04/21/2004 12:00AM

Early Derby action available

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The Kentucky Derby is starting to take shape, so Caesars Entertainment race books have already put up seven head-to-head matchups for the race even though the official field will not be announced until next Wednesday.

Oddsmaker John Avello, who sets Caesars' horse racing odds from his office at Bally's, said he wanted to include 3-year-olds that were virtually assured of making the 20-horse field while also trying to match them up by their relative chances to win. But there are some surprises:

The matchups: The Cliff's Edge (-140) vs. Tapit (+110), Lion Heart (-125) vs. Smarty Jones (-105), Wimbledon (-140) vs. Castledale (+110), Minister Eric (-135) vs. Friends Lake (+105), Quintons Gold Rush (-130) vs. Pollard's Vision (even), Read the Footnotes (-150) vs. Imperialism (+120), and Master David (-155) vs. Borrego (+125). Avello said he hopes to match up the rest of the field next Wednesday.

In addition, Avello has the over/under on the time of the race at 2:02 with bettors laying -115 on each side. Avello said next week he would have odds to win the Triple Crown, both on whether or not any horse will sweep the series and also on individual horses.

Avello said the price will be pretty high for anyone betting against a Triple Crown winner, which hasn't happened since 1978.

"I'm looking in the minus 1,200 range," he said. "This isn't a year like when we had Fusaichi Pegasus or even Empire Maker getting a lot of hype heading into the Derby. This is a really wide-open year."

* Early word on two Derby seminars set for next Friday night. Sam's Town will have Eddie Delahoussaye for a free seminar at 6 p.m. along with "Track Talk" radio hosts John Kelly, Patrick McQuiggan, and Bruce Finkelstein. The Stratosphere will start its seminar at 6:30 p.m. with Jerry Jacovitz of "Jerry J's Power Page" and race book host Jay Kessler.

A full list of Derby activities will appear in next Friday's column.

Kornegay changing jobs

Right after the Derby, the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook will have a new director of race and sports. Jay Kornegay, the longtime top man at the Imperial Palace, will start work May 3 for Colony Capital, which is in the process of acquiring the Hilton from Caesars Entertainment.

"The Hilton is one of the most prestigious books in town," Kornegay said. "I look forward to working with the talented staff that's already there."

After the sale is complete, the Hilton will be an independent book, which Kornegay certainly has experience running as he is credited with creating the niche the IP holds of being one of the most aggressive books and having the most proposition wagers in town.

Kornegay, 40, started his gaming career as a coin changer at Harrah's Lake Tahoe in 1987, then moved to Las Vegas to work for Bally's in 1988 and then on to the IP in 1989. He was promoted to director in 1995.

Kornegay said the SuperContest, the biggest football contest of them all, will definitely continue, and he's looking into reviving the Pick the Ponies handicapping tournaments as well as weekly contests and other horse racing offerings.

Baseball promotions draw crowds

Remember the days when starting pitchers went the distance, and if they didn't, then relievers pitched more than one inning for a save? Well, baseball fans can relive those days Saturday when Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller and Rollie Fingers will be at the Stardust sports book to sign autographs from 4 to 6 p.m.

Feller threw three no-hitters and 12 one-hitters for the Indians. Fingers was the 1974 World Series MVP with the A's and the 1981 Cy Young Award winner and MVP with the Brewers, and earned numerous Rolaids Relief Man Awards. They will be joined by slugging third baseman Darrell Evans, the first player to have a 40-homer season in each league (Braves 1973, Tigers 1985).

* Starting Wednesday and continuing each week through June 30, the sports books at the Fiesta Rancho, Wild Wild West, Wildfire, and Barley's will have a weekly baseball contest. The contest is free and contestants try to pick the winners of the 15 games on a parlay card. There is more than $500 in weekly cash and prizes, plus a $1,000 bonus for anyone who goes 15 for 15. At the end of the contest, a drawing will be held for an all-expense-paid trip for two to Houston for the July 13 All-Star Game.

NBA bankroll in need of rebound

As of Wednesday's deadline, my NBA bankroll plays stood at 2-4 for a net loss of 2.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) heading into Wednesday night's action.

Friday, I will make two plays. I previously wrote that I would be avoiding the Celtics-Pacers series, but a situation came up that changed my mind. The Pacers' Ron Artest was suspended for Tuesday's game but Indiana still rolled to take a 2-0 series lead. Now the series moves to Boston with the Pacers favored by 4. I think the Celtics can steal Friday's game (or at least stay within the spread) mainly because the Pacers have to be feeling overconfident after winning so easily without the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year. I will take the Celtics +4.

In the nightcap, I see no such letdown for the Lakers. Coach Phil Jackson isn't as likely to let that happen. The Rockets' best chance to hang in this series was to steal the first game and they fell short, and then they got blown out Monday night. The Lakers are only a one-point favorite, so they just have to win the game to win the bet.

Klitschko goes for title belt

In the biggest single sporting event this weekend, Vitali Klitschko - who was considered the lesser of the Klitschko brothers until he nearly knocked off Lennox Lewis last year and Wladimir grew a glass jaw - battles Corrie Sanders for the WBC belt vacated by Lewis. The fight takes place Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, but betting is expected to be strong here anyway with many casinos showing the HBO-televised fight for free.

Klitschko is a consensus -360 favorite around town with the buyback on Sanders at +280 after some books had gone as low as -300 after Wladimir was knocked out by Lamon Brewster two weeks ago. In addition to the title belt, the older Klitschko is also fighting for family pride as Sanders knocked out his baby brother last March.

The winner of this fight is expected to be considered the "real" heavyweight champion of the world, especially after John Ruiz's lackluster win last Saturday over Fres Oquendo and the Chris Byrd-Andrew Golota draw on the same card at Madison Square Garden.