12/26/2005 1:00AM

Coast weekly winners pocket $20,000

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Last Wednesday, Maria Spencer collected more than $20,000 when she won a weekly horse handicapping contest at Coast Casinos. Robert Niedbalski did the same Thursday.

The progressive jackpot for the Coasts' $5 entry-fee contest Wednesday at Hawthorne grew to $21,540 for its mandatory payout, plus the weekly $1,000 prize. Spencer and Tony Vega, a Sam's Town regular and frequent guest on the "Track Talk" radio show, both had winners in four of the five contest races, including a 47-1 longshot in Hawthorne's second race, but Spencer's horse in the third race finished third while Vega's horse was off the board, giving Spencer the jackpot. Vega settled for the second prize of $700, but received some consolation by qualifying for the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans on Jan. 19-21, which carries an entry fee of $1,000.

On Thursday, the progressive jackpot for the $10 contest grew to $22,050, with the $1,200 daily prize added to the winner's share. Niedbalski had three wins and a show in his five plays to accumulate $86.20 in contest money and outlast Harold Becker, who finished both second and third in the contest, which allows 15 entries per person. Becker collected $900 for second and $400 for third.

Coast Casinos is putting its contests on hiatus until Jan. 25, the Wednesday following the Horseplayer World Series.

* With no Wednesday cards at Hollywood Park the past few weeks, the Excalibur had used Golden Gate for its free weekly contest. But starting Wednesday, the Excalibur will use Santa Anita, as contestants try to pick the winner and quinella in each race. Santa Anita will be dark on some Wednesdays during the meet - Jan. 4, Jan. 18, Feb. 8, and Feb. 22 - and other tracks will be used for the contest (most likely Turf Paradise) when that happens.

Football contest news

If college football is your game, then Leroy's has the handicapping contest for you. It costs $5 per entry, and you make picks for the final 15 bowl games against the spread starting Friday, Dec. 30, through the Jan. 4 Rose Bowl.

The trick is that you must also weight your selections on a scale of 1 through 16 (the 16th game is the Rose Bowl total) on your level of confidence, and the contestant with the best score will win the $5,000 first-place prize.

"We're always looking for different ways to do things to bring people to our books, and we're really excited about this contest," said Jimmy Vaccaro, marketing director for Leroy's. "If this is a success, we're thinking we can do more of these contests, and it would be a natural for the opening rounds of March Madness, with 16 games on each day."

The deadline for the contest is Thursday night at participating Leroy's outlets (check americanwagering.com for a list of locations).

* In other contest news, veteran bookmaker Nick Bogdanovich won the Leroy's Money Talks Invitational over Bryan Leonard. The championship match had gone an extra week after they tied in the regularly scheduled finals on Dec. 16. They both had to make seven more plays, weighted from a mythical $110 wager on their first pick up to $770 on their best bet, last Friday night and Bogdanovich won his $660 wager on the Redskins -3 vs. the Giants on Saturday and added his $770 wager on the Ravens -3 vs. the Vikings on Sunday to clinch the title. Leonard went 0-6-1 overall. Bogdanovich was just 2-3-1 heading into his final $220 play of Akron +4 1/2 in Monday's Motor City Bowl, but with wins on his two best bets, he had guaranteed himself a profit by being ahead $310 going into that game.

In real-life money, Bogdanovich was way ahead. The first prize in the contest was $40,000, which was the sum of the pool of $2,500 put in by each of the 16 contestants (hence the name Money Talks), and Leroy's kicked in $10,000 for the runner-up.

MPC Computers Bowl (Wednesday)

Boise St. (+1 1/2) vs. Boston College

This game opened with Boise St. favored, but early money on Boston College caused a change in favorites. I think you have to look at the Boise St. side for a number of reasons. This game is being played on Boise's home field, where the Broncos have won 31 straight games, and this is coach Dan Hawkins's last game there before he leaves to take the head post at Colorado. Hawkins is a popular coach, and I see the players wanting to send him out a winner. Most observers say Boston College has a talent edge, but I think it's pretty negligible (and certainly overcome by the home crowd). Boise St. should be able to move the ball on offense with quarterback Jared Zabransky, and its underrated defense should be able to contain the Boston College attack.

PLAY: Boise St. for 1 unit.

Alamo Bowl (Wednesday)

Nebraska (+11) vs. Michigan

These two programs are used to playing on New Year's Day and beyond, so it will be interesting to see how excited the players and fans will be for this game in San Antonio. That alone makes the double-digit spread enticing, but I also think Nebraska has an important edge in the trenches and will be able to pressure Michigan quarterback Chad Henne and give ample protection to its own signal-caller, Zac Taylor. That should lead to a turnover edge for the Cornhuskers, and in a relatively low-scoring game in which I see each team scoring in the 20's, that could be huge.

PLAY: Nebraska for 1 unit.

Holiday Bowl (Thursday)

Oklahoma (+3 1/2) vs. Oregon

Most people remember that Oklahoma started the season terribly, including a blowout loss to Texas. That's when most people stopped paying attention to the Sooners, but the fact is they won five of their last six, with the only setback being a narrow, controversial loss to Texas Tech. This young team is on the rise and, in my opinion, the equal of Oregon at this stage. Granted, Oregon is solid, with its only loss coming to No. 1 USC, and the Ducks did get snubbed by the BCS, but that can be a negative factor instead of a motivating one. Exhibit A: see California, last year's BCS snub, getting beat, 45-31, in the Holiday Bowl as an 11-point favorite over Texas Tech. The same thing is likely to happen here with Oklahoma finally living up to its preseason potential.

PLAY: Oklahoma for 1 unit.

Bowl game bankroll record: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) heading into Tuesday's Insight Bowl selection of Rutgers +11 vs. Arizona St.