06/23/2004 11:00PM

Ready for some football? You bet

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LAS VEGAS - It never ceases to amaze me how every summer, even though the baseball season isn't halfway over, that sports fans - and especially bettors - are already counting the days to the start of the football season, particularly the NFL variety.

(For the record: As of Saturday, it's 75 days until the opening-night game on Thursday, Sept. 9, between the Patriots and Colts. Also for the record, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are favored by 3 1/2 points at the Imperial Palace sports book.)

Everything else - from the U.S. Open golf tournament to the NBA draft to Wimbledon to regular-season baseball - is just there to pass our time before getting ready for our real national pastime, pro football.

And in touring the sports books around Las Vegas, the question I'm asked more than any other - far more than people asking who I like to win the Super Bowl, or my sleeper teams against the spread - is "what's going to happen with the SuperContest now that the Hilton has been sold?"

For those who don't know, the SuperContest is the most prestigious football handicapping contest in town, and possibly in the whole world. As opposed to some contests that are limited to a small invited group, or others that have small entry fees that lead to tens of thousands of people entering, the SuperContest can be entered by anybody but is also kept exclusive enough because it has a $1,500 entry fee. Contestants pick five NFL sides per week, and the selections are distributed free to Hilton customers on Friday afternoons each week. Because it is so respected, the SuperContest is the most-discussed contest in the newspapers and on local radio shows. In addition, I have been asked about the SuperContest when doing out-of-state radio shows, and every Friday night in the online posting forums that I frequent, there are always people asking for the top handicappers' selections and the consensus plays.

In fact, it was a query at theprescription.com's posting forum that prompted me to meet up with the Hilton's new race and sports book director, Jay Kornegay, who was hired after the new owners, Los Angeles-based private investment firm Colony Capital LLC, bought the Hilton from Caesars Entertainment.

"We're definitely continuing the SuperContest," Kornegay said Wednesday. "It's the contest everyone knows about in Las Vegas, and the tradition speaks for itself. I've always known it's popular, but I have to say even I was surprised by the level of interest. Since I started here, several times a day I'm asked by people about the SuperContest."

Kornegay said he will be finalizing the details by the first week of July so they can send out a flyer to former contestants. Typically, sign-ups for the SuperContest start the first week of August, with an early-bird deadline (for a shot at a free $10,000 mini-contest over the last three weeks of the season) on the last Sunday in August. Kornegay said, "Don't write that in stone," but those should be pretty close to the dates again this year.

"We're also going to look at when to make the contest lines available and when entries will have to be in," he said.

In the past, contest cards with the fixed point spreads were available by Tuesday and contestants had to have their picks in by 1 p.m. Friday, with sheets of everyone's picks distributed between 2 and 3 p.m. "I certainly welcome feedback from past players."

The SuperContest has exploded in recent years, going from 191 entries in 2000 to 226 in 2001, 281 in 2002, and 346 in 2003.

"I'm also thinking about paying more spots than the 20 that have been paid up until now," Kornegay said.

As someone who finished 25th last year out of the record 346 entries, I say that decision is a year late, but it's still a good idea. Kornegay said that in addition to adding paying spots, he would also like to award dinners or other non-cash prizes to contestants who have a good season but maybe were just short of being in the money as a way of thanking them for their participation.

One of Kornegay's first moves was to put up NFL odds at the Hilton to replace the Caesars Entertainment prices that had already been posted. (Note: Anyone with winning tickets from the Hilton race and sports book that were bought before the ownership change last Friday can still cash them with the new owners.)

In addition to Super Bowl futures, the Hilton also has odds to win each division and over/under regular-season win totals. Kornegay said games of the year - marquee matchups from each weekend - for both college and pros will be up soon.

Satisfy that football jones

Okay, Okay, so now you're champing at the bit for some football. Well, Arena Bowl XVIII is Sunday in Phoenix with the Arizona Rattlers favored by 3 over the San Jose SaberCats, though the line has been bet down to 2 1/2 at most sports books.

I'm mostly a casual fan of the arena game - I took my family to six of the eight Las Vegas Gladiators home games this year, but I spent more time watching my daughters than the action on the field - so I'll turn over the serious analysis to Chris David, managing editor of vegasinsider.com.

"Unlike the NFL, which usually has a Cinderella story, there are no surprises this year in the Arena Bowl, as San Jose was 7-2 and Arizona was 5-1 as the preseason favorites in the future books," David said.

David pointed out that the home team is barely over .500 in the previous 17 Arena Bowls, winning nine. In addition, only two of the 17 games have gone over 100 points. That's the betting total on Sunday's game.

"I like to go against the trends," David said. "I'm going with San Jose in this one. Last season, San Jose beat Arizona twice and then lost to them in the playoffs. It's so hard to beat a team three times. This year, Arizona won the two meetings, and even though it's tough to go against Arizona, which has won 10 straight, San Jose should get the job done if - and that's a big if - they play the full 60 minutes.

"A lot of Arena Bowls have been blowouts and relatively low-scoring, but I also think both offenses will show up on Sunday," said David, who predicted a 61-51 San Jose win on his website. "I'm hoping for a close game and an exciting end to the season."

From seeing both teams in person, I would agree San Jose is the way to bet, though I would advise just taking +115 on the money line to win straight up and not worrying about the spread coming into play, especially if you can't find a +3 out there anymore.

And if the Arena Bowl doesn't do it for you, well, the Hall of Fame Game is just 44 days away.