04/05/2002 1:00AM

How he did it and what he felt: Inside a contest winner's mind

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Saturday was the final day of the $382,500 Championship at The Orleans handicapping tournament in Las Vegas, carrying a first-place prize of $106,400.

The Orleans tournament drew 665 players - some of the sharpest handicappers in the country - who paid $500 each to enter.

Tim Downs won the last Championship at The Orleans in August - his first-place check was worth $109,395 - and was back to defend his title.

Downs, 36, lives in Del Mar, Calif., and said he plays the horses for a living.

"I've played in every one of these [Orleans tournaments] since its inception," he said.

"It was a feeling of great accomplishment for me to win last year," Downs added. "My best finish previously was seventh.

"To me this is the best tournament around. One reason is the field size; two, the format is win-only, which is the only format to have in a contest like this; and three, the quality of the field. All of the major tournament players come here."

Downs pulled out the win by hitting two late plays on the final Saturday. "I picked four winners on the last day," Downs said. "I caught a $40 horse at Del Mar [Golden Apples, who won the Del Mar Oaks and paid $44]. That put me around 9,000 points. I figured I was one-two-three at that point.

"Finally in the very last race, I figured any points you can get at this stage are a bonus. So, I just handicapped the race to find the winner. I played Dixie Law, he was 7-2, and he won. I got 450 points and I won by 200 points, so I absolutely needed him to win."

Luck plays a big part in winning any tournament. It's the skill part you can control. Downs outlined his basic tournament strategy.

"I like to bet older male horses, claiming types, and big fields, like in turf races," said Downs. "I stay away from short fields.

"I'm a West Coast player, so that's where I look first. After I figure how many plays are there, I'll look at the other contest tracks. Since you're trying to find 15-1 to 20-1 horses, I'll look for changes in equipment, medication, barn changes, things that can reverse a horse's form. I try to use some imagination to come up with something the general public might not catch."

His daily preparation begins with the Daily Racing Form. "I'll do a quick glance of the entries in the Form at all the contest tracks," he said. "I'll eliminate the small fields, avoid filly races, and do a quick brush through. That might take one to two hours. I'll take a break for dinner, then come back up and handicap for four to five hours.

"The next day I'll be down in the tournament room grinding away on every race. If you're not focused, you're not going to win. You could do your work the night before, love a horse but he's only 6-1 on the morning line. Then all of a sudden you look up and he's 18-1. If you're not aware of that, it could cost you $100,000."

Downs focuses on one thing, winning. "I won't go out at night, stay up late partying," he said. "I like to have a beer, but I won't have one during the tournament. This is my job."

Richard Eng is turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.