08/16/2006 11:00PM

High-end NFL contest debuts at Harrah's

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LAS VEGAS - There's a new entry in the football handicapping contest scene this season. But it's no stranger to hosting big events.

Harrah's is debuting the $2,000 buy-in Glory of the Gridiron this season at nine properties, including its six Las Vegas properties (Harrah's Las Vegas, Rio, Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Bally's, and Paris) as well as Harrah's Reno, Harrah's Laughlin, and Harvey's Tahoe. Harrah's just completed hosting the ultra-successful World Series of Poker at the Rio.

"We started talking back in March about getting into the football contest in a big way," said Chuck Esposito, director of race and sports at Caesars Palace, who was quick to credit Howard Greenbaum, Harrah's vice president of specialty games, and the sports book managers at the other properties, for the team effort. "The World Series of Poker is obviously huge for our company and we wanted to piggyback on that and have the biggest football contest, too. This is the first step toward that."

Contestants will make six NFL selections each week against the spread (all half-point spreads to eliminate pushes) with entries due at 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

The contest challenges the well-established Las Vegas Hilton's $1,500 buy-in SuperContest at the high end for football handicappers. Esposito said the goal is to get 200 entries for the Glory of the Gridiron, which would make the main prize pool $400,000 with $200,000 going to the winner. That normally would be ambitious for the first season of a high-end contest, but with the Harrah's marketing machine to get the word out as well as the advantage of tapping the Reno-Tahoe and Laughlin markets for players that might not otherwise be able to enter a Vegas contest every week, the goal is reachable.

"I think the key for us is including players from northern Nevada and all over the state, plus our bonus money," Esposito said. "Sometimes people do great early in these contests and don't get anything to show for it, so we wanted to reward people who do well at different points of the season even if they don't finish with one of the top overall records."

In addition to the main pool, Harrah's is kicking in $50,000 in bonus prizes, including $15,000 for the leader after the first six weeks, $15,000 for the leader after 12 weeks, and an aggregate $20,000 prize for the most wins over the final five weeks of the season.

It'll be interesting to see if the big contests cannibalize each other, or if, like the World Series of Poker being challenged by the World Poker Tour five years ago, it grows the market.

On the lower end, Harrah's is also hosting a weekly $20 buy-in contest at its properties. Players pick 16 Sunday and Monday games against the spread (with totals also used on weeks with fewer games). In addition to appealing to locals, it is open to anyone visiting one of the properties who can't enter for the whole season. Harrah's will seed the weekly pot with $5,000 and add the entry fees on top.

The accompanying chart is broken down the same way, with Section 1 detailing season-long contests that must be entered before the start of the season, and Section 2 including contests that one can enter at any time, even if they have season-long prizes.

Some other notes from the list:

* Unless the Harrah's contest draws a poker-like explosion of entries, the Hilton SuperContest should still have the top prize. A conservative estimate of a field of 505 (last year's field was 503 and has grown by 20 percent each year in recent years) would make the top prize this season $303,000.

* Station Casinos returns with its $1,000 buy-in contest, called The Challenge. As opposed to previous years when registrations had to be made at Palace Station, registrations and selections can be made at any Station Casino. That contest has a guaranteed first-place prize of $100,000.

* The Leroy's family of books has the biggest college contest - the College Challenge. The entry fee is $250 with a maximum of three entries. Selections can be made at any Leroy's property. After having a $50,000 guaranteed prize pool last year, it's been increased to $100,000 this year, and the number of paid spots was increased from 30 to 40. A contest over the final four weeks has also been added.

* All of the above contests allow proxies as long as you sign up in person with your proxy.

* The Club Cal Neva network of books has a smaller college contest to go with its longtime Pick Your Pros contest. The entry fee is $25 for the NFL, $20 for college, but it's a combined $35 if you enter both. Most of the Club Cal Neva books are based in northern Nevada, but there are branches at the Tuscany and Four Queens in Las Vegas,

* Texas Station's Last Man Standing is the sole "king of the hill" contest, in which one picks one game a week until he is eliminated. Its guaranteed winner-take-all prize increases this year from $5,000 to $10,000

* With hotel closings (Stardust) and ownership changes (Hard Rock), free contests are getting less common as free contests at both those places have fallen by the wayside. Leroy's Pick'em and Win is the biggest of the remaining freebies with a $5,000 weekly prize for picking games with no point spreads. (The contest is also held during the preseason; last week, only 1,077 people entered as opposed to the 8,000 or 9,000 that play each week during the regular season.) The other free contest is at Terrible's, where the first entry is free and extra entries cost $10 apiece. The 10th entry is also free, so a player can get 10 entries for $80.

King Palm's seconditis continues

King Palm, the 5-year-old owned by the Maloof Brothers, owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings and the Palms hotel in Las Vegas, finished second for the ninth straight time Wednesday in Del Mar's second race, a $56,000 maiden special weight. As the even-money favorite in the mile race, King Palm trailed in the seven-horse field through the first four furlongs, moved up to fourth turning into the stretch, closed on the rail, but could only get up for second - again. After the race, trainer Vladmir Cerin said he planned to wait until the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet for King Palm's next start.