02/22/2007 1:00AM

Contest caps Expo weekend


Las Vegas is finally recovering from one of its busiest stretches ever with the NBA All-Star Game, Chinese New Year, and Presidents' Day all converging on the town last weekend. There were more than 400 arrests around town last weekend and a still-being-investigated strip club shooting. It was a crazy scene all over town with round-the-clock parties and high cover charges.

But there's no rest for the wicked and Sin City gears up for its next big convention next weekend: the Daily Racing Form Horseplayers Expo at Wynn Las Vegas. That crowd is expected to be a little more low-key.

I could go on and on about the speakers at the Expo, but that information is readily available in house ads in the print editions of the Form and online at drf.com/expo. I'm much more interested in the contest that will be taking place at the end of the weekend on Sunday, March 4. The cost is $100 and it is open to the general public.

The people who attend the Expo can certainly put the things they learn to the test in the one-day contest. The limit is one entry per person. There is a guaranteed prize pool of $10,000, though John Avello, Wynn's director of race and sports, said that as of Thursday he already had 60 signups and that didn't include people from the Expo. All entry fees will be returned as prizes with 50 percent going to the winner, 20 percent for second, 15 percent for third, 10 percent for fourth, and 5 percent for fifth. Contestants make 10 mythical $2 across-the-board wagers on races from that day's card at Aqueduct and Gulfstream (Tampa Bay will be an alternate track only if one of those cancels). For contest purposes, the points awarded will be capped at $52 to win, $26 to place, and $14 to show.

Every handicapping tournament is like a horseplayers' convention. There's something special about getting together with like-minded individuals, discussing the races, and putting opinions to the test and seeing who comes out on top.

The biggest such gatherings are usually held at the Coast Casinos, primarily at the Orleans's twice-yearly $500 buy-in tournaments that usually draw 600 to 700 entries. The first one, the Championship at the Orleans, is set for March 22-24. There is an early-bird deadline for that tourney in which anyone that signs up by Feb. 27 is able to play in a free $20,000 bonus tournament to be held on March 25, the day after the main event ends.

The Coast Casinos crew also puts on the Gold Coast Summer Classic on July 26-28 (while the contests at the Orleans are win-only, the Gold Coast is win and place) and the Fall Classic at the Orleans on Oct. 4-6.

The other big casino company with multiple tournaments every year is the Las Vegas Hilton with its Pick the Ponies franchise, which has surpassed 30 runnings. As usual, the tournaments held the week of the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup are scheduled for Wednesday through Friday (May 2-4 for Derby Week and Oct. 24-26 for BC Week) while the August tournament is held Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 16-18, prior to the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. The posted entry fee for all those tournaments is $500, but those who sign up before the early-bird deadline only have to pay $400 with the Hilton kicking the extra $100 into the prize pool. The early-bird deadline for the May tourney is April 23, though the field is capped at 200 entries and could fill up before then. Past participants should look for entry forms in the mail in early March.

In the "you-read-it-here-first" department, after two years without a tournament in the northern part of the state, Leroy's is going to host its first event at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks (near Reno) on April 18-20. Full details haven't been announced yet, but the plan calls for each contestant to make 10 mythical $50 bets to win, place, and show each day. Chris Andrews, who formerly ran the Club Cal Neva and is now in charge of the northern Nevada operations for Leroy's, said the plan is to hold multiple contests each year at different Leroy's outlets throughout the state.

Avello will play host to his Horse Race Handicapping Challenge on Aug. 10-11 for the second straight year. The contest has the steepest entry fee in the state at $2,000.

Conspicuously missing from the contest list is Bally's Las Vegas. Michael Wayne, who runs the Bally's tournaments along with race and sports book manager Chris Eggers, said they will be doing something this summer (probably in August as was done the past seven years with the Summer Stakes tourney) but a decision wouldn't be made until they know if Bally's will be hosting the National Handicapping Championship next January.

The Golden Nugget is planning to bring a major tournament to downtown Las Vegas. Race and sports book director Tony Miller said the Golden Nugget is waiting until a convention area expansion is done at the hotel so it will have the room to accommodate a big tournament, as opposed to squeezing everyone into the race book. Miller said he's aiming for the first quarter of 2008.