08/23/2002 12:00AM

Hard Rock offering NFL player props

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LAS VEGAS - Fantasy football has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade.

Sports fans who are online get frequent pitches to sign up for fantasy leagues and contests. I used to pass on fantasy leagues because it was too frustrating to cheer for a player on my team to do well - but not too well because I had a bet on the other team.

But now I'm back in the fantasy football game because it helps me concentrate on which individual players are performing well from week to week.

Las Vegas casinos put up lots of proposition wagers on individual player stats on the Super Bowl, and some books will offer a small menu of props on Monday Night Football games, but for the most part fantasy-type betting is ignored.

Offshore books do a lot more with props, as they have the advantage of unlimited board space.

If a brick-and-mortar casino lists a bet only on sheets, and not on the board, novice bettors are less likely to play them and the books end up only taking on the wise guys, who have quite an edge.

But one Vegas sports book is trying to sell fantasy games to its customers, the Hard Rock Hotel on Paradise Road. The Hard Rock is launching a weekly handicapping contest this year, in which players not only pick the winners of NFL games but also choose sides in player props.

The entry fee is $25 and there's only one entry per person. In addition, the Hard Rock is limited the entries to 1,500, so if you sign up fast you have a realistic chance of getting a piece of the $150,000 in total cash and prizes.

And that's not a fantasy.

Football contest news

There usually aren't many contests in Las Vegas in the middle range between the $25 entry fees at the locals' casinos and the high end contests like the Las Vegas Hilton's "SuperContest" ($1,500 entry) and Station Casinos's "Gambler's Challenge" ($1,000). But now the Wildfire Casino on Rancho Drive in North Las Vegas has added a "Beat the Best" pro handicapping contest with a $100 buy-in.

Players start the season with a $10,000 mythical bankroll and must play between three and 15 games a week against the spread. All entries are being returned as prize money, plus the Wildfire is kicking in an additional $5,000 to the purse. There is a limit of two entries per person and the deadline is Sept. 5.

o On the other end of the spectrum, the Leroy's chain of sports books has a free contest in which they're giving away $5,000 each week to the person picking the most straight-up winners. If you sign up before next weekend's preseason games (which start Wednesday with the Chargers vs. the 49ers), you get two free entries instead of just one.

o The Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, the College 101 at all Park Place Entertainment properties, the Eliminator at Bally's Las Vegas, and the Reno Hilton all have early bird deadlines at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Road trip to Sacramento

"Nevada Day at the Races" will be held Aug. 28 at the California State Fair in Sacramento.

The Silver Legacy in Reno is sponsoring three races on the 10-race card. The Reno Hilton, the Lakeside Casino in Tahoe, and the Reno-Tahoe News are sponsoring two races apiece and Nevada Wallboards is sponsoring another.

In all, about 100 representatives from those companies and their customers will be making the trip.

Race & sports book notes

After watching Vindication's relatively easy victory in an allowance optional claiming race Thursday at Del Mar, Coast Casinos oddsmaker Frank Minervini dropped his odds to 15-1 to win the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

It's obvious he doesn't want any more action on this son of Seattle Slew. Zavata is the second choice at 50-1, with Sky Mesa at 75-1 and Gentlemans Club at 80-1.

o The U.S. Open begins Tuesday in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., with only a few legitimate contenders in both the men's and women's brackets. Venus Williams is the 7-5 favorite in the women's bracket, followed by her sister, Serena Williams (2-1), Jennifer Capriati (5-1), and Martina Hingis

(6-1).

On the men's side, Lleyton Hewitt is a lukewarm 3-1 favorite, followed by Andre Agassi (4-1), Marat Safin

(6-1), Andy Roddick (8-1), Roger Federer (8-1), and Pete Sampras (8-1).

o Just as they have been all preseason, bettors were on the right side of the first college football game of the year Thursday night.

Virginia had opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite over Colorado State and the game was bet to pick-'em at most Las Vegas bet shops. Colorado State won 35-29, but it wasn't easy. Virginia fumbled on the one-yard line in the closing seconds. A TD and extra point would have given Virginia a 36-35 victory - and turned anyone who bet Colorado State at pick-'em into a loser and made winners of those who waited to bet Virginia.

o The majority of bettors also cashed in on the Thursday night NFL exhibition game, as they bet the Chargers down from a 6-point dog to +4 1/2 vs. the Rams. The Chargers romped 31-10.

o The Imperial Palace and the Palms will put up odds this week on how many majors Tiger Woods wins in 2003. Bettors have to select the exact number. Woods winning no majors is 2-1, one major is 5-4, two majors is 2-1, three majors is 8-1 and a grand slam is 25-1.