02/16/2005 12:00AM

Caesars pushes hard for horseplayers

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I'm asked all the time, "What's your favorite casino?"

Although I enjoy every race and sports book, I admit that I have a soft spot for Caesars Palace.

Every time I walk in, it seems to get bigger and more opulent. It really epitomizes everything that Vegas was and is. When I talk to first-time Vegas visitors, regardless of where they are staying, Caesars Palace is invariably on their to-do list.

Obviously, the challenge for Caesars is to get these visitors to come back, and that is why Caesars remodeled its race and sports book last fall. Now, Caesars is targeting horseplayers.

"We want to reintroduce horseplayers to Caesars," said Chuck Esposito, director of race and sports book operations.

To get the word out, Esposito has been sponsoring Felix Taverna's "Race and Sports Radio" radio show on KOGO AM-600 in San Diego and throughout Southern California, one of the main feeder markets for Vegas customers. This Saturday and Sunday from 7-8 a.m. Pacific, Taverna will be broadcasting live from the Caesars race book. The show also can be heard on the Internet at kogo.com.

"We have an international clientele here at Caesars," Esposito said, "but the California market is huge for us."

Adding to the festivities on Saturday, Taverna will host a handicapping seminar at 9 a.m. along with Tom Quigley of HorsePlayer Magazine and handicapper Frank Tate. They will be going over Saturday's card at Santa Anita, and then guests are invited to enter a free handicapping contest on the card. The contest will involve making a mythical $2 win and place bet on a horse in each race, with prices capped at $42 for win and $22 for place. The person compiling the biggest bankroll will win a weekend package at Caesars Palace, including tickets to whichever headliner is in town at the time of the trip, Celine Dion or Elton John.

Esposito said the top 50 finishers will also receive a Caesars baseball cap, and he was working on other prizes.

"We just want to make it a fun seminar and contest for our guests," Esposito said. "Our plan is to do these events quarterly and maybe even do bigger tournaments."

Taverna will also broadcast Sunday morning's show from the race book.

NHL season called off

On Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced that the 2004-2005 season has been canceled. It will be nice to not have to see 2005 Stanley Cup futures wasting space in the sports books. Many casinos have kept posting the odds with the disclaimer that bets are action "as long as a champion is crowned, regardless of season length or playoff format."

For anyone silly enough to have bet an NHL future, you should now be able to get a refund, though legally sports books could cite the above disclaimer and wait until later in the year.

* Looking ahead, an offshore book (BetWWTS.com) immediately jumped into the fray by offering odds on the 2005-2006 season, but not on who would win the Stanley Cup. Instead, the question is asked, "Will the NHL play hockey in 2005-06?" The favorite at 5-8 is "Yes, NHL has partial season," with "Yes, NHL plays full season" at 3-2 and "No, NHL doesn't play" at 4-1.

Leroy's Challenge limps toward wire

Last weekend in the first semifinal of the Leroy's Challenge college basketball handicapping tournament, Alan Boston went 2-3 to defeat Ted Sevransky, who also went 2-3. They both lost their best bet, which was to be used as a tiebreaker, but Boston won his second-best bet while Sevransky lost his.

This Friday at 10 p.m. in the Riviera sports book, Golden Nugget sports book manager Nick Bogdanovich takes on radio host Dave "the Meat Man" Scandaliato in the other semifinal. The show can be heard on KBAD AM-920 here in Vegas or on KPTT AM-630 in Reno.

Both will give out their top five plays on Saturday's card, with the winner advancing to next Friday's final vs. Boston for the $5,000 first-place prize and another $5,000 donated to charity in the winner's name.

Non-heavyweights top boxing draws

The heavyweight division usually brings the biggest crowds and the biggest betting handle, but the lower weights are stepping forward with some intriguing matchups in early 2005.

This Saturday, Bernard Hopkins goes for his 20th middleweight title defense vs. Howard Eastman at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It might not take place in Vegas, but bets can certainly be made here.

Hopkins is a decided favorite between -700 (risk $7 to win $1) and -800. Eastman, with a record of 40-1 with 34 knockouts, is no slouch, though I would like a bet on him at higher than the 5-1 current odds being offered. The only sure bet is that Hopkins, a Philadelphia native, will brag about how he is the city's only champion. Expect him to also take jabs at the Eagles, Donovan McNabb, Allen Iverson, and Smarty Jones. (Hopkins has expressed animosity over the fact Smarty Jones was widely applauded and gained more notoriety than him despite not winning the Triple Crown.)

* In fights coming to Vegas, Jose Luis Castillo (-400) puts his WBC lightweight belt on the line vs. Julio Diaz (+300) on March 5 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, and Manny Pacquiao (-120) puts up his WBA and IBF featherweight belts vs. Erik Morales (-110) on March 19 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.