06/09/2011 9:12AM

Las Vegas: Handicapping tournament season looms

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LAS VEGAS – With the Triple Crown wrapping up, this is the time of year when the race books here turn their attention to hosting handicapping tournaments.

There are some notable exceptions such as the Fall Classic at the Orleans, the Pick the Ponies tourneys at the Hilton in the spring and fall, etc., but they love to run tournaments of all sizes here in the summer to fill the books before football season does (or at least we hope that’s the case with the NFL labor dispute, but that’s a topic for another day).

Regular tournament players from all over the country are making travel arrangements for the big tourneys here this summer. The first big one is the Summer Classic at the Gold Coast on July 28-30 with a $400 entry fee.

The following weekend, Aug. 5-6, is the Wynn Las Vegas $150,000 Handicapping Challenge with a steep $2,000 entry fee. The big news there is that this is the first year that the high-end tourney is a qualifier for the Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Championship, with the top three finishers earning berths. The date for the NHC, which will be hosted for the first time by Treasure Island, hasn’t been officially set yet, though it usually falls in the bye week before the Super Bowl (again, the NFL has caused a lot of wide-ranging uncertainty) and may be Jan. 27-28.

The South Point is hosting its inaugural Hot August Open Handicapping Contest on Aug. 12-13 with a $400 entry fee. They’ve hosted tourneys there before but usually in the spring. The South Point also is running “Cool Qualifiers” every Thursday during the summer with a $30 entry fee aimed at locals, though out-of-towners can take a shot at earning a seat in the finals.

On Aug. 25-27, the Hilton will host its thrice-annual Pick the Ponies tournament with a $500 entry fee, though early-bird entries cost $450 if registered by 4 p.m. Aug. 22 (note: that’s an increase from $400 in years past). The Hilton has been running Super Saturday contests with a $30 entry fee since February, but this Saturday will be the last one until the Del Mar and Saratoga meets open.

That segues nicely into a new offering at Station Casinos that will fill that void on Saturdays. Stations is launching the “We Luv Locals” Summer Race Contest Series with $25 buy-in events each Saturday from June 18 through Aug. 13 (maximum two entries per person) at their Stations-branded casinos (Palace, Boulder, Sunset, Texas, Santa Fe, Aliante, Green Valley Ranch, and Red Rock) as well as the Fiesta group (Fiesta Rancho and Fiesta Henderson).

Entrants will make eight mythical win/place wagers at designated contest tracks. In addition to playing for the weekly prize money (which will be seeded with $3,000 by Stations) with the top prize each week being $1,000 plus 50 percent of the entry fees, the top five finishers each week will earn a spot in the Aug. 20 finale (open only to qualifiers) to play for the $30,000 purse, with the top prize being $10,000 and paying 15 places.

Oh, yeah, the Belmont...

Without a Triple Crown on the line, the Belmont Stakes and its undercard falls into the category of being just a regular Saturday in the race books here. Sure, there will be some who are buying into the hype of the Animal Kingdom vs. Shackleford rubber match, and that might draw some lookie-loos to the books, but nothing like the throng that comes for the Derby or even for the Preakness to see if the Derby winner can do it again.

The Wynn has posted a head-to-head matchup with Animal Kingdom –185 (risk $1.85 for every $1 you want to profit) vs. Shackleford +155 (win $1.55 for every $1 wagered). Your horse doesn’t have to win, it just has to finish ahead of the other horse in the matchup. The Lucky’s Race & Sports Books made it a little close at –175/+145.

Tuley the Tout: I’m sticking with Mucho Macho Man as my top pick. He hasn’t had a chance to run his best race (trouble, losing a shoe, etc.) and he’s still developing as a late June foal. This 3-year-old class has taken turns knocking each other off, so I’m passing on the top contenders.

Golden Nugget posts NCAA odds

Another annual thing at this time of year is college football getting more on the minds of bettors. The football preview magazines are out, plus this is the fifth straight year that the Golden Nugget in downtown Vegas is the first to put lines on selected games. This was written before the scheduled release time of noon Friday, June 10.

If you’re in town and reading this online Thursday or in Friday’s advance print version, you should check it out as it’s a throwback to the days of the Stardust “lottery” with all the wise guys in town lining up to take a crack at the opening numbers. If you miss it, you’re sure to hear about this weekend if you use Twitter to follow college football news or frequent Internet posting forums.

Race and sports book director Tony Miller teams up with supervisor Aaron Kessler and former LVSC linemaker Tony Sinisi in setting the lines. They did 200 games last year, but Miller said they had their first losing year after three winning seasons and they’re cutting back to 100.

“It wasn’t a huge loss, and the years we won weren’t big either, but we felt that was too much last year,” Miller said. “We also do it to publicize the hotel and what we’re doing down here, so while we want to win, we’re just trying to give players a shot at locking in some good numbers and hoping they keep coming back. If we set good enough numbers, we’ll do okay.”

Miller said two windows will be open, and it’ll be first-come, first-served. Bettors will be able to make three limit wagers ($1,000) and then move to the back of the line.