04/11/2002 11:00PM

New contest puts heat on handicappers

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March Madness has quickly turned to Derby fever, and in about three weeks, after the race has been run, the fever will turn into the long summer here in Las Vegas.

It is at this time of year when the casinos in town, especially those which cater to the locals, make special efforts to keep the race and sports books full.

The Station Casino properties - Boulder Station, Fiesta Rancho, Green Valley Ranch, Palace Station, Santa Fe, Sunset Station, and Texas Station - are spicing up the summer with a handicapping contest each Wednesday during the upcoming Hollywood Park meeting, which begins April 24. Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports for the Stations Casinos Inc., turned to his horse racing man, Brad Bryant, to attend to the details.

The contest is a spinoff of the popular Friday contest at Sunset Station, on the far southeast side of town. But because this contest is being conducted at seven properties, it is convenient to most Las Vegans.

The tournament will offer a guaranteed $5,000 in cash split among the five top finishers. Points are amassed based on a $2 win payoff. The player with the highest total bankroll at the end of the Hollywood card gets $3,000, with $1,000 for second, $500 for third, $300 for fourth place, and $200 for fifth. In case of a tie, the money will be split.

A player can enter the contest with a maximum of five entries. Each entry ticket costs $10 and allows the player to pick two horses per race, a top pick and an alternate in case of a late scratch.

There is a twist to this contest. All entry fees will go in a bonus "in the money" pool. The pool is paid out to those whose contest picks finish in the top three in every Hollywood race that day. So, if you are close but no cigar, you're still eligible for the bonus portion of the contest - as long as your picks continue to hit the board. If one of your picks fails to finish in the top three, you are eliminated from the bonus pool. If there are no winning bonus tickets, then the entire bonus pot carries over to the next Wednesday contest.

Bryant, the Sunset Station race book director, reports that his Friday contests averaged $2,500 per week in bonus action, and that he has seen the prize fund carry over for as many as three weeks, with a pot of as much as $10,000.

"The contest structure and format has been an overwhelming success, because if a player is out of the guaranteed win side he still has a chance to cash big on the bonus side," Bryant said. "When there is a carryover and the bonus prize comes down to the last race, it's like the Kentucky Derby when they come down the stretch."

Bryant shook his head when he imagined the prospect of that scenario playing out at seven properties. "It will be exciting," he said.

A special get-together

The Coast Resorts properties last weekend completed another handicapping tournament at the Orleans that paid the winner six figures. On Tuesday, the Orleans's Mardi Gras Ballroom was full for the Shoemaker Foundation Charity Breakfast, which followed the foundation's annual golf tournament, held at the Spanish Trails course on Monday here.

Jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye, David Flores, Danny Sorenson, and Gary Stevens joined honoree Bill Shoemaker and Hall of Famer Johnny Longden in discussing this year's Derby, past Derbies, and stories from Shoemaker's career. Fans in attendance came away from the three-hour function feeling as though they had attended a special occasion.

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