07/28/2002 11:00PM

Contest players, sharpen your pencils


August has become the primary time of year for top tournament players to come to Las Vegas for handicapping contests, sort of like Thoroughbred owners and trainers gearing up for Saratoga and Del Mar.

In the next three-plus weeks, major handicapping contests will be hosted by Bally's in the center of the Strip, the Suncoast in suburban Summerlin, and on the Strip at the MGM Grand.

Tournaments at this time of year make a lot of sense because Vegas casino marketers don't have to do much in the way of special events to fill the race and sports books once the football regular season starts next month.

Bally's offers an unusual format in its Summer Showdown III on Friday and Saturday. Win-place-show wagering is used the first day, with each contestant making 15 $48 plays, and then exacta wagering is used on the second day with each player making 15 $24 wagers. The entry fee is $1,000. Although everyone is shooting for the grand prize of $75,000 (based on 200 entries), most handicappers view it as two separate contests, each day offering upward of $26,000 in prize money.

With back-to-back tournaments on tap, it's becoming more common than before for players to move their tack here and stay in town for a week or two or three, doing some sightseeing in the days between instead of racking up frequent flyer miles by traveling back and forth. So, several players will stay in town for the Suncoast Invitational, Aug. 8-10, or else come into town for the Suncoast and stay for the Surf & Turf at the MGM Grand on Aug. 17-18.

The Suncoast Invitational also has a buy-in of $1,000, and requires players to make 12 mythical win bets a day across the country, while the Surf & Turf, at $2,500, tests handicappers by having them play every race at Saratoga and Del Mar for two consecutive days.

Horse racing's big August extends into September with the Reno Hilton hosting the Brawl in the Fall Sept. 4-7 with a $1,500 entry fee and four berths up for grabs for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

MLB division races are yawners

With two months left in the baseball regular season, there isn't much happening in division pennant races.

The Twins (14 games ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central) and Braves (12 1/2 ahead of the Mets in the NL East) are running away with their respective divisions, as are the Yankees, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks to a lesser extent.

At least the Angels have made a race of it in the AL West, tying the Mariners for first place through Sunday, with the A's only three games back. The two teams that don't win the division will battle with the Red Sox for the AL wild card.

Unless the Cardinals or Diamondbacks come back to the pack, it looks like the NL wild card will come down to the Mets, Reds, Dodgers, and Giants.

According to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the Yankees are still the 9-5 favorite to win it all, followed by the Braves and Diamondbacks at 7-2, the Mariners at 5-1 (based more on early liability than their current chances), Cardinals at 7-1, Twins at 8-1, A's and Red Sox at 12-1 and the surging Angels at 15-1, which is probably the only true value on the futures board.

Sports book notes

If a fight doesn't get any hype, can you say it didn't live up to the hype?

That's the dilemma looking back at John Ruiz's defense of his WBA heavyweight title versus Kirk Johnson Saturday night at Mandalay Bay. The bout didn't get much media coverage, and only 6,000 of the 8,500 seats were filled in the Events Center. Fight fans obviously do not see Ruiz's WBA belt as legitimate, since the only reason he has it is because Lennox Lewis chose to fight Michael Grant in 1999 instead of Ruiz, the WBA's mandatory challenger.

Oddsmakers also showed Ruiz no respect by opening Johnson, who was previously unbeaten, as the -300 favorite with Ruiz at +220. But bettors backed Ruiz down to +170 by Saturday night.

Johnson was penalized twice during the bout for blows below Ruiz's belt, and referee disqualified him at 2:17 of the 10th round for yet another low blow.

The next big fight in town will be Oscar De La Hoya versus Fernando Vargas Sept. 14 at Mandalay Bay. Del La Hoya is a -250 favorite with a very attractive +200 price on Vargas.

* The field was the 4-5 favorite in the PGA's John Deere Classic last weekend, and field members J.P. Hayes and Robert Gamez finished 1-2. With no big-name players in the field - the top players were returning from the British Open and preparing for the PGA Championship on Aug. 15-18 - Charles Howell III was the favorite among individual betting interests at 15-1. British Open champion Ernie Els is the 7-1 favorite to win The International this weekend at Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock, Colo.

* Bill Elliott had already won four career NASCAR races at Pocono Raceway, but he was still 22-1 for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500. He won the race after it was shortened by 25 laps because of darkness. An hour delay after a huge crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park was followed by a two-hour rain delay, causing the race to last more than 6 1/2 hours.