08/22/2005 12:00AM

Reno veteran beats Vegas sharpie by a nose


Handicappers from coast to coast participated in the Pick the Ponies tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton last Thursday through Saturday, but in the end the race came down to a Nevada battle between Reno and Las Vegas.

Reno won by a nose.

The Pick the Ponies, being held for the first time in August, drew a field of 164 entrants putting up $500 apiece (with the Hilton ponying up $100 for early-bird signees) for a purse of $82,000. Each player made 10 mythical $200 across-the-board bets each day.

Bob Lester of Reno finished with a final bankroll of $16,850 to beat Mark Marion of Las Vegas with $16,720. The difference in prize money was much bigger, as Lester took home the $31,160 first prize while Marion had to settle for $15,580. DeRay Simon of Las Vegas was third with $16,035 to earn $7,380.

Lester is a contest veteran, and has gotten lucky at a lot of Hiltons, having won the Brawl in the Fall last September at the Reno Hilton and placing second in the Winter Challenge at the Reno Hilton last February.

Marion is the former race and sports book director at the Poker Palace in North Las Vegas.

Marion was obviously disappointed at the narrow loss. The 130-point margin of victory is one horse paying an extra $1.30 more to win, place or show - or just getting one more off-the-board horse into the third slot over the three days. But he was able to see a little humor in the situation.

One of the horses he used was Running Free in the Harry F. Brubaker Handicap, which was run as Thursday's fourth race at Del Mar. Running Free, who paid $13 to win, is owned by John Elardi's Southern Nevada Racing Stables Inc. Elardi's family owned the New Frontier hotel here in Vegas when Marion worked there in the late 1980's and early '90's.

"If John bet his horse, he definitely cost me the contest," Marion said with a smile.

In all, the Hilton paid down through 30th place and also paid $5,000 in daily prize money, with $2,500 going to each day's top score. The top three finishers were also the daily winners as Marion was the first-day leader, Lester had Friday's high score to take over the lead, and Simon closed with a flourish on Saturday.

More tournament news

The Pick the Ponies wasn't the only handicapping tournament in town last weekend. On Saturday night, Bally's hosted the Bang Tail Challenge, the city's only qualifier for the National Harness Handicap-ping Championship.

Douglas Neely of Copley, Ohio, blew away the competition by turning his $360 live bankroll (15 pari-mutuel bets of $24 apiece at Freehold, Northfield, The Meadows, or Balmoral) into a total of $1,141.50. In addition to keeping his earnings at the windows, he also picked up the first prize of $2,400 from the field of 16 that put up $300 apiece.

James Ross of Kingman, Ariz., was second with a bankroll of $408 and earned second-place money of $1,440.

Both Neely and Ross also earn an automatic berth in the NHHC next April 22 at The Meadowlands.

* The next big handicapping tournament in Nevada is the one that Lester won last year at the Reno Hilton, except it has been moved up a few weeks to this upcoming Saturday and Sunday and renamed The Great Gallop. The format is the same, with a $200 entry fee and a live bankroll of $300 each day. The top two finishers will also receive an automatic berth to the Horseplayers World Series on Jan. 19-21 at the Orleans here in Vegas.

* For players with smaller bankrolls, the Coast Casinos (Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast and Suncoast) have a $10 entry fee contest on Thursdays on the first five races at Del Mar. First place is $2,000, but the big prize is the progressive jackpot for anyone going 5 for 5. It hasn't been hit the past three weeks, so the carryover in this Thursday's contest is $13,090 and will likely surpass $20,000 by the post time on Thursday after all $10 entry fees are added to the pot.

Sports book notes

Depending on what sports you bet, there was a healthy mix of favorite and longshots that came in over the weekend.

* On Saturday night, Fernando Vargas won a unanimous decision over Javier Castillejo in a 154-pound fight at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Vargas bettors had to lay between -300 (bet $3 for every $1 you want to profit) and -350 around town.

* Tiger Woods won the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Woods was the overwhelming favorite at between 2-1 and 5-2 at most sports books.

* Jeremy Mayfield came through for longshot bettors by winning the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway at 20-1.

* Underdogs were the way to look in NFL preseason action as dogs went 9-6 this past weekend (heading into Monday night's Seattle-Dallas game). For the preseason, dogs hold a slight edge at 17-15-1. The over was also the way to look as it went 9-5-1 and is now 17-14-1 overall. Road teams were 9-6 this past weekend.

One game this weekend that is basically at a neutral site is the annual Jets-Giants game. The Jets have won this game nine years in a row. There's a good chance the Jets will make it 10 in a row, but I'm not sure it's worth laying the -6. The line opened at -4 1/2 but has crept up since the announcement that Eli Manning will not play for the Giants.

Tennis, anyone?

Speaking of New York sporting events, the U.S. Open Tennis Championship starts next Monday.

Roger Federer is the 4-5 favorite, with Andy Roddick at 5-1, Rafael Nadal at 6-1, Lleyton Hewitt at 10-1 and Andre Agassi at 20-1.

On the women's side, Kim Clijsters is 9-5, with Justine Henin-Hardenne at 5-2, Maria Sharapova at 4-1, Venus Williams at 8-1, and sister Serena at 9-1.