05/08/2003 11:00PM

Contests lure residents to Strip

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LAS VEGAS - For years, the vast majority of weekly horse handicapping contests have taken place off the Strip.

The leaders in the locals casino market, Station Casinos and Coast Casinos, have built their customer base by appealing to Las Vegas residents with these free or $10 buy-in contests. Those huge multiple-property companies aren't alone. Contests have also been conducted at Arizona Charlie's West and Terrible's in the suburbs, and Binion's Horseshoe and the Plaza downtown. Players show up for the contests and then become loyal customers.

Strip race books have generally catered to the tourists, most of whom are going to play at whatever hotel they're staying. In addition, it has long been assumed that locals avoid going down to the Strip, so any marketing attempts were seen as a waste.

But it appears we're seeing a change.

The Imperial Palace, right smack dab in the center of the Strip, has made a success of its Saturday contest. Meanwhile, on the south end of the Strip, the Excalibur has done well with its Wednesday contest and has now extended its format to include several other hotels in the Circus Circus-Mandalay Resort Group family.

The Excalibur, on the corner of Tropicana Avenue and the Strip, is keeping its contest on Wednesday with a $10 buy-in. Entries will be combined with those taken at the Edgewater in Laughlin. The contest will continue to include $2,000 in prize money, but will add a $1,000 Twin Q progressive (free with entry) to the contestants picking the top two finishers in two selected races. In addition, drawings will be held for $100 after the first, fifth, and eighth races, with drawings for food comps after the other races.

On Thursdays, the contest will move to the Monte Carlo (just north of the New York-New York). On Fridays, the contest will be run concurrently at the Circus Circus casinos in both Las Vegas and Reno. On Saturdays, the Luxor will be the site, giving the Imperial Palace its first competition for Saturday players.

NBA picks cool down

Any experienced sports bettor will tell you that you have to ride a hot streak because eventually you will revert to closer to hitting 50 percent of your bets. The key is having the discipline to quit while you're still ahead.

After starting the NBA postseason with a record of 5-1, I dipped to 6-2, then split my only two selections last Monday as the Celtics (+7 1/2) covered vs. the Nets in a 97-93 loss but the Lakers (+2 1/2) lost to the Spurs, 87-82. That made me 2-2 with my last four picks and showed me that my hot streak is over. I will settle for going 7-3 (70 percent) anytime.

o Followers of the "zig-zag" or "loser-of-the-last" theory - in which you bet the straight-up loser of the previous game to cover the spread in the next contest - have also cooled down after a hot start.

After starting out 12-4 (75 percent) and still sitting at 16-7 (70 percent) a week ago, the zig-zag theory hasn't fared well lately as it closed the first round at 18-10 (64 percent) and was 19-13 overall (59 percent) heading into Friday's action. That's a record of only 7-9 in the last 16 games.

The theory had lost in the first three game 2's of the second round (the first game doesn't count since all teams are coming off a win) until the Mavericks bounced back from their opening-game loss to the Kings with a 132-110 win as a 2-point underdog.

Stanley Cup chase down to four

Two weeks ago, after the Anaheim Mighty Ducks had eliminated the Stanley Cup favorites, the Detroit Red Wings, and then taken a 2-0 series lead over the Dallas Stars, I wrote: "The chances of the East's No. 1 and 2 seeds - the Senators (3-1) and Devils (7-2) - are looking better all the time." That's certainly proven to be the case as the conference finals were to begin Saturday.

Whoever wins the Eastern Conference finals between the Senators and Devils will be a huge favorite over the West champ. The Senators have the home-ice advantage and opened as a -140 favorite to win the series, but money has come in on the Devils, knocking the price on the Senators down to -125.

Out west, the Ducks, who proceeded to knock out the Stars after upsetting the Red Wings in the opening round, now face the Minnesota Wild. The Wild's run has been wild indeed, as they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to shock the Vancouver Canucks four games to three. The Ducks are a -145 favorite despite being the lower seed and the Wild having home ice.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants now has the Senators as the 3-2 favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup, followed by the Devils (9-5), Ducks (7-2), and Wild (4-1). What were the odds of those teams before the season began? Senators (15-1), Devils (10-1), Ducks (75-1), and Wild (100-1).

Michigan's chances: Not so fab

An item in Saturday's column citing Michigan among the teams at 15-1 to win the 2004 NCAA men's basketball championship was written prior to Thursday's announcement that Michigan was put on 3 1/2 years probation and banned from the 2004 post-season.

The violations are a result of an investigation into former Michigan booster Ed Martin's claims he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to players during the Fab Four era.

All sports books with NCAA futures should be taking Michigan off their lists pending an appeal of the postseason ban, or else raising the odds to 150-1 or more since the odds have to be at least 10-1 against the school getting the ban lifted.