11/04/2005 12:00AM

A lean season for horseplayers


The Breeders' Cup program had barely begun before Stevie Wonderboy reported home victorious in the Juvenile to a cheering, standing room-only crowd in race books and ballrooms across Las Vegas. After all, here in the Pacific time zone it was still morning, and a long day of championship racing was still ahead for hungry horseplayers, who finally had a betting card they could sink their teeth into.

It had been a long a wait since the last time a cheering crowd had filled race books in Las Vegas. The last time that had happened was when Stevie Wonderboy had won the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7, closing day at that seaside racing emporium.

It had been slim pickings in Las Vegas race books ever since. From the end of Del Mar, except for a few Breeders' Cup preview weekends throughout the country and a surprisingly brisk Fairplex Park run, race players in the Vegas books had been patiently waiting for the big fields and competitive action on the Southern California racing circuit to return.

Adding to the problem was the cancellation of racing signals from other parts of the country experiencing weather-related problems, including, of course, the devastating hurricanes that have altered racing in Louisiana.

Slow times seem likely to continue in the race books. An abbreviated Fair Grounds meeting has been transferred to Louisiana Downs, and just this week, turf racing was canceled at Hollywood Park. What next?

The race books here are trying to make the best of trying times.

The two local casino giants are coming up with race-related promotions for their customers. Station Casinos, which offers a twin quinella on two selected races each day, has been hard-pressed to keep that proposition wager on the usual Southern California races, instead having to seek bigger fields from other, less popular circuits just to keep offering the bet.

Coast Casinos is in the process of deciding where to go next for its twice-weekly pick-five contest after this weekend. The contests are usually based on the first five races at whichever Southern California track is running. Coast managers have been struggling, though, with the typical Wednesday and Thursday cards at the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita, dealing with the small fields that have been prevalent. Still, the casinos are committed to continue their signature promotions, which offer thousands of dollars in prize money each day.

There is light at the end of this tunnel. Churchill Downs is brimming with full fields on full cards, the hurricane season is winding down, and now with major turf racing suspended, Hollywood Park will have more money to boost its daily purse structure. That may very well prompt more competition, leading to fuller weekday cards.

And, Sunday is Cal Cup Day, with big, juicy wide-open betting opportunities, and seats in the race books once again at a premium. Even if Stevie Wonderboy isn't competing there.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.