04/04/2003 1:00AM

Books looking past Derby


As Sunday's racing day draws to a close, horseplayers around Las Vegas will take one last glance into their crystal balls and decide if there are any overlays in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager's parimutuel pools or in the fixed-odds futures in the local race books.

At this time of the year, less than a month before the Derby, "There aren't many high-priced horses in any future books that have a realistic chance of winning the Derby," said Frank Minervini, horse racing oddsmakers for the Coast Casinos. "All the top contenders, and even a lot of outsiders, have been bet down."

That is why Minervini has given future book bettors some new offerings. At The Orleans (where the top finishers in the Championship at The Orleans handicapping tournament will be picking up their winnings on Sunday), Gold Coast, Barbary Coast and Suncoast, horseplayers can already bet on the Preakness and Belmont, and even on a 3-year-old to win the Triple Crown.

Even though Empire Maker is the clear-cut Derby favorite in Coast's futures, Minervini has Louisiana Derby-winner Peace Rules as the 3-1 favorite in the Preakness, with Empire Maker at 4-1 and the late-developing Midas Eyes at 6-1 (all three are trained by Bobby Frankel). The front-running Trust N Luck, who has dropped to 20-1 in the Derby futures, is 12-1 in the Preakness.

Empire Maker is the 4-1 Belmont favorite, followed by Sky Mesa (6-1), Midas Eyes (15-1), Peace Rules (20-1), and the sentimental choice, New York Hero (20-1). Minervini said he really likes the chances of Sky Mesa in the last leg of the Triple Crown.

"Sky Mesa could be this year's Sarava," said Minervini, referring to last year's Belmont upsetter. "I'd like to see him run in the Peter Pan or on the Preakness undercard like Sarava did last year. He's had steady works, he has a good trainer" - John Ward - "and he can pull it off."

When Minervini opened his Triple Crown future book on Feb. 12, he installed Empire Maker as the 50-1 favorite. He has been bet down to 15-1. Sky Mesa was the 60-1 second choice on the first list, but has been removed since he won't start in the Derby. Atswhatimtalknbout was 200-1 on that first list, and has been bet down to 30-1. Badge of Silver is another horse at 30-1, and the only other one at less than 100-1. Badge of Silver wasn't on the original list, but he was added after his victory in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16.

Peace Rules is tabbed at 125-1 to sweep the Triple Crown races, followed by a group of eight 3-year-olds at 150-1, including Kafwain and Domestic Dispute, among others.

Tourism still an iffy proposition

Trying to determine whether the Las Vegas tourism industry is on the rebound or continuing its downward trend since Sept. 11 is a tough, see-saw game: It's up, then it's down; it's up then it's down.

TV news reports and stories in the two daily newspapers seem to alternate between "we've got good news and we've got bad news." Last Wednesday was particularly confusing for readers who picked up the Las Vegas Review-Journal business section. One headline, under a "tourism" tagline, read "Report: Loss of air seats a threat." Right below it, a story carried the headline, "Gaming stocks rise in March." A subhead then read "Quick rebound in tourism expected."

The first story detailed that since the November shutdown of National Airlines fewer than half of the lost 6,000 seats a day have been made up by other carriers. It was estimated that this shortage would lead to only 80 percent occupancy rates in the city's 127,000 hotel rooms.

The second story discussed how March saw a 5.4 percent increase in the stock prices of eight local gaming companies, reporting that hopes were high that a quick resolution to the war in Iraq would lead to even better days ahead.

So, on the one hand, tourism is expected to rebound, but there won't be enough airline seats for people to get here. Huh?

The latest story to affect Las Vegas tourism is the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in Asian countries. Las Vegas gets a lot of tourists, and an ever higher percentage of its high-roller business, from Asia.

Japan Airlines has already canceled four of its April flights because of reduced demand. A lot of the downturn is still seen as an aftermath of Sept. 11, but the latest fears of this epidemic have increased travelers' anxieties.

Handicapping contests proceed

As the Championship at The Orleans ends Sunday with its early-bird contest, handicappers are getting ready for other upcoming events.

Harrah's Reno hosts its $500 buy-in tournament this Wednesday through Friday. The following weekend, back in Las Vegas, is Bally's Moolah, a first-time event with a $5,000 entry fee; the winner also receives a berth in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. John Avello, director of race and sports for Bally's and its sister property, Paris, said he has a dozen entries and that he is going ahead with the tournament.

In the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, April 30 through May 2, Pick the Ponies XXII will be held at the Las Vegas Hilton. The entry fee is $500, but if you sign up by Monday, April 14, it costs only $400.