02/23/2004 1:00AM

Horseplayers converge on Vegas

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Every week of the year, Las Vegas hosts trade shows and conventions of all shapes and sizes. Everyone from casino workers to technology companies to clothing manufacturers to butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers hit the town. Even the National Thoroughbred Racing Association now holds its annual meeting here.

So, it's not too far of a leap to have horseplayers convene in Las Vegas to discuss the business of picking winners. This weekend, Thursday through Sunday, the Paris Hotel and Casino hosts the Daily Racing Form Horseplayers Expo 2004.

This is the brainchild of noted Thoroughbred author and handicapper James Quinn, who had organized four similar events under the title of National Conference of Thoroughbred Handicapping before teaming up with DRF to put on Horseplayers Expo 2000.

In his opening remarks that year, Quinn said: "It's certainly worthwhile for all of us handicappers to get together and share our theories on this great game. It might get redundant to do it every year or two. This won't be an annual thing, but we want to do this every three or four years."

Well, they're right on schedule.

Quinn is fresh from chairing the NTRA Players' Panel, which last week released its position paper to the industry with recommendations on improving the sport from the horseplayer's point of view. Five members of the Players' Panel, including Quinn, will give a presentation on Saturday at 9 a.m. NTRA Commissioner Tim Smith will be on hand to introduce the group, and DRF publisher Steven Crist will moderate the discussion and lead a Q&A session with the audience.

Registration is Thursday from 2-6 p.m. in the Champagne Ballrooms, with a cocktail reception from 6:30-8 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, eight sessions each day will cover all aspects of handicapping and feature more than two dozen of the most well-known names in the game. Topics include workouts, pedigree analysis, speed figures, track biases, trip handicapping, pace, form cycles, turf races, future-book wagering, and tournament play.

Friday's events will be capped by a cocktail reception/book signing from 5-6:30 p.m. with all authors in attendance, while Saturday will come to a close with a banquet from 7-10 p.m. Harvey Pack will serve as master of ceremonies, and Crist is the featured guest speaker.

A full schedule can be found at www.drf.com/expo.

The cost to attend the entire Expo is $399, including all cocktail receptions and the banquet, with walk-up registration allowed on Thursday. Attendees are still able to get the special Expo hotel rate of $125 as long as rooms are available. For those just wanting to attend the sessions on either Friday or Saturday, a special day rate is available for $185, not including the cocktail reception or banquet. Tickets for the Thursday and Friday cocktail receptions are $30 apiece. The Saturday banquet is $75.

Throughout the Expo, John Avello, director of race and sports for the Paris hotel and its next-door sister property, Bally's, said he would have a mini-race book set up in the Champagne rooms, with five or six projection screens showing the races and a bunch of smaller TV's behind the four betting windows, so attendees don't have to leave the convention area to place their bets.

All attendees and panelists will be invited to play in a $100 buy-in handicapping contest on Sunday. Entrants will make 10 mythical $2 across-the-board bets on races at Aqueduct and Gulfstream (subject to change due to inclement weather). Prizes will be paid to the top five finishers, with the winner receiving 50 percent of all entry fees.

Sports book notes

Mike Weir nearly blew a seven-shot lead before holding on to win the Nissan Open at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., on Sunday.

Weir was the defending champ, but was only the third choice in the betting at 12-1 behind Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. He built his commanding lead on Friday and Saturday, but then saw it all get washed away Sunday while playing in the rain as part of the closing group with Shigeki Maruyama, a 50-1 longshot. They were tied on the final hole, where Weir chipped out of the rough to save par and avoid a high-profile collapse.

* While the Nissan Open came down to the wire, it was surely topped by the Subway 400. Matt Kenseth, who won only one race last year on his way to the NASCAR series championship (then called the Winston Cup, now sponsored by Nextel), beat rookie Kasey Kahne by a nose - officially 0.010 seconds - in the fourth-closest finish in NASCAR history.

Kenseth was the eighth choice at 12-1, while Kahne, considered by many to be the best in a strong group of rookie drivers, was at 30-1.

The NASCAR circuit now takes a week off before its next race, the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400, on March 7 in Las Vegas. In the end, everyone comes here sooner or later.