12/20/2007 1:00AM

Race books trimming horseplayer contests

EmailLAS VEGAS – With the Santa Anita meet having its traditional opening day on the day after Christmas, Wednesday, and then taking Thursday off and running through the following Tuesday (New Year's Day), and then starting a new Thursday-through-Monday schedule, it seemed like a good time to call around and see how this all would affect horse handicapping contests in Las Vegas.

Here are the results by property and the day they previously held a contest, and they aren't pretty:

* Excalibur (Wednesday): No longer holding a contest.

* Coast Casinos (Thursday): No longer holding a contest.

* South Point (Thursday): No longer holding a contest.

* Las Vegas Hilton (Saturday): No longer holding a contest.

Do you see a trend here?

As far as I can tell, the only contest anywhere in town might be at the Poker Palace at 2757 Las Vegas Boulevard in North Las Vegas. It had held a free $500 head-to-head matchup contest on Wednesdays through Fridays and another on Saturday and Sunday, but when I called Thursday the switchboard operator said she couldn't patch me through because there's not a phone in the race book (which I know isn't true) and that it's against gaming regulations (which is true, but only if the caller is trying to get odds over the phone or other gambling information).

It's sad, really. Las Vegas has a great tradition of having weekly horse handicapping contests for locals and tourists alike. Most contest entries are priced at $10 or less with many being free. For years, they were marketed by race books to attract customers and give the players exciting ways to try and win money.

It used to be that you could find contests on almost any day of the week with the possible exception of Tuesday. Going through my archives, I found the following list from 2002 or 2003. It isn't dated but it is labeled "The Good Ole Days," and it includes contests that I know were held those years:

* Wednesday - Excalibur, Poker Palace, and Station Casinos, with a separate contest held at Texas Station.

* Thursday - Orleans, Monte Carlo, Fiesta Rancho.

* Friday - Sunset Station, Circus Circus, Las Vegas Hilton, Texas Station.

* Saturday - Imperial Palace, Poker Palace.

And from my lists, here are the other race books that have held handicapping contests and do not have them at this time: Bally's, Binion's Horseshoe, Plaza, Arizona Charlie's, Jerry's Nugget, Boulder Station, Terrible's, Luxor, Rampart/Cannery, and the other Coast Casinos.

I'm sure my elders can fill me in on an even more comprehensive list, including casinos that no longer stand or held them before I began covering race books for Daily Racing Form at the turn of the century.

There is hope that the Hilton might resume its Super Saturdays contest after the Super Bowl, and that the Rampart/Cannery might do the same with its second Sunday of each month contest. Also, the South Point is working on a contest for the spring, and the Coast Casinos are usually good about popping up with some great contests when they're not swamped with their bigger tournaments (see below).

But none of those are set in stone, so a grassroots movement may be in order.

The best way to help bring back the contests is for horseplayers to make themselves heard. Tell the race book managers how much you miss the contests. But horseplayers have to keep something else in mind, too. Just like every other area of the casino, race books are under increasing pressure to show a profit.

In talking to race book directors over the years - most wouldn't want to be quoted directly because it comes off as whining - their biggest complaint is that players come in to enter the contest but don't put much money through the betting windows. The reality is that if the accounting departments don't see a spike in handle to more than justify the prize money given away and the extra staff needed (and, probably, an increase in free drinks) when the books host a contest, they're not going to be allowed to offer them.

High-end contest update

While the low-end contests are going the way of dirt racetracks, the high-end contests are thriving.

With the success of its Horseplayer's Holiday tournament on Nov. 29 at the Orleans, in which 10 people earned berths in the Jan. 24-26 Horseplayer World Series, the Coast Casinos will be hosting the same format on Jan. 10 at the Suncoast with another 10 berths up for grabs. The entry fee is $100 and contestants make 12 mythical $20 win-and-place wagers on the day with no mandatory races.

* The Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, which will be held Jan. 25-26 at the Red Rock Resort, is running out of chances to qualify, with the Last Chance Tournament on Jan. 23 at the Red Rock being the only contest left in Vegas. NHCqualify.com, site of the official online qualifiers for the NHC, has already sold out this Saturday's one-day tournament, but as of noon Thursday there were 64 spots out of the maximum of 150 for the Dec. 29, event - and entries haven't started to be taken for the Jan. 5 tournament, which will be capped at 125. Entry fees for each of those contests is $400, with a maximum of two per person. One NHC berth is awarded for every 25 contest entries (meaning six spots when there are 150 entries, five when there are 125).

BYU vs. UCLA in Las Vegas Bowl

The big sporting event in town this weekend is the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium at 5 p.m. Saturday.

This bowl game used to struggle to draw attendance, but has sold out the past three years as Brigham Young University, with a religious following, makes its third straight trip as champs of the Mountain West Conference.

BYU is a 6-point favorite over UCLA, which fired head coach Karl Dorrell and has its two top quarterbacks injured. The total, at 46 1/2 points, is the lowest of all 32 major college bowls.

Something tells me the Mormon flock might not gamble as much as other teams' fan bases, but the city is happy to have the hotels and restaurants full for the pre-holiday weekend.