05/01/2002 12:00AM

Sit back, relax, and don't forget the T-shirt


LAS VEGAS - An old saying around here at this time of year is, "If you can't be in Louisville, then you should come to Las Vegas to watch the Derby." John Avello, the director of race and sports at Bally's and Paris, sees it another way. He says, "If you can't make it to Vegas for the Derby, then maybe you should consider going to Churchill Downs."

It's a feeling shared by a lot of horse racing fans who have been both places on the first Saturday in May and prefer to be here rather than there. A lot of people at Churchill can't even see all of the race, and the stories about long lines of people getting shut out are legend.

But that isn't to say there won't be crowds here, too. Race books will be packed up and down the Strip, downtown, and in the neighborhood casinos. And most properties will also be opening ballrooms with banks of betting machines to accommodate the large crowds. Mint juleps might not be the drink of choice, but it's definitely a party atmosphere and everyone in and around the race books will have Derby fever, at least for two minutes.

In case you're still looking for a place to watch, here are some promotions to help you narrow down your decision. (Shirt and glass giveaways typically require a $20 Derby wager.)

Derby T-shirts: all Coast Casinos properties, all Station Casinos, Hard Rock, Rampart, Terrible's.

Derby glasses: all Coast Casinos properties, Imperial Palace, Jerry's Nugget, Rio, Union Plaza.

Drawings: Arizona Charlie's, where a $10 wager gets you a sub sandwich and a ticket for a $200 drawing, and Imperial Palace, which will have drawings for Derby merchandise and bobblehead horse dolls.

More unusual promotions are being held at the Hard Rock on Paradise Road and at the Rampart Casino in Summerlin.

The Hard Rock is offering a pair of tickets to see the Eagles (June 1) or The Who (June 28) to people who can nail the trifecta in the Derby.

Face value of Eagles tickets are $300 and $500, and tickets for The Who are priced between $125 and $350. That's a lot of added value for a trifecta. The catch is that the promotion is good for only the first five people to cash their tickets.

The Rampart is also rewarding handicapping skill. Anyone who cashes a $20 minimum quinella on the Derby will be given a free $100 one-way exacta bet on the Preakness in two weeks.

Vegas casinos' betting menus include head-to-head matchups, proposition wagers, Preakness futures, Belmont futures, and Triple Crown futures.

Bally's and the other Park Place properties opened Harlan's Holiday as a -140 favorite (bet $1.40 to win $1) to finish ahead of Came Home at +110 (bet $1 to win $1.10). The public bet Harlan's Holiday up to a -170 favorite. Buddha is a -125 favorite to finish ahead of Medgalia d'Oro (+105), just as he did in the Wood Memorial. If you think you have a handle on foreign horses, you might like the matchup of Essence of Dubai -125 vs. Castle Gandolfo -105. Saarland has been bet up to a -150 favorite over Juvenile winner Johannesburg at +120.

Many other properties will be putting up matchups after Wednesday's post-position draw.

Bally's has a prop on the running time of the Derby. Avello opened the over/under at 2:02.20 and the early money came in on the under, which moved to -130 with the over at even-money.

Coast Casinos has Buddha and Harlan's Holiday as the 5-1 co-favorites to win the Preakness. Sunday Break, who was unable to draw into the Derby field, is next at 6-1 along with Medaglia d'Oro. Saarland is the 5-1 Belmont favorite, followed by Sunday Break at 7-1 and Harlan's Holiday and Medaglia d'Oro at 8-1.

Earlier this week, the Coast Casinos had Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home at 18-1 to win the Triple Crown. He was 50-1 at Bally's, where Harlan's Holiday was the lowest price on the board at 25-1. Bally's also had a prop on any horse winning the Triple Crown at +650. If you think no 3-year-old can complete the sweep, you bet it won't happen by laying -850.