04/28/2003 12:00AM

Contests in full swing Derby Week


If it's Kentucky Derby Week, then it must be Pick the Ponies time.

The twice a year handicapping tournament is held the Wednesday through Friday before the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup and serves as the unofficial kickoff to the two biggest dates on the Las Vegas racing calendar.

Pick the Ponies XXII has sold out for the third straight time. That wasn't always the case. For several years, the Hilton had a hard time filling its 200 spots, but race and sports book manager Cyril Burger has turned that around and now has to turn people away.

"We were nearly halfway full even before we sent out our fliers or did any advertising," Burger said. "We reached 200 by Tuesday, April 8, and we have a dozen people on a waiting list."

The rules state that contestants pay $500 per entry, with a maximum of three per person, but those registering by the early-bird deadline of April 14 only paid $400. The Hilton pitches in the remaining $100 per entry to reach the $100,000 prize fund that pays the top 30 finishers. The winner takes home $38,000. In addition, there is $5,000 available each day to the top three scorers.

With the big tournament taking place, the Hilton will be putting its free Friday contest on a one-week hiatus.

More contests available

If you got shut out of Pick the Ponies, or just didn't have the $400 to spare, there are plenty of other opportunities this week, and for a much smaller investment.

Wednesday's contest slate includes the seven-property contest at Station Casinos throughout the valley, the standalone contest at Texas Station, and the regularly scheduled contests at the Excalibur and Poker Palace.

Thursday's action picks up with contests at Arizona Charlie's West (quinellas only), the Palms, Terrible's, and Texas Station.

Friday's regular contests at Sunset Station, Texas Station, and the Plaza are joined by a special free $2,000 contest at the Barbary Coast, using the Kentucky Oaks card at Churchill Downs.

The Super Saturday contest at the Imperial Palace has a special Derby Day deal. The progressive jackpot hasn't been hit for several weeks, so, just like they did for the Breeders' Cup, there's a guaranteed payout to the winner of Saturday's contest, which will include races 5 through 10 at Churchill.

Print ads for the contest say that 225 entries would bring the jackpot to $12,500, but race and sports book director Jay Kornegay says that was a conservative estimate and he expects many more, especially since the Imperial Palace had 350 entries on Breeders' Cup Day. Kornegay said $13,000 is probably a more accurate estimate.

The entry fee is $20 (it's normally $10), and Derby T-shirts will be given to contestants (one per person) while supplies last. With such an early start to the contest - Churchill's fifth race is expected to go off sometime around 10:15 a.m. Pacific - Kornegay was trying to get clearance to start taking contest entries Friday.

Revenge ever so sweet

Bettors who subscribe to the revenge theory - or as it's become more commonly called at playoff time, the "zig-zag theory" - are doing very well again in the NBA playoffs.

The concept is to bet on a team vs. the spread following a straight-up loss. The logic is that the team will be motivated to bounce back and will probably make adjustments, while the winning team might have a letdown.

Through Sunday's action, the zig-zag theory ("loser of the last" theory) was 14-7 (66.7 percent) with one push, and that's with dropping three straight games Sunday. Before Sunday, the zig-zag theory was 12-4-1.

Strong NBA playoffs start

I went 2-0 Sunday with the Celtics covering the 1 1/2 point spread in a 102-91 win over the Pacers and the Timberwolves losing but staying within the 9 1/2-point spread, 102-97, to the Lakers. That improves my NBA playoff record to 5-1.

Interestingly, both picks went against the zig-zag theory as the Celtics and T-Wolves were coming off victories. But I'll get back on the bandwagon Wednesday with the Pistons -6 vs. the Magic and the Mavericks -8 1/2 vs. the Trail Blazers. Both teams lost Sunday but should bounce back with the return to their home courts. The Pistons are striving to avoid elimination as the No. 1 seed in the East and the Mavs look to close out the Blazers after being denied a four-game sweep.

Local sports fans cashing in

The Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League beat the Detroit Fury 58-45 Sunday at the Thomas & Mack Center to take over sole possession of first place in the AFL's Eastern Division. But more importantly for local bettors was that the Gladiators covered the 3-point spread and the game went over the total of 99. The Gladiators play another home game vs. the New York Dragons Saturday at 7 p.m., a nice post-Derby sports outing for those not going to the Oscar De La Hoya bout at Mandalay Bay.

* The Gladiators' victory was pushed to the bottom of the morning paper's sports section because Kurt Busch, a Las Vegas native, won the NASCAR Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif., Sunday. Busch was the second choice in the betting at 6-1. A winner of five of his last 15 races, Busch moved up to fourth in the Winston Cup standings, but bettors have been behind him for a while now. According to odds given by Las Vegas Sports Consultants, he has been bet to a 5-2 favorite to win the season-long title.

* There was no betting on the tournament, but Las Vegas' No. 1 native son, Andre Agassi, is the top-ranked player in the world after his victory in the United States Men's Clay Court Championships, which he won in vintage comeback style over Andy Roddick 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Agassi turned 33 Tuesday.