09/07/2004 11:00PM

Rare lull for race books

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LAS VEGAS - The Del Mar meet ended Wednesday, and with it comes a lull in the race books here in Las Vegas.

There were a ton of great promotions this summer, with contests all over town for local horseplayers, group pick six tickets, and drawings.

The meet was capped off Monday with Station Casinos taking a group of 87 - including race book managers from all their properties, customers who won drawings, hotel-casino management, and invited guests - to Del Mar itself. The group met at the Palace Station, took six shuttles to McCarran Airport, flew to San Diego, took two tour buses to the track, spent an exciting day at the races, and then made the return trip back home with most everyone getting home by 10:30 p.m.

The start of the football season fills up the sports books, but the race books tend to slow down and do fewer promotions after the six-day-a-week Del Mar meet closes. Even Richard Eng and Ralph Siraco, the turf writers for the Review-Journal and Sun, respectively, take their annual vacations during the Fairplex meet.

So, on cue, the Coast Casinos is suspending its pick five contest until the opening day of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet, Sept. 29. Station Casinos is also putting its $5,000 daily twin quinella wager on hold until that time, and the Hard Rock is halting its West Coast contest. The Pick Six Club at Bally's also came to a close with a final shot at the mandatory payout of the bet on closing day.

But bucking the annual trend are two contests that will continue this weekend and through the Fairplex meet and for the foreseeable future. Friday, the Excalibur combines with the Circus Circus Reno for a free contest on the full Fairplex card. (The Excalibur also has a free contest on Wednesdays with the Edgewater in Laughlin.) Saturday, the Imperial Palace continues its $10-per-entry Super Saturday contest using three races from Belmont and three from a track to be determined (most likely Fairplex).

Big tourney up in Reno, too

The Reno Hilton also doesn't stop rolling along just because Del Mar closed. Adding to the excitement of the start of the NFL season on Sunday, the Hilton is hosting the September Shootout handicapping tournament on Saturday and Sunday.

The live-money tournament has a $200 entry fee, which goes toward the prize pool, and then each player makes $300 in parimutuel wagers through the windows each day. The goal of this tournament, run by tournament director Steve Fierro in his last event before moving to a similar position at the Casino Fandango in Carson City, is to simulate a real horseplayer's way of playing the races, letting them play any track and any kind of bets, including multi-race wagers.

Players get to keep the winnings from any tickets they cash, plus the top earners split up the prize pool. In addition, the top four finishers will qualify for the $1 Million Horseplayers World Series to be held Jan. 27-29 at the Orleans in Las Vegas.

The other sport with horsepower

For years, the Nascar Winston Cup championship has been anticlimactic, since the leading driver usually gets out to a huge lead and no one can catch him. This year, Nascar changed the way in which it determines its champion by taking the top 10 point-earners through the first 26 races and then having them battle it out for the title.

Well, this Saturday is the all-important 26th race - the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at the Richmond International Speedway - with only six drivers having clinched a spot in the top 10 and nine drivers vying for the final four spots in the "chase for the championship."

Station Casinos has Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the 6-1 favorite in Saturday's race, followed by Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, and Tony Stewart at 7-1, Jeff Gordon at 8-1, and defending champ Matt Kenseth at 10-1.

Newman is the only one in that group who hasn't qualified for a spot in the top 10, so he merits a look. Others with added incentive are Kurt Busch (14-1), Kasey Kahne (12-1), and Mark Martin (14-1). The drivers in the group trying to make up ground - so they really need to win - include Jamie McMurray (20-1), Bobby Labonte (12-1), Dale Jarrett (22-1), Jeremy Mayfield (17-1), and Kevin Harvick (15-1).

"This is going to be electric," said Micah Roberts, who sets the auto racing odds for Station Casinos. "This is unlike anything Nascar has ever seen this late in the season. It's great for the sport, which only continues to get more popular."

Florida St. at Miami (-1 1/2)

I haven't forgotten about football, not by a longshot. Let's start the weekend with a pick on Friday night's season-opener between bitter rivals Miami and Florida State in the game that was moved from last Monday because of Hurricane Frances.

The line on Monday's game opened at Miami -2 1/2 a few weeks ago and was bet down to 1 1/2. After Monday's game was taken off the board, you would think the bookmakers would have put the line back up at 1 1/2, but instead it opened again at 2 1/2. Someone suggested this means the bet-takers wanted to make sure they suckered the bettors into taking the Florida State side all over again. I'm not sure about that, but I will be on the bookmaker's side on this as I'm going with the Miami Hurricanes.

Miami has had the Seminoles' number in recent years, winning five straight in the series. These teams are pretty evenly matched (as evidenced by the point spread, in addition to their ranking of No. 4 and No. 5 in the country and each having over/under season win totals of 9 1/2), so I like the team with the confidence as opposed to one seeking "revenge." Note: FSU has failed the last four times it has had the revenge angle.

A lot is being made of the experience of Florida State quarterback Chris Rix, but the fact is he's 0-4 against Miami. He beats up weaker competition, but struggles against teams with athletic defenders, and that's what he's sure to face as he will be in the eye of the Hurricanes.

PLAY: Miami for 1 unit.

Season record: 1-1 for a net loss of 0.1 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).