07/13/2006 12:00AM

High-stakes horse contests coming soon

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Tournaments are a hot topic here in Las Vegas with the World Series of Poker in the midst of its 45 events.

Race and sports bettors don't have anything as big or prestigious as the $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E championship - the letters stand for the poker games of hold'em, Omaha, razz, stud, and eights-or-better - or the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold'em World Championship, aka The Main Event, but there are plenty of upcoming opportunities for handicappers to test their skill.

Next week, right across the street from the Rio All-Suite Hotel where the World Series is being held, the fourth annual Gold Coast Summer Classic will be conducted on Thursday through Saturday with a $400 entry fee and a win-and-place format. Coast tournament coordinator Debbie Flaig said that 300 people have signed up so far, which isn't bad considering there's no early-bird bonus. She's hoping to get close to the 560-player field that entered last year when the main prize pool was $224,000, plus $20,000 in daily prize money kicked in by the Gold Coast. In addition to the built-in incentive of cash, the entrants are also going for the Horseplayers World Series berths that go to the top 10 finishers. The Horseplayer World Series will be held Jan. 18-20 at the Orleans.

There are no handicapping tournaments scheduled here for the last weekend in July, but then there's one on every weekend in August.

The only harness racing tournament in town, the Bang Tail Harness Tournament at Bally's on Aug. 5, is a live-money event with a $300 entry fee and a $360 bankroll for a total buy-in of $660. Bally's will send the top two finishers to the 2007 National Harness Handicapping Championship at the Meadowlands on April 27.

Wynn Las Vegas hosts its first tournament on Aug. 11-12 with the Horse Race Handicapping Challenge. This tourney, which uses races only from Saratoga and Del Mar just like the old MGM Grand high-roller event, has the steepest entry fee at $2,000 and is expected to attract only the top tournament players around, kind of like the H.O.R.S.E. equivalent for horses tourneys. Wynn director of race and sports John Avello said Thursday that he has just eight entries, with verbal commitments from 20 more. He's hoping for 40 to 50 total, since the purse of $100,000 is guaranteed.

Next in the gate is the Pick the Ponies at the Las Vegas Hilton, a $500 buy-in event on Aug. 17-19. There is an early-bird deadline of 5 p.m. on Aug. 7 with a buy-in of $400 (with the Hilton kicking in the $100 difference to the prize pool).

The Hilton routinely sells out the 200-player field for its tourneys the week before the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup, but last year attracted 164 for its first August event. As of Thursday, there were 54 entrants, but that should increase steadily by the early-bird deadline.

The summer bonanza of tournaments here in Las Vegas (there are no handicapping tournaments scheduled in Reno this year) wraps up with the $1,000 buy-in Summer Stakes at Bally's on Aug. 25-26. The top two finishers will earn automatic berths in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, to be held at Bally's on Jan. 26-27, and this will be the last local qualifier until the two last-chance tourneys at Bally's the week before the NHC.

Football contests right around corner

Most of the preseason football publications are out, and pro and college players go to training camp in the next few weeks, so it's definitely time to gear up for football season.

Most casinos are still finalizing details on their football contests and will be rolling out registration information later this month or in early August (and I will run a full list in mid-August), but the Las Vegas Hilton, which runs the $1,500 buy-in SuperContest in which contestants pick five NFL games against the spread each week, is opening up registrations this Monday, two weeks earlier than normal.

Station Casinos also is expected to have a $1,000 buy-in NFL contest.

Last year, Leroy's had the lone college-only contest in town with its $250 buy-in College Challenge. This year, Leroy's is doubling the guaranteed prize pool from $50,000 to $100,000 and paying the top 40 spots, according to marketing director Jimmy Vaccaro.

In addition, Leroy's is running a similar $250 buy-in NFL contest, also with a $100,000 guarantee, and Vaccaro said he's in talks with Leroy's owner Vic Salerno to offer a bonus if someone were to win both. Vaccaro is trying to talk Salerno into offering $100,000 while Salerno is reportedly (and understandably) a little reluctant since it's his money.

"We know how hard it will be to win both," Vaccaro said, "because often if someone is tearing it up in the colleges they're struggling in the pros and vice versa. But if you have the season of your life, you should be rewarded."

That's what I've always said: Tournaments and contests are the best way to maximize your profits on your good days. There's an old saying that you should make a bet every day because you might be walking around lucky and not even know it.

But even on your luckiest days, if you just win a few bets you will just grind out a profit, but if you're in a contest or tournament of some kind, that's where the real windfalls happen.

2006 Las Vegas horse handicapping tournaments

DatesContestHost HotelEntry fee
July 20-22Gold Coast Summer ClassicGold Coast$400
Aug. 5Bang Tail Harness TournamentBally's Las Vegas*660
Aug. 11-12Horse Race Handicapping ChallengeWynn Las Vegas2,000
Aug. 17-19Pick the Ponies XIXLas Vegas Hilton500
Aug. 25-26Summer StakesBally's Las Vegas1,000
Oct. 5-7Fall Classic at The OrleansThe Orleans500
Nov. 1-3Pick the Ponies XXLas Vegas Hilton500

* Live-money tournament, includes $300 entry fee plus $360 in live pari-mutuel wagers