01/10/2002 1:00AM

With football season over, focus falls on horse contests


The handicapping contest season in Nevada is set to begin.

It's no coincidence that there are very few horse handicapping tournaments during the fall. Race and sports book managers know they will have big crowds during football season, so they tend to limit these events to slower times of the year.

But now it's time for horseplayers to take over the books again.

The Suncoast Invitational launches things next week with a $1,000 buy-in event that will have an anticipated purse of $350,000 (based on 300 entries). The main tournament runs Thursday through Saturday (the entry deadline is noon Thursday), with an early-bird contest on Wednesday.

Last year's Invitational, which was held in late March, attracted 307 entries. As of Wednesday, organizer Randi Muniz reported 210 entries, but said she expects the field to approach 300.

"We were expecting fewer entries in January, after Christmas and some people's reluctance to travel, but we're encouraged that a lot of our early entries are from people out of state," Muniz said.

The contest has the same format (a dozen $100 win bets per day) as the popular tournaments at The Orleans, but the entry fee is twice as high as at those events.

One might guess that the higher entry fee would result in more people pooling their money and forming partnerships. But Muniz said that hasn't been the case.

"The top tournament players don't shy away from the $1,000 entry fee," she said. "We have many more people going in as partners in The Orleans tournaments. The players like their chances of only having to beat 300 people instead of the 700 or 800 we get at The Orleans."

Those who like the lower buy-in at The Orleans will get two chances this year. The Orleans is hosting tournaments on April 3-6 and Oct. 9-12. The Suncoast has another event on Aug. 7-10.

Tournament city

Right on the heels of the Suncoast Invitational is the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship Jan. 25-26 at the MGM Grand. That event is open only to players who finished high enough at one of the 88 qualifying tournaments in 2001.

The MGM is also planning two tourneys of its own this year, the Grand Racing Festival (probably in June) and the annual Surf & Turf contest (on Saratoga and Del Mar races). Dates will probably be announced by next weekend.

The Las Vegas Hilton will host the 18th Pick the Ponies on May 1-3, the Wednesday through Friday before the Kentucky Derby. The 19th Pick the Ponies will be Oct. 23-25, just before the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.

Another Park Place Entertainment-owned property, the Reno Hilton on the northern end of the state, is launching two big tournaments on those same dates. Invitations have been sent to 200 of the top tournament players to be part of a 64-player field that will be structured something like the NCAA tournament, with players split into 16 groups of four. Each group's winner will advance to the next round, the Sweet Sixteen, with the tournament eventually coming down to the Final Four. The entry fee is $3,000, making the total prize pool $192,000 with $100,000 going to the champion and prizes paid down to 10th place.

Plenty of opportunities

Horseplayers in Las Vegas know they don't have to wait for the big events to test their skills.

* The Coast Resorts will suspend its King of the Hill contests at all its properties next week during the Suncoast Invitational. The contests will then resume on Wednesdays and Fridays through Feb. 8.

* The Palms has also put its free contests on Wednesdays and Friday on hold, though it's continuing the $10 buy-in "losers" contest on Mondays. The Palms is looking at a new format with perhaps a small entry fee.

* Sam's Town is putting together a contest that will begin on Saturday, Feb. 3 (the day before the Super Bowl) and continue through the spring and summer.

* Terrible's Hotel-Casino, which had a successful contest last summer, is also putting together a new contest that will break away from the tendency of contests in town to focus on Southern California races. Details to come.

Vegas notes

* In a battle of unbeatens, WBA champion Joel Casamayor is a -130 favorite over WBO champ Acelino Freitas Saturday night in their junior welterweight fight at the Cox Pavilion, next to the Thomas & Mack Center. Casamayor is 26-0 with 16 knockouts, and Freitas is 30-0 with 29 KO's.

* The Australian Open (the least-bet Grand Slam event in tennis) begins Monday. Two-time defending champ Andre Agassi is the men's favorite at 3-1, followed by No. 1 ranked Lleyton Hewitt at 7-2. The women's bracket is seen as a little more competitive, with Venus Williams the favorite at 7-5, followed by Jennifer Capriati (4-1), Martina Hingis (9-2), and Serena Williams (5-1).

* Veteran bookmaker Sid Diamond, last seen at the Stratosphere a year ago, has resurfaced as race and sports book director at The Regent in suburban Summerlin. Diamond held a "lottery" for big football bettors this past Monday and is planning another one for this upcoming Monday at 10:30 a.m.