06/21/2002 12:00AM

Breeders' Cup matchups owe existence to casinos


Taking their cue from Las Vegas race books, which for years have offered horse vs. horse matchup wagers on big races, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Breeders' Cup this week announced it would offer parimutuel matchups, called Head2Head, on the World Thoroughbred Championships at Arlington Park Oct. 26.

This comes less than two months after future book wagers were added to the Breeders' Cup betting menu.

These bets are new to many players, but not to those who play in Nevada, where proposition bets are common.

It should be taken as a compliment to the race books in Nevada that racing has opened it horizons and is offering more creative wagers.

The Breeders' Cup Head2Head wager will be attractive to hard-core horse bettors as well as to sports bettors, who are used to such wagers. John Avello, director of race and sport operations for Bally's Las Vegas and Paris hotel casinos, calculated that with equal action on both sides and with a 10 percent takeout, the Head2Head wager should shake out to approximately the traditional 40-cent sports line.

But the bet is aimed at new horseplayers, who will find the concept of "my horse can beat your horse" easy to understand.

"We modeled the bet from the sports betting framework," said Ken Kirchner, senior vice president of product development for the NTRA. He also gave the Las Vegas bookmakers their due. "I talked to the guys there in Las Vegas because, after all, it is the proving ground for all gambling," he added.

Churchill Downs has enjoyed growing success and exposure with its parimutuel future book on the Kentucky Derby. The Derby future pools have grown since it was first offered in 1999, and the bet helped pave the way for horse racing to expand its traditional betting menu.

Las Vegas bookmakers realized the potential of the matchup proposition in 1989, when they received permission from state gaming regulators to post a matchup in the Triple Crown races between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Their famous battles through the Triple Crown and in the Breeders' Cup Classic that year served to secure a spot on race book menus for matchup betting.

So, what do those Las Vegas bookmakers think of the parimutuel version of what was once their exclusive domain?

Frank Minervini, race oddsmaker for the Coast Casinos resorts, thinks the Breeders' Cup offerings are great.

"I think it's good for racing," he said. "The wide exposure of the Head2Head bet will only help those who come here and want to play that way again."

With Nevada a commingled outlet for the parimutuel matchups, Minervini says Las Vegas players can have the best of both worlds.

"We will keep the fixed-odds matchups we have opened while offering the parimutuel ones," he said. "Then, the customers can compare both odds before making their play."

He said that the Coast Casinos properties may offer matchups on different horses than those in the parimutuel props.

Avello thinks the wagering advancements made by racing are "great for the game."

But he cautions that handle on the new matchups may not reach expectations.

"The true test will be the volume the Breeders' Cup can produce," Avello said. "We had limited success when we tried parimutuel matchups and other forms of parimutuel offerings."

Avello said most of the horse players in Las Vegas prefer to bet fixed-odds propositions because "they want to lock in the odds and know what they are going to get back at the time of the bet. They like to get that edge."

But, with the parimutuel matchups being offered up to post time, and with a possible huge handle, the Head2Head wager should still be attractive to the masses.

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