10/10/2001 11:00PM

It's not too late to get good odds

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Anyone with horse sense will tell you that the best time to make future book bets on the World Thoroughbred Championships is months in advance.

The late spring and early summer is when you can find quality horses that you know are being pointed for racing's championship day, and you can get reasonable prices before they get bet down after strong performances in the major stakes races at Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Belmont. The biggest risk is that your horse might not stay healthy, but when you're getting 50-1 to 100-1 it can certainly be worth it.

Well, if that's the best time, then right now is the second-best. We pretty much know who will be entered, and it's just a matter of searching around town to see if any value still exists.

The accompanying chart shows the Classic odds offered around town as they compare with those set by Daily Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker.

As expected, Aptitude has taken significant action at every future book. As of Wednesday morning, however, he was still available at Mandalay Bay (not listed in the chart) at 4-1. I wouldn't expect that price to still be there by the time you read this. But if you think Aptitude will be the winner and might get bet down by the public on race day, you can lock him in at 2-1 at several books.

While I wouldn't send anyone to the Imperial Palace to bet Aptitude at 7-5, the IP does have some appealing odds on some other contenders: Galileo (4-1), Albert the Great (25-1), Freedom Crest at (40-1), and Guided Tour and Gander (both at 100-1).

The New Frontier has had some of the favorites knocked down to unbettable levels, but there's still value on Include (30-1) and Macho Uno (25-1).

Coast Resorts (The Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast) had the highest available odds on Broken Vow (20-1), but also had competitive prices on Fantastic Light (5-1) and Include (15-1) as of Wednesday.

The most comprehensive Breeders' Cup future book is maintained by John Avello, who runs the race and sports book operation at Bally's and Paris. Avello's odds are used by the rest of the Park Place Entertainment casinos (Caesars Palace, Las Vegas Hilton, Flamingo, Reno Hilton, Flamingo Reno, Caesars Tahoe, Flamingo Laughlin). You won't be able to find better odds than 6-1 on Tiznow or 8-1 on Fantastic Light. Include (18-1), Freedom Crest (30-1), and Gander (35-1) also appear to be values.

The Park Place properties are the only group of casinos to post odds on all of the Breeders' Cup races.

Of course, we won't know for sure what the true overlays will be until race day. Happy shopping.

Early Kentucky Derby odds

If you prefer to bet your futures sooner rather than later, Kentucky Derby 2002 odds are up at several race books.

Officer is the early favorite and is still 12-1 at Park Place, while he has been bet down to 7-1 at Imperial Palace and 2-1 at the Coast Resorts. Coast was the first to put up a Derby future book this year, opening Officer at 30-1 and taking quite a few bets even after dropping him to 20-1 and 10-1. They obviously don't want any more bets on him. But there are 75 other juveniles listed with two-thirds of them at 100-1 or higher.

Came Home is the 20-1 second choice at both the Imperial Palace and Park Place. Ecstatic (18-1 at IP, 100-1 at Park Place), Jump Start (20-1 at IP, 40-1 at Park Place), Essence of Dubai (30-1 at IP, 50-1 at Park Place) and Siphonic (40-1 at IP, 30-1 at Park Place) are the other early favorites, and the prices just go up from there.

The Imperial Palace offers prices on the most horses for the Derby, 212.

Handicapping contest updates

This year's last major horse handicapping contest will be Pick the Ponies XIX on Oct. 24-26 at the Las Vegas Hilton. The entry fee is $500, but it's only $400 for those signing up by 5 p.m. Monday. All entry fees are paid back to the top 30 finishers, plus the Hilton kicks in $15,000 in daily prizes ($5,000 each day). You have to sign up by Monday, however, to qualify for the daily bonuses.

Contestants make 10 $100 across-the-board wagers from designated contest tracks each day. Full track mutuel payoffs will be awarded for the first $50 with the remaining $50 capped at $42 to win, $18 to place, and $10 to show.

* The first contest of the new year will be the Suncoast Invitational, slated for Jan. 16-19. The entry fee is $1,000, with first prize of $105,000 based on 300 entrants. Prize are paid down to 40th place, and there is $30,000 in daily prizes ($10,000 each day) paid by the casino in addition to all entry fees being returned as prize money.

The early sign-up deadline, which gets you in a bonus $20,000 contest on the day before the main tournament starts, is Jan. 16.

Reno tourney in limbo

It was announced this week that Park Place Entertainment is selling the Flamingo Reno, which had hosted the second-biggest horse handicapping tournaments in the state. The Reno Hilton, which has shared operations with the Flamingo the last few months, might absorb the twice-a-year tournaments at some point, but no decision has been made yet. Flamingo Reno Challenge VIII had been scheduled for Feb. 7-9.

The Reno Hilton started its own tournament last year. Summer Showdown II is slated for June 13-15. The entry fee is $200, plus players wager $300 of their own money each day (and get to keep any winnings). The prize pool is awarded to the people with the highest real-money bankroll.