04/20/2003 11:00PM

Moolah tourney goes down to wire

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LAS VEGAS - On the final day of the Bally's Moolah handicapping tournament last Saturday, Andrew Osborne twice had to sweat while waiting for the "official" sign to be posted.

The first time was in the third race at Keeneland, a $40,000 claimer in which Osborne had 14-1 longshot Deputy Stripe. Osborne had been in sixth place after Friday in the $5,000 buy-in tournament, which drew 14 contestants - easily the lowest number to compete for a berth in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship - and he was looking to get back into contention.

Deputy Stripe opened up by two lengths at the sixteenth pole, but then was challenged by 7-2 late-runner Brocco Bray. After viewing the replays, Osborne said he thought his horse came up just short, and he was hoping for a dead heat. His wish was granted, as Deputy Stripe paid $13 to win and $10.40 to place (players made 15 mythical $2 win and place bets each day, with a cap of 25-1 to win and 12-1 to place, plus five bonus points for each winner). It wasn't the score he had dreamed of, but it was a start.

The second time was even more gut-wrenching for Osborne, a 34-year-old Rochester, N.Y., resident. It was five hours later, after the 10th race at Santa Anita, the last race of the contest. Osborne knew he had a shot at the tournament victory, but didn't know if he would get caught at the wire.

By then, he had added a second-place finish with Love That Music ($15.60 to place) in the sixth race at Aqueduct, a maiden special weight race. Osborne's big score was also at the Big A, with Jelly Roll Romp in the 10th race (one of six races on Saturday that everyone had to play). Jelly Roll Romp went off at 29-1 in the allowance race and won by 3 1/4 lengths, paying $61 to win and $25.40 to place.

"I bet on the horse that beat him last time and I saw how game he was," said Osborne. "This was a good race to take a shot on."

Osborne said the winning jockey, Shaun Bridgmohan, "doesn't owe me anything ever again."

Osborne was fairly confident that no one else had the horse. So, just like Deputy Stripe, he was the one to catch.

But with no posted standings, he had no way to know if his 227.4 points was enough. He quickly became the shadow of Chris Eggers, the race book manager at Bally's Las Vegas and the steward of all the scores. With many of the contestants flying home Saturday night to be with their families on Easter, she was also going around verifying scores and getting players to waive their right to appeal so that all the checks could be issued right away.

When the 10th at Santa Anita became official, Osborne walked back to his front-row seat in the race book and yelled to Eggers, "Well?"

Eggers replied, "Huh? What are you asking?" and tried her best poker face, but her smile gave it away. "You won," she finally said.

He asked, "Is it official?" When she said "yes," Osborne pumped his fist and yelled "Oh, yeah!" He then let out an audible sigh of relief.

Osborne calls himself a weekend player, making most of his bets at nearby Finger Lakes and Batavia Downs in upstate New York. This was only Osborne's second tournament. His first tournament came last June at Mohegan Sun. How did he fare?

"Not good," Osborne said.

Osborne was chuckling after the tournament became official because his winnings were twice as much as they could have been.

"I gave my brother the chance to buy in for half, but he passed," Osborne said.

That was too bad for his brother, as Osborne walked off with $32,750 for the victory, plus $5,825 for having Saturday's top score.

Osborne said he picked this tournament because of the high entry fee and low number of contestants (and thus a higher-percentage chance of victory), plus he said, "I'm a win and place bettor, so I liked that, plus the emphasis on East Coast tracks really played to my strengths."

The contest tracks were Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Pimlico, Keeneland and Santa Anita, so it wasn't surprising that Easterners dominated the standings.

Scott Ragovin of New York City was the Day 1 leader (also worth $5,825) and finished with 196.2 points, good for the second-place prize. Rupert Smith of Bethany Beach, Del., finished third, earning $5,000 plus another $2,325 for having Saturday's third-best score.

But Osborne was the only one to earn a National Handicapping Championship berth. He also will receive round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations for the finals, to be held next January in Las Vegas.

NBA playoffs under way

Bettors got off to a rocky start as the NBA playoffs opened last Saturday. Of the five games played, three of them saw line movement and bettors were on the losing side of all three as the Nets beat the Bucks 109-96 as a 6-point favorite (bet down from 7), the Celtics beat the Pacers outright 103-100 as a 6 1/2-point dog (bet up from Indiana -5 1/2) and the Mavericks beat the Trail Blazers 96-86 as a 5 1/2-point choice (bet down from 6 1/2).

In the other two games, the lines at the Stardust didn't move. Bettors were also on the losing side of the Suns' 96-95 overtime upset of the Spurs (bet from -8 to -9 at Caesars Palace and the other Park Place casinos). Bettors won with the Jazz in a pointspread-covering 96-90 loss to the Kings. The Jazz were bet from 10-point dogs to 9 1/2.

On Sunday, however, bettors got the best of the bookies, winning all three decisions. They backed the Magic from +5 1/2 to +4 1/2 and then watched them upset the Pistons 99-94, steamed the Lakers from -1 to -2 1/2 before they romped 117-98 over the Timberwolves, and closed out the day by backing the 76ers from -4 1/2 to -5 as they prevailed 98-90 over the Hornets.

In all, road teams (all of which were underdogs, with the exception of the Lakers) went 5-3 over the weekend, though that's not much of a sample to base anything on. With oddsmakers and bettors following the assumption that playoff games will have lower scores than the regular season (and thus lowering the totals), six of the eight games went over.

Five of the eight Game 2's were to be played Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, I'd look for the Pistons to bounce back and cover the 5 1/2 points vs. the Magic to even their series, and for the Trail Blazers (one of the league's best road teams) to at least stay within the 6-point spread vs. the Mavs. I would also look to the over in both games. The Magic-Pacers total is 183 1/2 while the Blazers-Mavs is 192.