10/30/2002 12:00AM

Never too early to start thinking Derby wagers

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LAS VEGAS - Even before last Saturday's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, betting had been fast and furious in the 2003 Kentucky Derby futures.

Back in July, Frank Minervini, horse racing oddsmaker at Coast Casinos, made Lone Star Sky the 80-1 favorite. Vindication, who opened at 100-1, was lowered to 15-1 after romping in an optional claiming race at Del Mar on Aug. 22. Now, after winning the BC Juvenile, Vindication is the 8-1 favorite at the Coast Casinos, which include The Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, and Suncoast.

It's quite a drop-off to the other contenders. Sky Mesa, who was scratched from the Juvenile, is the second choice at 20-1, followed by Hold That Tiger (25-1), Kafwain and Empire Maker (both at 40-1), and Inamorato and Master Deaux (50-1).

As expected, Vindication also has been pounded in the futures at the Park Place Entertainment properties. A son of Seattle Slew, he opened at 30-1 back in August and is also now 8-1 at Park Place (Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, and properties in the Reno-Tahoe area and Laughlin).

Another big mover is Empire Maker. John Avello, who sets the Park Place odds from his office at Bally's, opened Empire Maker at 150-1; the horse is now at 10-1. Avello said he booked several bets on Empire Maker, a Bobby Frankel-trained son of Unbridled, even before he made his debut on Oct. 20 at Belmont Park.

Unfortunately, the 40-1 on Empire Maker at Coast Casinos will probably be gone by the time you read this.

If you're itching to bet on next year's Breeders' Cup, Minervini put up odds Wednesday for the 2003 Classic, to be run at Santa Anita. Volponi, Medaglia d'Oro, and Evening Attire were made the 20-1 co-favorites, followed by Vindication (25-1); Hawk Wing and Repent (40-1); Mizzen Mast (50-1); and Essence of Dubai, Red Bullet, and Sarava (75-1).

More race-betting news

The Union Plaza will hold its free handicapping contest this Friday on the last five races at Oak Tree, then will go on hiatus starting with the opening of the Hollywood Park meeting next week. There is a $500 prize for the most winners, and another $500 awarded to the person whose selections accumulate the highest winning mutuels.

Because of its success so far, the Imperial Palace doubles the prize money of its $10 buy-in Super Saturdays handicapping contest to $800 for first, $400 for second, and $200 for third. In addition, there is a $200 "sprint" bonus for the person leading after the first three races. The contest uses three races from New York and three from Southern California.

Football contests

The first football handicapping contest of the year has already been won. The Eliminator, run jointly by Bally's and the Reno Hilton, requires entrants to pick one college or pro game against the spread each week. You lose, you're out. Winner(s) take all.

Of the 152 people who paid the $50 entry fee, three made it through the first six weeks. On the seventh week, they must have rested. All three lost, so instead of one winner taking the $7,600 prize pool, they split it three ways, at $2,533 apiece.

One of the winners was Jim Beers, a former trainer for George Steinbrenner and a bon vivant of the Las Vegas handicapping contest scene.

Further proving that horseplayers can handicap football games, Max Pescatori, who won the Summer Showdown at the Reno Hilton back in July, is in the running at the Las Vegas Hilton in the SuperContest. Contestants put up $1,500 apiece and pick five NFL games against the spread each week. Pescatori, under the alias "maxpesca.com," has a record of 27-13 (67.5 percent) through eight weeks and he is tied with "Little Awful Andy," the moniker of professional handicapper Andy Iskoe. Players named "I Walk a Beat" and "Mage" lead the contest at 29-11, followed by former leader "Hollywood Al" at 28-11-1 and "Ghost" at 28-12.

* There's sure to be some horse racing talk Friday night at the Stardust Invitational as Mike Lee, who bet Volponi in the Classic, puts his football handicapping skills on the line against Greg "Del Mar" Daraban of Don Best Sports. Lee is part of the Jim Feist stable. This is the final first-round matchup of the $10,000 winner-take-all, single-elimination tournament, which is contested live in the Stardust sports book with each contestant giving out seven plays against the current line. It can be heard live at 9 p.m. Pacific on KDWN AM-720. Last week, Jimmy Vaccaro went 4-3 (with a best-bet winner on Northern Illinois) to defeat Scott Spreitzer, who was also 4-3 but lost his best bet on Washington St. It was the first week both handicappers have posted winning records. Vaccaro joins Iskoe, "Papa" Joe Chevalier, Rudy Ruettiger, Karol Lucan, Lance Zierlein, and Buzz Daly in advancing to the quarterfinal round.

* "Mbay Dice" and "Fins," neither of whom has any known ties to horse racing, lead Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge contest at 27-13. The format is similar to the SuperContest, except entrants ponied up $1,000 and get to choose from two college games and two NFL totals in making their five plays per week.