05/14/2003 11:00PM

Preakness lacks the Derby buzz

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Anyone who thinks the Preakness doesn't play second fiddle to the Kentucky Derby need only compare the festivities this Saturday to the ones held a fortnight ago.

Instead of having fancy shindigs at nearly every hotel, the parties will be few and far between - and far from the prying public eye in VIP settings. You won't see as many T-shirt or glass giveaways. And the crowds gathered in the race books will actually have some breathing room.

"The Derby is the biggest race of the year in more ways than one," said Vinny Magliulo, director of corporate affairs for the Las Vegas Dissemination Company, which serves as the wagering hub in Nevada. "When it comes to the Derby vs. the Preakness, there's no comparison."

According to Magliulo, the amount wagered on the Derby alone is nearly as much as is bet in Nevada on the entire nation's cards on Preakness Day.

In 2001, the Preakness, at $1.42 million, handled less than 40 percent of the $3.59 million that had been bet on that year's Derby. The entire handle for all races coast-to-coast on Preakness Day was $3.94 million, or only about $350,000 more than was bet on the Derby alone.

The figures were similar last year, with $3.82 million bet on the 2002 Derby vs. only $1.57 million - again, very close to 40 percent - on the Preakness and a nationwide Preakness Day handle of $3.99 million (a mere $170,000 more than the Derby race handle).

The total handle on Breeders' Cup Day barely exceeds the amount bet on the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact the BC is composed of eight championship races versus one marquee event. Nationwide, Derby Day eclipses the full card on BC Day.

In 2001, there was $4.24 million wagered on the BC races, beating the $3.59 million bet on the Derby, but there was $8.35 million wagered on the first Saturday in May vs. only $6.68 million bet on all races on BC Day. The pattern repeated in 2002 with $4.87 million bet on BC Day after the $3.82 million wagered on the Derby, but Derby Day prevailed with an all-day handle of $8.43 million compared to $7.48 million.

Funny Cide no house horse

When Coast Casinos horse racing oddsmaker Frank Minervini put up his Preakness futures in late March, he knew he would get a lot of action on Empire Maker. That allowed him to lock up a lot of money when Empire Maker wasn't entered Wednesday, but he's not out of the woods yet.

Minervini says Funny Cide, who opened at 75-1 and was bet steadily down to the 2-1 he closed at last weekend, "is the only horse we'll lose money on." Minervini said a win by Peace Rules would be a break-even proposition for the house.

"I'd much rather see Peace Rules win than Funny Cide," Minervini said. "We took a big hit on Funny Cide at 75-1 and then again when he was at 18-1."

Looking ahead to the Belmont future book, Minervini opted to keep Funny Cide at 10-1 and Peace Rules at 18-1, mainly because he's not sure if they'll run. Bettors saw value in those odds and Minervini lowered Funny Cide to 5-1 and Peace Rules to 10-1 Wednesday afternoon. Minervini raised Empire Maker, who had been bet down to 7-5 on the news he was skipping the Preakness to shoot for the Belmont, back up to 9-5 Wednesday night.

Funny Cide not without support

In addition to Funny Cide's connections, others have a vested interest in the New York-bred gelding's Triple Crown bid.

At Coast Casinos, Minervini was the first to put up Triple Crown futures back in February and has some tickets on Funny Cide at 200-1, so the Preakness futures isn't the only reason for Minervini to be rooting against Funny Cide Saturday.

"We'd lose quite a bit if Funny Cide pulls it off," Minervini said.

With no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, the casino has history on its side. And if no horse sweeps the series, they'll keep every penny wagered on this year's 3-year-old class.

That's not the case in a two-way prop offered by the Park Place Entertainment race books (Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, Reno Hilton, Caesars Tahoe, and Flamingo Laughlin). When Park Place put up its "odds to win the Triple Crown" props in mid-April, Funny Cide was 100-1, but Park Place also had a two-way prop in which bettors could either bet on or against a Triple Crown winner.

The "will be a Triple Crown winner" wager opened at +500 and was bet down as low as +375, mostly with bettors banking on Empire Maker being a superstar. Now, those speculators are pulling for Funny Cide.

The "won't be a Triple Crown winner" opened at -700 and some value hunters were able to lay as low as -550 on a bet that hasn't lost in 24 straight years, though bettors typically had to lay -1000 or more when there was no perceived superstar horse.