03/01/2004 12:00AM

Players have their voices heard

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LAS VEGAS - The Daily Racing Form Horseplayers Expo 2004 attendees at the Paris Hotel and Casino last weekend were there to learn about the game from a who's who of the handicapping field.

When all was said and done, however, the prevailing attitude was that the best thing to come out of the Expo was not that other people were telling them stuff, but that their own voices were being heard.

Horseplayers have long contended that their participation is what drives the sport. The betting handle funds the purses and trickles down to all levels. Yet, horseplayers have often felt that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears and that they've been treated as second-class citizens.

One of the most anticipated and highly attended sessions of the Expo was the report of the NTRA Players' Panel on Saturday morning. After meeting for over a year, the panel last week released its recommendations to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, with 70 suggestions on the integrity of the sport, taxation, and customer service. Five members - chairman James Quinn, Cary Fotias, Barry Meadow, Maury Wolff, and Ken Kirchner - of the 12-member panel were on hand to summarize the report for the Expo crowd.

Fotias said a 1 percent drop in takeout generally leads to a 7 to 8 percent increase in handle. "Without lowering the takeout, this game is not going to prosper," Fotias said to huge applause.

Wolff addressed rebates, saying that there are fewer than 1,000 customers who get rebates but that they wager approximately $1.5 billion annually, about 10 percent of the overall handle. Meadow called for rebates to be more widespread, especially since it's harder to drop takeout.

As for tote security, Kirchner said it is still a top priority to eliminate even the perception of past-posting. He said the goal is to get instantaneous transmission of odds, so that horseplayers have the official odds within 10 seconds of a race closing, as opposed to the current average of 45 seconds. Kirchner also said the threshold for "signers" - winning bets that trigger paperwork for tax purposes - should be raised from $600 and odds of 300-1 to $1,500 and odds of 750-1.

"The current thresholds are from the days when it was just win-place-show and maybe a daily double," he said. "It doesn't make sense any more when exotic wagering has exploded so much."

He said the panel would also like all combinations in a specific wager to be taken into account. For example, take a trifecta play with a $1 base bet. A $24 ticket that yields a $720 payoff is really only a 30-1 payoff. Currently, that's a signer, because the payoff is calculated from a single ticket.

The most encouraging aspect was that NTRA commissioner Tim Smith flew cross-country from Florida to tell everyone that the Players' Panel's report was "much discussed" at an NTRA retreat in Florida this past week.

"We had three major racetrack executives circulate the report to all of their department heads and ask how long and what obstacles would stand in the way of implementing the various recommendations," Smith said. "Many changes will take longer because of regulatory or legislative requirements, but one thing the NTRA can and will take a lead on is the taxation issue."

Smith said the next year will be critical, with many of the sport's major contracts (Triple Crown, NBC, Visa, and other sponsorships) coming up for renewal, but he sees exciting developments in the years ahead.

"I see racing five years from now, if we don't screw it up, where you can legally bet from home or on a PDA with a better economic model," he said.

Panelists vs. attendees in contest

Expo attendees were invited to participate in a handicapping contest on Sunday's cards at Aqueduct and Gulfstream to put all the theories they heard over the weekend to the test, and to compete against Expo panelists. The contest drew 118 entrants, with everyone putting up $100 and making 10 mythical $2 across-the-board wagers.

DRF handicapper Brad Free won the $5,900 first-place prize (50 percent of the pool) with a total bankroll of $147.90. Expo attendee Daniel Sullivan was second with a score of $136.90 for cash winnings of $2,360, followed by Kirchner at $128.50 for winnings of $1,770 for third; sheets guru Len Friedman at $112.90 for winnings of $1,180; and Expo attendee Allen Lloyd at $110.10 for winnings of $590.

Free won with his first three plays (Sweet Laural in the second at Gulfstream, Mazel Pic in the fourth at Gulfstream, and Mahal in the fifth at Aqueduct) but then didn't have a winner in his next five plays. He picked up only a few dollars with two seconds and a third until cashing with Call Me Moe in the 10th at Gulfstream, a $13.80 winner.

Free trailed Sullivan by $11.80 heading into the final contest race, the 12th at Gulfstream. He liked Tango Tips at odds of 9-1, and won the tournament when she won by 3 1/2 lengths over Pretty Jane, Sullivan's horse.

"I don't profess to be an expert on Aqueduct or Gulfstream racing," said Free, whose book "Handicapping 101" will be coming out in late April, "but maybe this is an example that a horseplayer can apply the basics of handicapping and give himself a chance to win some decent money."

Sports book notes

Erik Morales defeated Jesus Chavez on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to claim the latter's WBC super featherweight belt. Morales had been as low as a -270 favorite at some sports books but was bet up to -360 by fight night. But despite the unanimous decision by Morales, Chavez probably gained more fans than he ever has in his victories, as he fought valiantly despite injuring his right shoulder in the second round of the 12-round bout. Morales, considered one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world, now has won titles in three weight classes.

* Tiger Woods also came through as the favorite in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. Woods was the 7-2 favorite before the single-elimination format began last Wednesday, and despite nearly getting upset in the opening round by Stephen Leaney, he rolled through the field before beating Davis Love III in the 36-hole title match on Sunday.

* Everyone talks about the high-scoring games in Arena Football League, but six of the eight games this past weekend went under the betting total, heading into Monday night's Georgia-L.A. game, which had the highest total of the weekend at 107. On the local front, the Las Vegas Gladiators beat the previous undefeated New Orleans Voodoo 50-30 on Sunday as 7-point favorites (for the record, the total was 97 1/2). After two last-minute losses in games they could and should have won to start the season, the Gladiators have improved to 2-2.

* There was no NASCAR Nextel Cup event last weekend, as the teams were packing up to make the cross-country trip from the East Coast to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this upcoming weekend's Sam's Town 300 Busch Series race on Saturday and the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 Nextel Cup race on Sunday.

It's the biggest live sporting event weekend of the year in Las Vegas. But it's also a weeklong spectacle, with no fewer than 25 NASCAR drivers making appearances throughout the week at local casinos and restaurants. An updated list of events can be found at www.lvms.com.