Even more surprising, however, was that despite more longshots winning Saturday, no one was able to catch the front-runners. Gordon won the $106,340 first-place prize and Mikkelson, along with his partner Steve Fierro, who is running the Reno Hilton's tournaments this year along with Mikkelson, held on for the second-place prize of $53,200.

A lot of players stuck around to see the final standings, but Gordon, 80, went home.

"I really thought I had blown it," he said. "When I went there on Sunday morning [to pick up his check], I wanted to eat breakfast before checking the standings."

"But I couldn't wait," said his wife, Carol. "I made him check right away. We couldn't believe it. It was a dream come true for the small player."

"The dreamy part," Herman added, "was that the guy behind me also got shut out. I heard he had no winners with five plays left, but I thought someone else might pass both of us. I really feel bad for him."

John Buckley of Novato, Calif., rallied for third place with 10,358 points to win $26,600, followed by Hinson in fourth with 10,062 points, good for $16,625. Hinson's final two points (the equivalent of four cents in a mutuel price) were worth a lot as Massa finished fifth with 10,060 points and had to settle for $9,975.

But it was still a banner weekend for Massa, the creator of a computer handicapping program called HTR (Handicapper Technology and Research). Of the 12 Orleans competitors using his program, nine of them finished in the top 50, including Mikkelson, Buckley, and Massa in the top five.

Mikkelson was experimenting with the software for the first time, but didn't fully realize the strength of the program until he stopped using it. After two days of using his computer to find longshots - and being very successful with it - Mikkelson opted to play it safe on Saturday and went with 12 short-priced favorites. His strategy was to get some easy winners and perhaps pass Gordon if he had a bad or mediocre day.

He lost with all 12 favorites.

"I was playing horses at 3-5, even-money, 6-5, but none of them won," said Mikkelson. "I'm used to betting baseball. If you bet every pitcher that's favored, you expect to at least win a few."

Mikkelson had been sick all weekend - and going 0 for 12 didn't help - but he was even sicker when he found out that Gordon blanked and he would have won the tournament if just one of those favorite had come through.

Masters wagering increases

The Masters will be held Thursday through Sunday in Augusta, Ga., but the excitement can also be felt in Las Vegas. Betting handle on The Masters far exceeds any other golf tournament, partly because of its tradition and also because it is the first major of the year and the odds have been up for months.

"We put up the odds when we opened in November," Jeff Sherman, who sets the golf odds at the Palms, said Monday morning. "We had steady handle the first few months, and now we'll write a greater percentage of our handle in the next three days.

"And just like the Kentucky Derby, which attracts a lot of non-racing fans, this is the one golf event that people will bet even if they don't follow golf."

Even people that don't follow the sport know that Tiger Woods is the big favorite to win the green jacket. Woods is currently 11-4, or +275 for those used to betting money lines in other sports. Phil Mickelson, the best player never to win a major, is the second choice at 11-2, followed by Ernie Els (10-1) and Sergio Garcia (12-1).

Sherman says two former champs have been bet heavily. Vijay Singh, who won The Masters two years ago, has been bet down from 25-1 to 14-1. The 1999 champ, Jose Maria Olazabal, has been bet down from 30-1 to 15-1. David Duval is also 15-1. Sherman lowered Retief Goosen from 30-1 to 25-1 after he won last weekend's PGA event.

As with most major sports events these days, the Palms is offering a full menu of 25 proposition bets and 15 head-to-head matchups.

"We have an over/under prop on the leading score after two rounds at 137 1/2. It's the equivalent of a halftime bet in football or basketball," Sherman said. "You can bet over/first-round scores by player, whether a player makes the cut, and finish position for certain players. We also have over/under props on the lowest round (65 1/2) and highest round (87 1/2) shot by any player, whether there's a hole-in-one or whether there's a playoff. We wanted to offer betting opportunities throughout the full tournament."

The "no" on whether there will be a hole-in-one is -360 (bet $3.60 to win $1) with "yes" at +280 (bet $1 to win $2.80). The "no" on a playoff is -500 with "yes" at +350.

The over/under on the winning score is 279 1/ 2. Par is 288. Last year, Woods won The Masters with a 16-under 272.