07/15/2004 12:00AM

Horseplayer heaven at casinos

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A spa is a place for a relaxing getaway, and the upcoming meets at Del Mar and Saratoga certainly fill the bill. Horseplayers, even those who might do all their betting from home or at OTB's, often choose those marquee meets as their annual sojourn to see horses run in the flesh.

This is also the time of year when Las Vegas horseplayers who might otherwise have been forgoing the sport since the Triple Crown races will return to watch the high-class horses run at Del Mar and Saratoga. And the race books here will bend over backward to get them to patronize their properties. It's also a good time for locals to come in out of the 100-degree heat and sit in the air-conditioned race books. More special promotions are built around these two meets than all other tracks combined.

The Coast Casinos (the Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast), which took a week off from their free pick five handicapping contests during the Gold Coast Summer Classic this week, reinstates them next Wednesday for opening day at Del Mar and has increased the money they are giving away each Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from $2,500 to $3,000.

The contests have been getting 700 to 800 entries a day, said Bob Gregorka, director of race book operations for Coast Casinos.

"We're happy because the handle is up, and we've gotten great feedback from the players, who obviously appreciate a free shot at money, so everyone is happy," he said.

In the pick five, players try to pick the winners of the first five races at Del Mar. The daily first prize remains at $1,000, with second place being increased from $500 to $700 and a third-place prize of $300 being added. A progressive prize starts at $1,000 and grows by $1,000 a day until someone goes 5 for 5.

In addition, while four berths to the $1 Million Horseplayers World Series were offered during the Hollywood meet, seven players during the Del Mar meet can earn a berth in the tournament.

The Station Casinos (Palace, Boulder, Texas, Sunset, Green Valley Ranch, Santa Fe) are also gearing up for a big Del Mar promotion, although details are still being finalized.

But Coast and Station don't have a monopoly on horse racing promotions. The Excalibur, which already has free handicapping contests on Wednesday in conjunction with the Edgewater in Laughlin and on Fridays in conjunction with the Circus Circus in Reno, will add another contest on Mondays during the Del Mar meet.

"We wanted to give players a chance to win free cash, and with Monday racing it gave us the chance to spread it out through the week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday," said Jeff Stoneback, race and sports book director at the Excalibur.

First place in the Excalibur contests, which will use the entire Del Mar card on those days, is $500, with $150 for second, $75 for third, $50 for fourth, and $25 for fifth, plus early-leader bonuses and drawings throughout the afternoon.

The Hard Rock (Wednesdays), Poker Palace (Wednesday through Friday, and a separate contest on Saturday and Sunday), and Imperial Palace (Saturday) will also continue their contests through the Del Mar meet.

The New Frontier doesn't have a contest, but it does have a special proposition wager based on the Del Mar jockey colony. Race and sports book director Tony Nevill has created two teams of jockeys, and the challenge is to pick which group will combine for the most trips to the winner's circle.

"We did this last year and it generated a lot of interest," Nevill said. "We keep it up during the meet, adjusting the price daily as we go, until one team is too far ahead to post a competitive number. Last year, it went down to the final day, with one team winning 115-112."

This year, Team A includes Tyler Baze, Alex Solis, Mick Ruis, and Mike Smith. Team B includes Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, Javier Santiago, and David Flores. Nevill, who did a lot of research to find out which jockeys are likely to ride for which barns, left Patrick Valenzuela off the teams because of his uncertain status. Nevill made Team B a -130 favorite (bet $1.30 for every $1 you want to win) with Team A at even money.

Unfortunately, three race books (Imperial Palace, Palms, and Casino MonteLago) that posted odds to win the Del Mar jockey title last year won't be doing it again this year.

But a brand-new promotion does start next week with the Bally's Pick 6 Club. Horseplayers sign up at the Bally's or Paris race book, and whenever there is a pick six carryover of $100,000 or more during the Del Mar and Saratoga meets, Bally's will pay for an $864 pick six ticket (plus a $144 pick four ticket) for all the players in the club who check in on that day. Only members who show up on the actual day will share in any winnings.

The group's tickets will be constructed at a handicapping seminar, hosted by Ralph Siraco, about an hour before the first pick six race. If both tracks have a carryover of $100,000, Bally's race and sports book director John Avello will choose which one the group will go after. Club members can receive notice via e-mail of when the club is meeting, plus it will be announced on the Race Day Las Vegas shows and at ballysraceandsports.com.

"I would recommend everyone pre-register, and that way you'll get advance notice of when there's a carryover, plus you'll be able to just show up and check in and we'll have all your information," Avello said. "There's nothing like free money to bring people in, and with this promotion we're giving the opportunity to be part of a huge jackpot, or maybe two."

A day at the spa and a chance for free cash, all for watching the ponies run. It doesn't get much better than that.