01/31/2005 1:00AM

Huge finish shoots Ray to Series title

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For the second straight weekend, the winner of a major horse handicapping tournament said the words all horseplayers wish to utter: "I'm ahead for life."

Las Vegas's Michael Ray, 58, finished on top of a field of 768 handicappers to capture the Horseplayers World Series last Thursday through Saturday at the Orleans, winning a record first prize of $384,000, breaking the mark of $200,000 set the previous weekend by Jamie Michelson at the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Champion-ship.

A native of upstate New York, Ray has been a fan of horseracing since he was 8 years old, when his dad took him to Saratoga. Ray said the only Spa meets he has missed was when he was in the military. Ray is a former CPA who specialized in the health-care field and parlayed that into owning some nursing homes. He said he sold his businesses about three years ago and moved from Albany, N.Y., to Las Vegas with his wife, Marion.

Ray said he followed the New York circuit in his early handicapping life, but during his professional career, he would often get off work at 4 p.m. Eastern, first post at the tracks in Southern California, so that became his focus.

He was able to devote more time to his handicapping after the move to Vegas and also got involved with handicapping tournaments. Ray said he has played every tournament at the Coast Casinos the past two to three years and, in fact, finished 14th in the Gold Coast Summer Classic last July to earn a free berth into the World Series, which otherwise has an entry fee of $1,000.

Ray said he had two low-point days at the Gold Coast and then a huge day on the final day to finish in the money. He did the same thing last weekend.

On Thursday, Ray compiled just $580 in contest earnings from the 11 mythical $20 win-and-place bets that everyone made. Scores are based on the mutuel prices, with the first $2 paid at full track odds and the remaining $18 capped at 19-1 for win and 9-1 for place. That score had him in 254th place, well behind the leader, Robert O'Shea of Las Vegas, who compiled an incredible $2,566 as his first-day score after hitting five longshots in 11 plays.

That was the day to do it as there were 13 "cap" horses Thursday and only four on Friday. Ray put up another $632 in earnings Friday to stand in 130th place with a score of $1,212, while O'Shea still had the target on his back with $2,988.

Ray said he didn't change his strategy or playing style heading into the final day.

"For many of the people in the room, they're winging it - playing only longshots," Ray said. "I play the tournament the same way I bet on a regular day. Any longshots I'm playing in the tournament are ones I'm betting with my own money. I find enough live longshots in my regular handicapping that I don't need to just be taking stabs."

His first big winner was Irish Honor in the first race at Santa Anita, paying $81.60 to win and $29.60 to place. He then had Gibbons Terrace in the finale at Aqueduct, paying $25.60 to win and $10.60 to place. And then came the big bomb - he nailed 47-1 Red Warrior in Santa Anita's fourth race, the Sunshine Millions Sprint, paying a whopping $97 to win and $34.80 to place.

"When I hit Red Warrior, I said 'I have a shot,'" Ray said. "I thought I might be in the top 10, so I figured I would need one more winner."

As it happened he could manage only two more place horses the rest of the day, good for 300 more points to bring his final total to $3,278.60. One of the place horses was Zakocity in the Sunshine Millions Classic in Gulfstream's last race. Zakocity lost a stretch duel with 70-1 shot Musique Toujours. Ray knew he was in the running but figured someone else would win the big prize with other longshots also coming in on Saturday's card.

He went home to get his wife for dinner and came back to the Orleans to pick up some friends.

"As soon as I walked in the racebook, two of my friends ran up and said 'You won, you won,'" Ray said. "It was hard to believe."

Paul Kasselman - who is also from Albany, N.Y., and said he plans to stay there - was second with $3,080.40 in contest earnings to take home the second-place prize of $76,800. Lyle Naylor of Las Vegas was third with $3,020.60 to earn $61,440. He also collected an additional $7,680 for having the highest score on Saturday. Tim Downs of Las Vegas was fourth with a score of $3,014.80 to win $46,080, while O'Shea settled for fifth place after blanking on Saturday to claim $30,720.

At the awards ceremony on Sunday morning, Bob Gregorka, Coasts director of race book operations, said he was making an executive decision and giving the top five finishers a free entry into next year's World Series (tentatively slated for Jan. 26-28, 2006).

The World Series paid out prizes to the top 30 finishers from the record purse of $768,000.

Super Bowl odds update

After a week of wagering on Super Bowl XXXIX, the Patriots are favored by 7 points over the Eagles, but it's not the same price everywhere.

Many books, when they first moved the line from 6 1/2 to 7, made the Eagles' bettors lay -120 (instead of the standing 10-percent vigorish) when taking the +7, and Patriots -7 was offered at even money. Last week, most books went to -7 flat (-110 both ways), but over the weekend there continued to be more support for the Patriots, and the Stardust and other Boyd Gaming properties have adjusted the price to Patriots -7/-115 with the Eagles at +7/-105. As of noon Monday, the Leroy's chain was the high-water mark with Pats -7/-120 and the Eagles at +7/even.

Just like last year, the two largest locals casino groups here in Vegas - Coast Casinos and Station Casinos - are offering -105 on either side.

In totals wagering, most books have settled at 48 points, with the MGM Mirage and Station Casinos holding at 47 1/2.