07/22/2001 11:00PM

Deli workers keep trophy a family affair


RENO, Nev. - Family was the dominant theme at the Flamingo Reno Summer Challenge VII Handicapping Tournament.

"Tournament players are like a family and even though sometimes there are differences, it's always a great group that gets together for these things," said Steve Fierro,who ran the three-day tournament along with race and sports book manager Steve Mikkelson and the Flamingo staff (plus some borrowed workers from their "sister" property at the Reno Hilton).

So it was only fitting when one of the first families of tournament handicapping walked off with the $34,416 first prize and the championship trophy.

Argie Bertolucci was crowned the winner of the 187-player field, turning $180 in contest wagers (10 mythical $2 win-place-show bets on each of the three days) into a bankroll of $453.60. She is the 38-year-old wife of Robert Bertolucci. Not so coincidentally, the trophy that goes to the winner of the Flamingo tournament is named after him because he won the inaugural event in 1998.

Robert Bertolucci said, "We really wanted to get her name on the trophy. My brother Mark usually comes to these tournaments with me, but someone had to stay behind to help our parents at our store in San Francisco."

The Bertoluccis reside in San Mateo, Calif., and even though they make a very nice living (including taking home $108,000 for winning the Grand Handicapping Challenge at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last year), Robert and Mark still work in the family-owned delicatessen.

"We had heard a rumor that this might be the last tournament here, so when we decided Mark couldn't come we thought it would be nice to get her name on the trophy and then maybe buy it from the Flamingo," Bertolucci said. "But even when we found out the tournament would continue, we still thought it would be cool to have her name on it, so we put our top picks on that ticket from the beginning."

Bertolucci makes no secret that he picked the majority of horses on his wife's entry (Argie said she made three picks, none of which cashed). The game plan worked as Argie's ticket was in second place after the first day and in the lead after day two.

"Psychologically, I'd prefer being just off the pace instead of being on the lead," Bertolucci said, "but you still have to play the same way. We look for live longshots, and we didn't play a horse at less than 12-1 the whole tournament."

The winning entry was 0 for 3 on Saturday until Robert Bertolucci called Mark, who was handicapping all the tracks back at home. Mark gave them a winner, and they were back on track.

So how does the prize money get split up?

"We'll split some with my brother," Bertolucci said. "And she gets to go to Nordstrom's."

Argie Bertolucci said: "The first thing our daughter, Jennifer (10 years old), will ask is: 'Mom, when do we get to go shopping.' Christopher, our 12-year-old son, would rather go to the track."

That's bad news for tournament players.

"Christopher knows how to read the Daily Racing Form," Robert Bertolucci said. "When he's old enough, he'll have his own entry. He won't be letting his dad make picks for him."

In addition to the $34,416 first prize, the Bertoluccis also won $956 for Argie's second-highest score on day one and $1,434 for the highest score on day two. Also, Robert had an entry that finished 18th for another $717 to bring the grand total to $37,523.

Robert Bertolucci will now go home to work at the deli and get ready for the MGM Grand's Surf & Turf contest (a DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship qualifier) on Aug. 11-12. He will then go back home to work a few days before heading back to Vegas for the Championship at The Orleans, Aug. 16-18.

Steve Cabot, from Las Vegas, finished second with a bankroll of $397.20. He earned $17,208, plus $478 for finishing third on Friday. Bob Laks, from Southern California, was the first-day leader and held on for third place with a bankroll of $374.20 to claim his prize of $8,604, plus a first-day bonus of $1,434.