03/08/2002 12:00AM

Contest players focus on horses and hoops

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LAS VEGAS - Las Vegas doesn't have a monopoly on gambling that it once had, but it's still the mecca.

Most Americans are within a short drive of legalized gambling, or a click away from gambling online, but Vegas is still the place people come to test their skills against the best.

Horseplayers can certainly get their competitive juices flowing here.

Horse handicapping tournaments have surfaced all over country, but the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship is contested in Las Vegas. And there are plenty of other big tournaments here, as well.

One of the biggest events every year is the Championship at The Orleans (formerly the National Handicapping Challenge). The early bird entry deadline for the $500 buy-in tournament on April 3-6 is Wednesday. Early bird entries get to play in a free $20,000 contest on the day before the regular tournament. The Orleans is returning to its twice-a-year schedule with another tournament on Oct. 9-12.

The Suncoast, a sister property of The Orleans, already held a tournament in January and will hold a second $1,000 buy-in tournament on Aug. 7-10.

The first tournament in the northern end of the state is April 18-19 at Harrah's Reno. The entry fee is $500 and is limited to the first 100 people to register. With a $20,000 guaranteed first prize, the contest was an automatic overlay for players last year.

The Reno Hilton is hosting three tournaments this year. The Sting in the Spring (May 2-4) and Brawl in the Fall (Oct. 24-26) are $3,000 buy-in events that will be set up like the NCAA tournament brackets and are open to the first 64 entrants. First prize in each is $100,000.

The Summer Showdown II on June 14-15 also has a unusual format, in which the entry fee is $200 and then players make $600 in "live" wagers over the two-day tournament, keeping any winnings in addition to prize money.

The two high-end tournaments are in direct competition with the Reno Hilton's sister property, the Las Vegas Hilton, which is hosting its two Pick the Ponies contests during the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup.

Bally's, like the Hiltons a Park Place Entertainment property, hosts Summer Stakes III on Aug. 2-3. The entry fee is $1,000 and players bet win-place-show on the first day and exactas on the second day.

The other major casino corporation in Las Vegas, MGM-Mirage, is well represented by the MGM Grand's two high-end tournaments. The Summer Racing Festival, a $3,500 buy-in event, is June 1-2. The Surf & Turf, which focuses on races at Del Mar and Saratoga and has an entry fee of $2,500, is set for Aug. 17-18.

March Mania hits town

The Park Place Entertainment properties - which also include Caesars Palace, Paris, Flamingo, Flamingo Laughlin, Caesars Tahoe - are combining for their popular "March Mania" contest.

Contestants are required to pick every NCAA basketball tournament game against the spread. Entries cost $50 and each person is allowed up to five entries at each property. All contestants must register before the first game tip-off on Thursday, and the entry deadline is by the first tip-off of each day's games.

"This contest has grown every year and we continue to get great feedback on it," said Chuck Esposito, race and sports book director for Park Place. Esposito said there were about 500 entries last year. A similar-sized field would mean a $25,000 purse and a first-place prize (50 percent of all entries) of about $12,500, and paying down to 10th place. A $1,000 bonus is available to the champion if he signs up by 6 p.m. Monday and also correctly predicts the NCAA champion.

* East of the Strip at Paradise Road, Terrible's Hotel-Casino has a $5,000 contest in which handicappers also pick every tournament game against the spread. The entry fee is $20 and each person is allowed to buy nine entries. As a bonus, a free entry is given for every three purchased, so each person can end up with as many 12 entries. First prize is $3,500, second is worth $1,000, and third is $500.

* Barley's Casino & Brewing Company, located on Sunset Road in Henderson, also has a $20 buy-in contest called Smash the Glass that is for people looking strictly to pick straight-up winners, as in the traditional NCAA bracket pools. The Smash the Glass contestants pick teams to advance in Rounds 1 and 2 (entries due by tip-off of Thursday's first game), then come back next week to pick teams to advance from the Sweet 16 through the title game (entries also due on Thursday morning). There is a $1,000 guaranteed first prize for the top score in Rounds 1 and 2, $1,000 for the top score in Rounds 3 and 4, and $2,000 for the best overall score. If you buy four entries you get a fifth free.

* Here is a basketball event that isn't really a contest, but it does take handicapping skill and it's the best bargain of them all. For one thing, it's free. The Rampart Casino at the Resort at Summerlin has a promotion in which you try to predict the teams to make it to the Sweet 16. If you pick 12 correctly, you win $25; 13 correct gets $50; 14 is worth $500; 15 is worth a cool grand; and a perfect 16-for-16 is worth $5,000. There's a limit of one entry per person, but there's no limit on the number of winners. The contest cards will be available Monday and they must be turned in before the tip of the first game Thursday.

$1 million blackjack tournament

The World Series of Poker is the goal of the every top poker player, but blackjack aficionados haven't had a similar premier event . . . until now. The Las Vegas Hilton is launching its $1 Million Blackjack Tournament with the first qualifying tournament on April 11-13.

The championship event will be held April 10-12, 2003. Players earn their way to the finals by placing in the top 16 at one of the 12 monthly qualifiers. The entry fee for each tournament is $1,000, and includes a three-night stay at the Hilton.

The format consists of four sessions in the first round and two sessions in the second round to narrow the field to a semifinal round and then the finals.

In addition to the 192 qualifiers, eight players will be chosen from a wild-card drawing to round out the championship field of 200.