06/15/2001 12:00AM

A contest to silence complaints

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At every handicapping tournament, you're sure to hear someone (usually someone at the bottom of the standings) complain about the format. A sampling:

"I had a $50 horse at Evangeline Downs but that wasn't a contest track. Why do all these contests only use the 'major' tracks?"

"If this contest let you play exactas and trifectas I would've won it all."

"I like to spread my money around, but this contest limits you to 10 races. I had some nice winners but didn't play the right ones in the contest."

If any of that sounds familiar, then Steve Fierro has the contest for you. He is running the Reno Hilton Handicapping Contest, which takes place Friday and Saturday June 22-23 with a very player-friendly format. Contestants put $200 toward the prize pool and then must bet $300 in real money on each day of the tournament.

"We tried to create a contest where players can play their game," Fierro said. "If you're a win bettor, you can stick with that, but if you want to play exactas and trifectas, that's fine, too. And every bet you win is cash back in your pocket."

Players can handicap any track on the Reno Hilton menu and can bet win, place, show, exactas, quinellas, trifectas, superfectas, daily doubles or pick threes. The only bets not allowed are pick four and up wagers.

"The pick four hadn't been invented when we wrote up the rules last year, but I'm sure we'll add it for next year's contest," Fierro said.

Fierro said he thinks the two-day format is the wave of the future.

"From tournament players I've talked to, three days can be a grind," Fierro said. "What will be fun to watch is the second-day wagering, because a lot of times players aren't really handicapping on the last day because they're just taking stabs with longshots. We'll see if that changes since people will be playing with their own money."

Fierro said some people have raised concerns that the contest unfairly favors players hitting huge exotics, but he said he had some test contests and win-place-show players fared just as well.

"In our satellite tests, more than half the players made a profit, and the group as a whole had a positive ROI [return on investment]," Fierro said.

Fierro said the field will be around 100, and prizes will be paid out to the top 30 finishers. Based on 100 entries, $8,000 would be the top prize, plus whatever the player wins at the windows.

Fierro is also running the Flamingo Summer Challenge VII on July 19-21.

Less sin in Sin City?

Las Vegas built its reputation on catering to vices. Wanna gamble? You've come to the right place. Wanna drink? Here's a free one. Wanna smoke? Here's a light. Wanna date? We've got that covered, too.

However, there's been a slow change in the air, starting with the air itself. You would think that the cliche of a smoke-filled poker room would be sacred. But the Mirage and Bellagio recently instituted a no-smoking policy in their popular poker rooms. The impetus for the change came from poker players in California (the No. 1 market for Las Vegas), where smoking is not allowed in public bars and restaurants.

Smokers still have plenty of options, especially for locals. An estimated 33 percent of adult Nevadans smoke, highest in the nation, so the locals casinos have no plans to ban smoking in their poker rooms anytime soon.

Every so often, the policy of giving free drinks to gamblers comes under scrutiny. You would think it's a tradition that's here to stay, but some gambling jurisdictions, including Michigan, have abolished the practice. If smoking in poker rooms can be banned, anything can happen.

If you've ever walked on the Strip, you've no doubt had flyers and cards for escort services thrust at you. A Nevada Supreme Court ruling might limit that practice. It was ruled that private sidewalks are not public forums and that First Amendment right do not apply to people handing out advertisements.

Justice Cliff Young wrote in the majority opinion that "private property does not lose its private nature because it is open to the public." Chief Justice Bill Maupin wrote that the handbills "appear to solicit offers of illegal prostitution."

At least they're not going to do away with gambling anytime soon.

Book Notes

Larry Adelman, founder of the popular SportsFax sheets, distributed at nearly every sports book in Las Vegas, died of a massive heart attack Wednesday night. He was 50. Adelman started SportsFax eight years ago and created a demand for his stat sheets, which analyzed not just the major team sports but also Nascar. Adelman will be buried in New York and plans for a memorial service in Vegas are pending.

*The Devil Rays, who started the week with the worst record in baseball, won five of their first six interleague games through Thursday, including a sweep of the N.L. East-leading Phillies.

*Another AL team faring well in interleague play is the White Sox, who are 5-1 after sweeping the Reds. The team with the worst interleague record is the Cardinals at 0-3. The White Sox and Cardinals are playing this weekend.