07/18/2013 3:04PM

Dave Tuley: Vegas books welcome opening of Saratoga, Del Mar

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LAS VEGAS – The race and sports books here can often resemble Old West ghost towns during the dog days of summer.

The books are empty in the evenings after the NHL and NBA playoffs are over in mid-to-late June, but the mornings and afternoons are deserted even earlier. You can often see more people in the books just trying to get out of the 100-degree heat as opposed to actually betting on sports or the ponies.

But Wednesday was different. Del Mar held its opening day where the surf meets the turf just north of San Diego, and even though I know a lot of horseplayers that made the trip to the track for opening day, there were still plenty left in town to fill the race books.

It couldn’t have come at a better time for the books as Wednesday would have otherwise been a very slow day. Unlike most years when the MLB All-Star Game is a week earlier, baseball’s break coincided with Del Mar’s opening day this year. The only other things on the betting boards were two WNBA games, six NBA Summer League games at the Thomas & Mack and Cox Pavilion here in town, and some soccer matches in what would have otherwise surely been one of the slowest betting days of the year.

But the Del Mar crowd made up for a lot of that, according to anecdotal evidence gathered from a tour of the race books Wednesday afternoon and talking with race book directors, though they tend to not like to disclose their actual figures. However, a call to Vinny Magliulo of Las Vegas Dissemination Company, the wagering hub for the state’s books, confirmed that handle on the Del Mar card was up nearly 18 percent from last year as there was $411,800 bet in Nevada on Wednesday compared to $349,200 last year’s opening day.

I’m also happy to report that the race books here are stepping up a little more with promotions tied to Del Mar and also the Saratoga meet that was scheduled to open Friday. Back around the turn of the century, there used to be a lot more giveaways and contests as race books tried to attract the crowds and betting dollars that those meets attracted. As the economy slowed, we saw a reduction in those, but this year we’ve had an increase, with hopefully more to come.

Tony Nevill at Treasure Island, the host hotel for the Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Championship the last two years and again for this year’s finals in January, did his annual Del Mar vs. Saratoga Jockey Challenge wager. The Del Mar team consists of Joe Talamo, Rafael Bejarano, Edwin Maldonado, and Martin Garcia, with Saratoga’s team including Joel Rosario, John Velazquez, Rosie Napravnik, and Edgar Prado. Saratoga’s team was a 15.5-win favorite over Del Mar, though it’s interesting to note that Rosario swept the daily double at Del Mar on Wednesday on the way to four total wins. Those wins don’t count in this contest because they weren’t at Saratoga, though he obviously kept the Del Mar jockeys from racking up more.

Nevill said Treasure Island will have daily head-to-head matchups throughout the Saratoga and Del Mar meets, and while other books will likely focus on the numerous graded stakes races, he’s going to have matchups on the undercard races as well.

The LVH – formerly the Hilton (though maybe I can stop typing that all the time as it’s been 18 months since the change) – went with a straight “most jockey wins” prop at Del Mar, with Bejarano the favorite at 6-5 and Talamo right behind at 7-5, followed by Maldanado at 9-2, Garrett Gomez at 8-1, Garcia at 50-1, Victor Espinoza at 75-1, Chantal Sutherland at 500-1, and the “field of all others” at 8-1.

The LVH also is offering double points (for parimutel wagers only) on Saturdays during the Saratoga and Del Mar meets for those with a player’s card

In my opinion, the best piece of news I heard in regards to the Del Mar meet was Jerry’s Nugget increasing its prize pool to $1,000 in its weekly contests on Saturdays through the end Aug. 31 (the last Saturday of the meet). I’m often asked about small handicapping contests in Vegas, of which there used to be a ton (in fact, for years we had a weekly listing here in DRF since they were so popular), but those also disappeared during the recession.

The entry fee at Jerry’s Nugget, located just north of downtown, is just $10, and if you buy two, you get a third entry free for your $20. Contestants pick five horses from the first eight races on the Saturday Del Mar card and accumulate points for win, place, and show. The highest point earner wins $800 cash with $200 for second. Members of their player’s club also earn a bonus $30 gift card in their restaurants, bars, and gift shop. While the bulk of the players will be locals, it’s perfect for visitors as every week is a new contest.

But while that’s a nice weekly offering, there also are bigger tournaments coming up that revolve around the Del Mar and Saratoga meets.

The Gold Coast Summer Classic is next Thursday through Saturday, July 25-27, with a $400 entry fee and win-place format. The Orleans, a sister property to the Gold Coast in the Boyd Gaming/Coast Casinos family, is hosting a single-day qualifier – the format is a $100 entry fee and a $300 live bankroll – on Sunday, Aug. 4, for its Horseplayer World Series next March 27-29.

That contest is situated the day after the completion of the Wynn $200,000 Guaranteed Race Handicapping Challenge on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2-3. The Wynn tourney is an NHC qualifier – with two seats up for grabs – and costs $2,000 to enter. Players make 15 wagers a day from just Saratoga and Del Mar.

So, there you have it. There’s something for everyone from the low end to the high rollers when it comes to playing the races at the Del Mar and Saratoga meets. Enjoy the rest of the summer in the race books (and it’s a great way to escape the 100-degree heat).