01/13/2004 1:00AM

Contests must change or close


Next Wednesday, Jan. 21, will be a dark day for Las Vegas's race books - and it has nothing to do with the fact many tracks will be taking the day off after racing on Martin Luther King Day.

Jan. 21 is the date designated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board to require all horse handicapping contests to be run through a computerized bet-taking system. This new regulation, which falls under the board's wide-spanning Minimum Internal Control Standards for accounting procedures, was passed in October.

For the longest time, many of these popular weekly contests - most of which cost just $10 to enter and offered hundreds and often thousands in prize money - were hand-graded by the race book staff, who would go through the entries to determine the winners. Now, the GCB is requiring that all aspects of each contest - entrants' names, entry fee, name of contest, wagering selections, point totals, and prize payout - be electronically documented, so that winners would cash their winnings just like turning in a race or sports ticket.

It's 20 years past 1984, but Big Brother is watching.

These changes were to be expected. In May 2002, The Venetian was busted for giving a Mercedes Benz to a high roller under the guise of a giveaway.

Local race book operators have heard allegations of impropriety from losers for a long time. Many race books, including those at the Coast Casinos and the Station Casinos, have gone as far as to post contestants' selections for all to see, but that didn't satisfy gaming regulators during meetings last summer, when these changes were first discussed.

So, just about every contest in town will be canceled starting next week, at least temporarily, while technicians at the local tote companies get all the kinks worked out and receive regulatory approval. Here is a rundown on what's happening at several locations.

Station Casinos: The seven-property contest on Wednesday, as well as single-property contests at Sunset Station, Texas Station, and Fiesta Rancho, will be put on hold.

Las Vegas Hilton: The $10 Friday contest might return to its former free format, which is exempt from the new regulations.

Mandalay Bay Group: The contests at Excalibur, Luxor, Circus Circus, and Monte Carlo have been canceled, with the possibility of starting a free contest.

Imperial Palace: The Super Saturday contest will have a mandatory payout of its $3,170 carryover this Saturday and then go on hiatus.

Bob Gregorka, director of race book operations at the Coast Casinos, said his race books are in compliance.

In fact, the Gold Coast will be holding a $10 buy-in King of the Hill contest on the first five races on Santa Anita's Thursday card. The King of the Hill allows two entries per person, with the Gold Coast adding $1,000 to the prize pool. Players bet each race until they lose. The last contestant standing wins the whole pot.

Gregorka said Coast Casinos will be testing its system in advance of next Wednesday and Thursday's live-bankroll Coast to Coast Shootout, which will be run concurrently at the Suncoast and Barbary Coast. The Shootout has a $300 entry fee, with each contestant making 16 live $50 bets through the parimutuel system over the two days.

Harrah's bails out Binion's Horseshoe

Harrah's Entertainment Inc. announced late Monday that it had reached an agreement to purchase Binion's Horseshoe, which has been shuttered since last Friday night when U.S. marshals raided the downtown casino to collect up to $2 million in unpaid contributions to its union workers' pension and health funds.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed, but it's reportedly in the $50 million range.

"The agreement in principle contemplates that Harrah's will assume the property's liabilities to bona fide creditors who submit verifiable evidence of claims," Charles Atwood, Harrah's Entertainment's chief financial officer, said in a released statement.

Other creditors include Jack Binion, who is owed $19 million by his sister and Horseshoe owner Becky Binion Behnen. Binion's Horseshoe owes $7.5 million to the IRS; $3 million to the Fremont Street Experience; and an estimated $1 million more to the Culinary Union to make up the difference from what was collected in last Friday's seizure.

Everyone agrees it's in the best interest of downtown Vegas and the casino industry in general to get the lights back on at the Horseshoe.

"We are also reviewing options with the casino's owners for reopening the property as soon as practical," Atwood said.

Harrah's had previously expressed interest in acquiring the Horseshoe brand name in Nevada to go with its $1.45 billion purchase of Horseshoe Gaming Holding Corp., a company owned by Jack Binion that operates casinos outside Nevada. No announcement has been made about the possibility of Harrah's selling the downtown property and retaining the brand name, or concerning the World Series of Poker, which is held at Binion's Horseshoe.

Championship betting trends

Over the past four years, underdogs are 7-1 against the spread in AFC and NFC title games, with five of those being outright upsets. From 2000-2002, the dogs were 6-0, and then last year the Buccaneers upset the Eagles while the Raiders won as a favorite over the Titans.

Following up on a trend I mentioned last week: The Titans covered vs. the Patriots and the Packers covered vs. the Eagles, so that makes teams that lost to their opponents during the regular season now 5-0 against the spread in this year's playoffs. The Eagles beat the Panthers 25-16 back on Nov. 30. On that same exact day, the Patriots beat the Colts, 38-34.

More trends

Colts at Patriots: The Patriots are 8-1 against the spread at home this season, but the only spread loss was last week in their 17-14 win over the Titans as a 6 1/2-point favorite. The Colts are 6-2-1 against the spread on the road. The Patriots are 6-3 with the under at home, but that is offset by the Colts being 6-3 with the over on the road.

Panthers at Eagles: The Panthers are 5-4 on the road, but they are 4-1 as road underdogs. After last week's non-covering win, the Eagles are 4-5 against the spread at home. The Eagles are 6-2-1 with the over at home, while the Panthers are 5-4 with the over.

Bankroll plays split again

My NFL bankroll plays went 2-2 for the second weekend in a row. I won with my two underdog plays (Titans and Packers) and lost with my two favorites (Rams and Chiefs). That resulted in a net loss for the bankroll of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). For the season, I am 59-39 (60 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.1 units.