02/24/2005 1:00AM

Get ready to bet horses and hoops


It's that time of year again: Tournament time.

And I don't mean the NCAA tournament, or all of the conference basketball tournaments in the next two weeks. What I mean is that it's time to make travel plans for all of the horse handicapping tournaments that take place from coast to coast, and especially for the most common destination: Nevada.

More horseplayers go for tournament gold in the Silver State than any other. And if they're not coming here for a handicapping tournament this year, they'll likely be trying to win a trip here next January to play in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship or in the Horseplayers World Series at the Orleans.

For instance, this weekend, Gulfstream Park is hosting Turf-Vivor IV with a first prize of $100,000 and the top three finishers earning berths to the NHC. That event started Friday morning, but there's plenty of time to plan for the major tournaments in Nevada.

The next major tournament is the Championship at The Orleans from March 31 through April 2, with the top 50 finishers winning a World Series berth. For those wanting to make it by the early-bird deadline, entry forms and $500 checks have to be received or at least postmarked by this Wednesday to play in the bonus $20,000 early bird contest on April 3. Details, including information on the Gold Coast Summer Classic on July 14-16 and the Fall Classic at The Orleans Oct. 6-8, can be found at coastrace.com.

In April, the contest circuit heads to Reno for the Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament on April 13-15. Note that this was originally scheduled for the following week, but has been moved up by tournament coordinator Christi Mitchell. The tournament has a $500 entry fee and a guaranteed first prize of $20,000.

Bally's Moolah, with its hefty $5,000 entry fee, is the following week on April 22-23. Entering its third year, the Moolah attracts a small, exclusive field, with the winner earning an NHC berth. The other Bally's tournament this year is the Summer Stakes on Aug. 5-6, which has a $1,000 entry fee and three berths to the NHC up for grabs

The Las Vegas Hilton resumes with its twice-annual Pick the Ponies tournaments on the Wednesdays through Fridays before both the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup. Both are great times to spend a full week in Vegas. The contests are capped at 200 entrants, and it pays to enter early, because those registering by the early-bird deadline only pay $400 instead of the posted $500 entry fee. For the May 4-6 contest, the deadline is expected to be April 18, though the hotel hasn't finalized that yet. Mailers will be going out to past participants in the coming weeks.

Back up north, the Reno Hilton hosts its live-money Summer Showdown on June 25-26. To enter, contestants put up $800, which includes a $200 entry fee that goes to the prize pool and $600 in live parimutuel vouchers for the two days. Don Boucier, assistant race and sports book manager, said the Hilton is also planning to host its annual Brawl in the Fall tournament with the same format.

B-ball conference tournaments start Tuesday

The NCAA tournament with all its brackets and madness, is only a few weeks away with Selection Sunday on March 13 and the Big Dance getting under way the following Thursday and Friday with 16 games each day.

Many bettors view the conference tournaments - which begin Tuesday - as a prelude to the main event. Obviously, many people watch these tournaments to get to know the teams in advance of the NCAA tournament in order to help them fill out their brackets. But many bettors prefer to play the conference tournaments over the NCAA tournament.

For one, there are many more games to choose from. The NCAA tournament, after the opening round, shrinks to 16 games on Saturday and Sunday of its opening week, and is cut in half each subsequent round. But during the conference tournaments, when every team is playing, there are many more betting opportunities. Plus, it's logical to think that oddsmakers aren't able to put up as strong a number in the conference games as they can when there are fewer games to analyze and the more well-known teams are involved.

Things to keep in mind when betting conference tournament games:

* Home-field advantage is huge. Many arenas won't be full except when the host team is playing. Now, keep in mind that the oddsmakers obviously know this and will factor it into the line. So I prefer looking for live home dogs in these spots as opposed to having to lay heavy points with a team favored on its home court.

* Watch teams that are pretty much assured of making the NCAA tournament regardless of how they do in conference play. I like to bet against them, especially if they're laying points against a team on the bubble, which has more incentive to make a good showing for the selection committee.

* As the tournaments advance, it becomes more and more apparent which teams will get NCAA bids, and watching how teams do in pressure-packed moments can reveal a lot. And if a team you're following doesn't make the NCAA, maybe money can be made in the NIT, another opportunity to find value on the board while oddsmakers are more focused on higher-profile matchups.

Nevada handicapping contests

DatesContestHostHotel Fee
3/31-4/2Championship at The Orleans The Orleans$500
4/13-4/15Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournaments Harrah's Reno500
4/22-4/23Bally's MoolahBally's Las Vegas5,000
5/4-5/6Pick the Ponies XXVLas Vegas Hilton500
6/25-6/26Summer ShowdownReno Hilton*800
7/14-7/16Gold Coast Summer Classic Gold Coast400
8/5-8/6Summer Stakes VIBally's Las Vegas1,000
10/6-10/8Fall Classic at The OrleansThe Orleans500
10/26-10/28Pick the Ponies XXVILas Vegas Hilton500

* Live-money tournament, includes $200 entry fee plus $600 in live pari-mutuel wagers