05/01/2005 11:00PM

Palms offers special Smarty chips

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Smarty Jones, last year's ultra-popular winner of the Kentucky Derby, is gone but not forgotten. He has been retired to the breeding shed, but he'll be foremost in the minds of gamblers this weekend at the Palms Hotel-Casino.

The Palms is releasing a set of commemorative chips at 10 a.m. Thursday featuring last year's star. Available at the main casino cage and at the gaming tables, they will come in denominations of $2.50, $5, $25, and $100.

There are two versions of the purple $2.50 chips, one showing a close-up of Smarty Jones and the other with Stewart Elliott up. The two red $5 versions have either a head-on shot of Smarty Jones coming down the stretch or one of Smarty covered in roses in the winner's circle. The $25 chip is a close-up shot, and the black $100 chip is a shot from the rail with the Churchill stands in the background.

This is the fourth straight year the Palms has issued a horse racing chip during Derby Week, with Smarty following in the hoofsteps of Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew, and the popular 2003 Derby winner, Funny Cide.

"We try to honor a great horse or a fan favorite every year, and after Smarty Jones's accomplishments last year and how he captured the imagination of the country, we knew we wanted him," said Gene Trimble, the Palms's poker room manager, who also handles commemorative chips.

Trimble said that last summer he contacted Smarty's owners, Roy and Patricia Chapman, and their son Michael handled all of the negotiations.

"I called them about three months after the Derby and Michael was coming out to Vegas that next weekend anyway, so we invited him to stay at the Palms to discuss the chips," Trimble said. "It's the fastest we've sewn up one of these things."

Part of the reason things went so smoothly is that the Chapmans are donating all of their licensing fees to charity, Trimble said.

The Palms does a lot of commemorative chips each year, though most are of rock stars and other pop-culture icons. The only other athletes to be featured on Palms gaming chips have been race drivers that the Palms sponsors.

"All of our horse chips have gone fast, but the Slew chips went the fastest by far," Trimble said. "From all the calls and e-mails I've been getting about the Smarty Jones chips, and how excited people are about them, I'm sure he's going to stack up well with the others. Each year, we get a lot of feedback from people who see them and want their own.

"These chips with horse racing's stars are the most popular chips we've done . . . well, outside of the Playboy ones."

Okay, so horseflesh isn't No. 1, but it's close.

Also at the Palms, $10 coins with Smarty Jones's likeness will be awarded at random on specially marked Silver Strike slot machines. In addition, a series of Smarty Jones Preakness gaming chips - also in $2.50, $5, $25, and $100 denominations - will be released May 19, two days before this year's race from Pimlico.

Hard Rock has chips, too

The Hard Rock is hoping to have its own popular chip set by the time the Belmont rolls around.

Starting Friday, the Hard Rock will be giving out Derby Day 2005 chips (no face value) with a $500 wager on Saturday's big race. Race and sports book director Jamie Shea said only 200 such chips are being made.

"With such a limited run, you know they'll be collector's items," Shea said.

The value would obviously go up if there's a horse that can race into immortality with a sweep of the Triple Crown, so the Hard Rock will also have chips for the Preakness and Belmont, titled "Second Crown" and "Third Crown," which will be given out on those weekends with a race-day wager of $250.

Bettors - or, just as likely, collectors - can get the full set by betting $1,000 on the Derby, Shea said.

Sports book notes

The Heat and Suns - the No. 1 seeds in the NBA's Eastern and Western conferences, respectively - completed their sweeps in the first round of the playoffs.

The other six series were all undecided at press time Monday, with three games on Monday night and three on Tuesday, but the top seeds were all still in good position, maintaining home-court advantage or, in the case of the Mavericks, regaining it, by sweeping the two games in Houston after dropping the first two games of the series in Dallas.

* James Toney defeated John Ruiz in a unanimous decision to take his WBA heavyweight title belt at Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday night. Toney, who opened as a -190 favorite, dominated the later rounds to become only the third former middleweight champion to claim a heavyweight belt. Ruiz, long regarded as the weakest of the heavyweight title belt holders, also was the victim in March 2003 when Roy Jones Jr. defeated him for the WBA title.

* Tim Petrovic quit the PGA Tour in 1993 and worked, among other places, at a pizza parlor, making pies and cleaning floors and dishes. When he won the Zurich Classic in Avondale, La., on Sunday, it was the quintessential Cinderella story. However, in the eyes of the Las Vegas Hilton, he was the 9-4 favorite. How's that? Well, as the longest of longshots, he was as part of the "field" of all other golfers not listed on the betting board. Petrovic defeated Chris DiMarco, the 15-1 co-second choice and Masters runner-up, in a one-hole playoff.

* Jeff Gordon won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday as the 4-1 favorite. In recent years, the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team - consisting primarily of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip - was considered the top program for restrictor-plate racing at the superspeedways, but Gordon has now won both such races this year and four of the last five on the Nextel Cup circuit. The race was marred by a 25-car pileup on the 132nd lap that stopped racing for more than 43 minutes.