06/02/2004 12:00AM

Hard Rock spruced up just in time


The race books here always seem to be in a constant state of flux.

They get built big, then the corporate bean counters say that more can be made with slot machines, and they get downsized. Then handle drops, and the suits wonder where the customers went, so they pump more money into the books.

The latest race book on the upswing is at the Hard Rock, and with Smarty Jones's Triple Crown quest and the increased interest in horse racing, the Hard Rock's timing couldn't have been any better.

The Hard Rock has torn down the wall at its old race book and combined it with the Sports Deluxe bar next door to make one large book. There are 24 large TVs, all plasma, and 10 posh booths with Interactive Player Terminals at each table so players can make their bets without leaving their comfy seats.

Another major change is a glass wall at the back of the book, which filters out the rock 'n roll music coming from the casino so horseplayers can actually hear the race calls.

"I went around to other race books and talked to a lot of players and found what they thought of the Hard Rock," said race and sports book manager Jamie Shea. "They thought it was too loud."

Shea said more plans are in the works, including a Wednesday handicapping contest starting later this month and a twin quinella on Thursdays.

Among other things, the Hard Rock is known for its commemorative pins, mostly of rock bands, but it has also given away 500 pins on Derby Day and Preakness Day, and the complete set is sure to be a collectors' item. The Belmont pins - labeled "Third Crown" to avoid infringing on copyright laws - will start being handed out with a $25 wager when betting opens Friday, so they're expected to go fast.

Other Friday Belmont activities

Sam's Town will be having a Belmont seminar at 6 p.m. Friday with host John Kelly and handicappers Gordon Jones and Patrick McQuiggan from the "Track Talk" radio show. The seminar will also serve as a prelude to the Hollywood Park card Friday night, with a first post at 7 p.m.

The Stratosphere will also be hosting a seminar Friday night with handicapper Jerry Jacovitz and race book host Jay Kessler. Jacovitz is credited with predicting that Smarty Jones would win the Kentucky Derby. Big deal, you say? Well, his prediction was made back in January after Smarty Jones won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct and before he even went to Oaklawn Park.

Saturday Smarty Parties

The fun doesn't end Friday. All eyes Saturday will be on Smarty Jones, and all the race book managers want those eyes to be on the TVs in their casinos.

The Coast Casinos are treating Belmont Day just like they do Derby Day and the Breeders' Cup. The Orleans and Suncoast are opening ballrooms to show the big race on huge projection screens, and the Gold Coast is opening its showroom. Turf club members should have already received their free tickets in the mail, but anyone can join the party by making a $20 race wager in the book either Friday or Saturday.

The Station Casinos are extending their celebration to the whole casino. At the station-branded Palace, Boulder, Sunset, Green Valley Ranch, Texas, and Santa Fe, as well as the Fiesta Rancho, there will be 10 tickets drawn at the top of every hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The top prize each hour at each property will be a $150 wagering voucher, with vouchers of $100 and $50 also given away. The vouchers can be used on the Belmont or anytime in the next seven days. The remaining prizes will be dinners, logo merchandise, and other mystery prizes. In all, 490 prizes will be given away, plus slot players will receive triple points in honor of the Triple Crown.

Three free tickets can be obtained by showing your Boarding Club pass at the players' club desk Saturday or signing up for one, as well as by bringing in ads from the Review-Journal or GamingToday.

But the locals casinos don't have a monopoly on the festivities. T-shirts are the most common giveaway, including at Caesars Palace, Bally's, Aladdin, Imperial Palace, the Stratosphere, and the Palms, with a wager between $20 and $30.

Sports book notes

Assuming a flood of public money and the requisite souvenir tickets, Smarty Jones should be bet down to a 1-5 favorite, the same price that the L.A. Lakers are to win the NBA Finals over the Detroit Pistons. Game 1 is Sunday, with the Lakers an 8-point favorite and a total of 171. I'll be looking to play the Pistons plus the points during the series; I can see them keeping the games close with their defense and slow-down style of play, but I wouldn't recommend a series bet on them. The Lakers are more of a lock in my book than Smarty Jones, who has to go 1 for 1 in a single day against eight rivals with no chance for a misstep. The Lakers have to win four of seven games against only one rival.

* The other major sporting event this weekend is a doubleheader boxing card at the MGM Grand on Saturday night, with Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Sturm and Bernard Hopkins vs. Robert Allen. Both De La Hoya and Hopkins are -1100 favorites, and the underdogs prices are at +700. Most people are seeing these as the equivalent of public workouts for an anticipated De La Hoya-Hopkins megafight Sept. 12. In fact, Station Casinos already has a line up on that fight, with Hopkins at -180 and De La Hoya at +150.

Vegas programming notes

Las Vegas is front and center in two reality TV series. "American Casino" makes its debut Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on the Discovery Channel. The series is based on the happenings at the Green Valley Ranch, and this Friday's pilot episode focuses on Super Bowl week.

"The Casino," which chronicles the purchase and start-up adventures of the Golden Nugget's new owners, Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, is slated for June 14 on Fox.