04/13/2003 11:00PM

New face pulls upset at Harrah's

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Horseplayers love overlays, and one of the best values on the contest circuit continues to be the annual Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament.

Last Wednesday through Friday, 57 entries at $500 apiece competed for the $20,000 guaranteed first-place prize. That equates to a payoff of 39-1 for overcoming odds of 56-1. That's a very high payoff rate vs. odds of winning when compared to most tournaments. For the sake of comparison, the recently completed Championship at The Orleans attracted 698 entries (also $500 apiece) and first place paid $111,680, or about 222-1 for bucking odds of 697-1.

Consequently, the Harrah's tourney attracted a lot of contest veterans, including about a dozen who came straight from The Orleans. But when the tournament had run its course, an outsider named Jeff O'Donnell of Brentwood, Calif., had taken home the $20,000.

Tournament veteran Mike Labriola, of Richmond, Calif., who is already a Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship qualifier for his fourth-place finish at the Reno Hilton in February, led after the first day of competition. The top score on day 2 was recorded by local Reno player Don Adams, while Gilbert Shaw of Salinas, Calif., grabbed the overall lead heading into Friday's finale.

O'Donnell was stalking the pace in 15th place. Steve Fierro of Carson City, Nev., was in 10th. Both made big moves on the final day with O'Donnell finishing with 26,930 points, which were based on making 10 mythical $200 across-the-board bets on each day. Fierro, who runs the handicapping tournaments at the Reno Hilton and is the author of the book "The Four Quarters of Horse Investing," was a mere 120 points back at 25,910 points and earned $5,700. Shaw held on for third with 25,480 points and collected $2,280.

Overlay of a different kind

When J. Randy Gallo earned a DRF/NTRA berth in October 2000 on the same day he hit a huge pick six, he was quoted as saying "Believe it or not, I was more excited about qualifying for the contest."

For those kind of players, Bally's Las Vegas has a great setup this Friday and Saturday for its inaugural Bally's Moolah event. For an entry fee of $5,000, players have a great chance to qualify for the NHC. As of Monday morning, only 15 entries were confirmed, with another half-dozen or so on the fence. But John Avello, director of race and sports at Bally's, has said all along that he was going ahead with the tournament even if only a handful signed up.

"It's a great shot for those who want to get in the NTRA," Avello said. "And the prize money isn't bad either."

Two-thirds of the entry fees will be paid to the overall finishers - with $35,000 going to the champion if the field stays at 15, $10,000 for second, and $5,000 for third - and the remaining one-third will be distributed as daily prize money.

Players will make 15 mythical $2 win and place bets each day with payoffs capped at 25-1 for win and 12-1 for place. Six of races will be designated as mandatory for everyone in the contest. A 5-point bonus will be awarded for each first-place finisher.

Weir no stranger to bettors

After Mike Weir outlasted Len Mattiace to win the Masters on Sunday, a lot of sportscasters were saying he came from nowhere. Actually, they were saying he came from Canada, but they were also saying he was a huge longshot.

Not according to Las Vegas oddsmakers and bettors.

Weir was the sixth choice in the betting at the Palms, where Jeff Sherman sets the odds and closed him at 25-1 after having him at 60-1 earlier in the year. Other books in town also got hit hard with Weir. They were probably wishing they could pay off at the Canadian exchange rate.

"There's a clump of golfers - Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Davis Love III, and Weir - who all won twice or more this year, so he's in that class," Sherman said. "People that follow golf certainly know about him. I guess a lot of people dismissed him because he seemed to be out of form, with a 27th-place finish and miss the cut in his last two starts, but he played back to his potential."

Of course, it's understandable that people would call it a huge upset anytime Woods doesn't win. Woods's 15th-place finish was a windfall for bookmakers as bettors continue to back Woods despite low odds.

Sherman has made Woods the 2-1 favorite to win the U.S. Open on June 12-15 at the Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois. Els and Phil Mickelson are the co-second choices at 8-1, followed by Vijay Singh and Love at 15-1, and Weir at 20-1.

Dog cups runneth over

The biggest surprise after the first week of the NHL playoffs has been the Detroit Red Wings, the 5-2 favorite to win it all, falling behind two games to none to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who were 6-1 underdogs to win the series. No matter what happened in Monday night's Game 3, the Red Wings were facing an uphill battle to avoid another embarrassing early exit.

The Dallas Stars, the 4-1 co-second choice, trailed the Edmonton Oilers two games to one heading into their Game 4 on Tuesday.

In fact, with the exception of the Boston Bruins, who fell behind three games to none to the New Jersey Devils and were facing elimination Tuesday night, most of the underdogs have fared well by at least gaining splits on the road in early Stanley Cup tourney action.