01/31/2008 1:00AM

Las Vegas expects 300,000 for 'Big Game'


LAS VEGAS - Super Bowl weekend is here, and with it comes an estimated 300,000 visitors to this desert outpost.

The game is being held in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, and the sports books here like it when the Super Bowl is held out West, as many people make a side trip to our fair city to place some wagers. Reports of $700 hotel rooms in the Phoenix area have led to more and more stories of Super Bowl attendees booking rooms here and driving or flying down for the game.

The Arizona Host Super Bowl Committee estimates 125,000 visitors for the festivities leading up to the game, which is dwarfed by the Vegas number. But don't expect to hear the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority bragging about that. The last time it did that in 2004 with a TV ad that pointed out (accurately) that more people were here watching the game than in the host city of Houston, the NFL cracked down on Super Bowl parties, citing copyright law and saying no events could be created around its property (in essence, making them pay-per-view events), no admission could be charged even for smaller gatherings, and that screens couldn't be more than 55 inches diagonal (Note: sports books are exempt from the screen-size rule because they use them in their normal mode of business).

That created a cooling down from the casinos, which have mostly gone to private events for invited guests. The biggest public viewings (and there's no admission charge, but that just means they'll really be jam-packed and you better arrive early to get a seat) will be at the Las Vegas Hilton, Orleans, and South Point.

The NFL has never said the crackdown was a response to the advertisement (which was not allowed nationally on the Super Bowl broadcast), but it sure was a coincidence.

The NFL also forbids the use of the trademarked phrase "Super Bowl" by casinos (newspaper writers are under no such restriction - thank you, founding fathers, for the First Amendment), so you'll mostly see references to the "Big Game," "Pro Football Championship," or "The Game at the End of the Season."

As for the actual game, no matter what you call it, the New England Patriots are favored by 12 points over the New York Giants with a total of 54 points. Sports books here in Vegas first posted the Patriots -14 two Sunday nights ago after the matchup was set, but that number disappeared quickly as most books opened at 13 1/2 and the line was 13 just about everywhere within an hour and a half.

The number was lowered to 12 the following day as money continued to come in on the underdog in addition to early reports of Tom Brady's ankle injury. It has been a pretty solid 12 ever since.

Proposition wagers have gotten so popular that many sports books now report handling as much action on those bets as they do on the side and total. The Hilton has more than 300 props available on everything from the opening coin toss (heads and tails are both offered at -101), to who will score first, the first coach's challenge, over/under yardage for most of the skill-position players, to whether there will be overtime (no Super Bowl has gone to OT; the "yes" is 10-1).

Hopkins wins Orleans tournament

While the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship was taking place at the Red Rock Resort last weekend, there was another major tournament being held last Thursday through Saturday at the Orleans, just 10 miles away.

The Horseplayer World Series drew 678 entrants at $1,000 apiece, with Ken Hopkins, 57, of the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., winning the $307,350 first-place prize. Contestants make 11 mythical $20 win-and-place bets each day and Hopkins finished with $2,985.80 in contest points.

"I've never won a tournament before," Hopkins said. "I guess I picked the right one."

Hopkins scored only $239 the first day, but started Friday with 31-1 Crafty Grey in the first race at Tampa Bay and 38-1 Fappie's Pet in the second race at Gulfstream to vault into the lead. By the end of Friday, he had $1,895 and was ahead by $260.

"I knew everyone behind me would be looking for longshots and I had to stick with the same philosophy," Hopkins said. "But I wasn't just taking stabs. Every longshot I played I really thought had a chance."

He capped off his performance with 32-1 Gran Cesare in Tampa's 10th race, but that was his last play and he had to sweat out the rest of the afternoon.

"I was the leader with $2,350 when they posted the scores [at about 1 p.m.] and I had Gran Cesare after that, so I knew I was in good shape," Hopkins said. "I was cheering for favorites the rest of the day and they mostly came in."

Gwyn Houston, 56, of Fallston, Md., failed to qualify for the NHC this year, but finished second at the HWS with a score of $2,368.40 and collected $56,640. Other top-money winners were third-place finisher James Henderson ($47,810), fourth-place Kenneth Maier ($34,150), and fifth-place Tony Marzolla ($20,490).

Cleaning out the NHC notebook

When covering the NHC, there are so many great stories and interesting tidbits that are heard they can't all make it into the final story. Here are a few worth telling.

* Churchill Downs Inc. offered a $1 million bonus if one of the winners from its seven qualifying tournaments went on to win the NHC. William Marsh of Oak Lawn, Ill., got off to a great start as he had 31-1 Crafty Grey in the first race of the tournament at Tampa Bay and was the early leader for several hours Friday as he added another $11.40, but then he blanked the rest of the tournament. Tony "T.J." Taylor of Independence, Ky., the winner of the "Biggest Vegas Qualifier Ever" on Dec. 15 at twinspires.com, had the highest finish of the bonus babies in 40th.

* Judy Wagner, who won NHC II in 2001, had the highest finish of the six former champs in the field as she rallied to place 15th. Defending champion Stanley Bavlish finished 119th after going 0 for 15 on Friday.

* Robin Buser of Delran, N.J., was the lucky finalist who got the call less than a week prior to the NHC because another qualifer was afraid to fly and the automatic berth fell to him. Buser finished sixth to collect $25,000.

* Richard Goodall, 64, of Las Vegas won the $500,000 first-place prize and the title of Handicapper of the Year, but he barely qualified and if not for a twist of fate, someone else would be wearing the crown. After failing to qualify in numerous tries, Goodall was playing in the online contest at nhcqualify.com on Dec. 22, one of the very last chances to make the NHC field. In the eighth race at Hollywood Park, Goodall played 9-1 Informed, who finished third. The contest only used $2 win-and-place wagers, but the winner, Wise One, was disqualified and placed fourth, moving Informed to second and returning $7.60 to place. Goodall finished fifth (the final qualifying spot) by $2.60.

Now you know the rest of the story.