02/01/2002 12:00AM

Future book bettors get their own contest

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It wasn't so long ago that Las Vegas and Agua Caliente were the only two places that conducted substantial future book wagering on major stakes races.

I was introduced to future book wagering when I saw a future book sheet on the Santa Anita Handicap of 1965 from the old Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico.

By the time I moved to Las Vegas, I was raring to find a Kentucky Derby future book. That was in 1983. I bet Sunny's Halo for a sawbuck at 100-1 and have been hooked ever since.

Now, Derby future book wagering - and soon Breeders' Cup futures - also is offered through parimutuel pools in the months leading to the first Saturday in May. This gives bettors who for years were able to bet only fixed-odds futures at Nevada's race books another option.

John Avello, who heads the race and sports book operations for Bally's and Paris-Las Vegas, launches a contest next week that gives those who want to be involved in futures wagering on the Kentucky Derby another option.

The Bally's Kentucky Derby Future Book Challenge offers anyone with access to the Internet a chance to predict the Kentucky Derby winner. The prizes are real and the contest is free, and that by itself should attract a bunch of prognosticators looking for the next Monarchos.

Contestants create their own Derby stable by selecting one horse per week from the Bally's Kentucky Derby future book list. Selections begin next Thursday and continue through April 25. The list is posted on the Bally's website and odds are updated each Wednesday. The contest week runs Thursday through Wednesday.

Those who enter the first week will have a maximum of 11 horses in their stable by the time of the April 25 deadline. Those who enter later reduce their stable by one horse each week.

Once the odds on a horse are set in the Bally's future book, they stay the same for the entire contest week. So, if you like a horse that is 25-1 on Friday and he wins big on the weekend, he remains at 25-1 through that week's selection period. That's unlike in the real future book, where a horse's odds often drop drastically before the "official" sign is posted. The odds also are locked in through the 11 selection weeks.

After the selection period ends April 25, contestants have until midnight Pacific on April 30 to reduce their Derby stable to four horses.

Now the real twist. After the 2002 Kentucky Derby morning line is announced, contestants will have the option of keeping the fixed odds on their four horses or changing the odds on all four of them to their parimutuel odds for the race.

Points will be awarded at 10 times odds for first, seven times odds for second, five times odds for third, three times odds for fourth, and one time odds for fifth. The total number of points will be added together and the most points wins the challenge.

"We wanted to get people involved that couldn't be here in Las Vegas to bet the regular future book, but still wanted to follow the Derby horses to the big day," Avello said. "And, we wanted to get them involved early."

First prize will be a Breeders' Cup party package for two that includes a room at Bally's, admission to the VIP party, dinner at the Steakhouse, tickets to the "Jubilee" show, and other goodies. There will be prizes awarded through 10th place.

The road to the Kentucky Derby starts on the Internet Thursday.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.