07/27/2005 11:00PM

NFL Network a preseason boon


LAS VEGAS - By this weekend, all NFL players will have reported to training camp. Well, except for the annual list of holdouts, that is.

But even though teams are just starting to practice together seriously, most football handicappers have already formed opinions on teams they expect to overachieve and underachieve, and many have put their money where their mouth is by betting into the over/under season win totals. More and more books are offering that popular option, with the odds updated on a near-daily basis. The current list of books: Las Vegas Hilton, Caesars Palace and the rest of its network, Harrah's/Rio, Imperial Palace, Venetian, Wynn Las Vegas, Palms, Stardust and the other Boyd Gaming books, Tuscany (which carries the Cal Neva lines from Reno) and downtown at the Plaza, Binion's and El Cortez.

From this point on, it's a matter of tweaking or fine-tuning power ratings based on the battles for positions in camp and during preseason games.

In years past, getting access to details about preseason games - especially beyond the box scores - was not easy. You couldn't just turn on the television and see games from coast to coast, because most were only shown in their local markets. Most handicappers had to rely solely on newspaper accounts. But in the last few years the number of televised NFL preseason games has exploded, with 11 nationally televised games on ABC, FOX, CBS, and ESPN, starting with the American Bowl from Japan on Aug. 6 featuring the Colts vs. the Falcons. There will be a prime-time game on each Monday night from Aug. 8 (the Hall of Fame Game between the Bears and Dolphins) through Aug. 29.

But that's nothing compared with what is being offered by the new NFL Network, which will show 55 games in 25 days starting on Aug. 12. That's an unprecedented amount of games for handicappers to study.

Here in Vegas, Cox Cable ran a free preview of NFL Network for all cable subscribers, and the NFL Network will be part of the digital package starting Sunday.

The bulk of the NFL Network's schedule consists of a lot of season recaps from last year, but there are two timely shows that are newsworthy. "NFL Total Access" and "Playbook" both aspire to provide inside information for football fans. Neither is geared toward the bettor, but who better to use the info?

Frankly, shows in the past few weeks have been heavy on the fluff and an overemphasis on the stars of the league. I mean, how much can you say day after day about Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, Ricky Williams, Edgerrin James, and Brett Favre that hasn't already been said. But the shows have been getting better as camps have opened and there's more actual news to report, though there is still a disproportionate amount of time spent on offenses. Hopefully they'll continue to offer more useful information as the preseason gets under way and the battles heat up for starting jobs.

One word of warning: You have to take everything with a grain of salt. Since the NFL Network is owned by the league, there is usually a positive spin on everything, so don't go believing everything you hear or you'll be convinced every team is going to go over their win total. But it's still a good place for nonstop NFL talk.

As far as watching and wagering the preseason games, I'll again be taking a conservative approach. There will certainly be instances where a game seems to be worth a play, and I'll make plays here and there. When handicapping preseason games, I certainly like to find out how long the starters are going to stay in, and first look for teams with quarterback battles, as they tend to be more competitive and are more likely to keep better lineman in the game to protect their signal-callers. In that case, a battle between the No. 2 and 3 spot can be just as important in preseason, as those QB's will be the ones in the games in the second half when the game will probably be decided.

The danger of relying too much on that angle is that the oddsmakers also know that and it's already factored into the line, so you have to combine it with the overall objective of the teams, such as if they're trying to bounce back from a disappointing season and might be trying to establish a winning attitude.

Football contest sign-ups under way

The Las Vegas Hilton's $1,500 buy-in SuperContest was scheduled to start taking registrations on Friday. Last year, the SuperContest set a record with 411 entries and paid out a top prize of $246,600. If the Hilton repeats last year's 40 percent increase from 2003 year this year, the field should surpass 500.

Registration continues through 1 p.m. on Sept. 10, the deadline for the opening weekend's picks (though contestants using the Raiders-Patriots opener on Sept. 9 as a first-week selection will have to register and submit selections before that game), with an early-bird deadline of Sept. 2 to be eligible to get in a free $10,000 mini-contest over the last three weeks of the season.

* Station Casinos' $1,000 buy-in contest, The Challenge (previously known as The Gambler's Challenge), is still being fine-tuned with some changes that are expected to be announced next week.

* As reported here last month, the Golden Nugget's $5,000 buy-in Ultimate Football Challenge will not be held this year.

Horse contests hit their stride

This weekend is a big one for horse players trying to qualify for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

On Saturday and Sunday, Del Mar is hosting a tourney with five championship berths available, and then on Sunday, Emerald Downs is hosting the Ultimate Qualifying Tournament, with a whopping nine berths plus a bonus that will increase the national championship's first prize to $500,000 for anyone who qualifies at Emerald and goes on to win the finals.

The Emerald tournament has a field of 400 that was made up of 200 invited handicappers and veteran tournament players from around the country, plus the 100 top bettors in the track's reward program and another 100 spots from a random draw.

Dozens of players participating in those two tournaments will also be coming here to Vegas next Friday and Saturday, Aug. 5-6, for Summer Stakes VI at Bally's, either to take another chance at qualifying for the National Handicapping Champion-ship or to go for the cash in the $1,000 buy-in tournament.

Contestants will make 15 theoretical $2 across-the-board wagers each day, with six of the races being mandatory. Points will be based on the mutuel payoffs and capped at 25-1 to win, 12-1 to place and 6-1 to show.

The race and sports book manager at Bally's, Chris Eggers, said she already has 120 people registered for the field that will be capped at 200. Eggers suggested that players planning to attend the tournament avoid being shut out by registering in advance.