05/24/2004 12:00AM

Sooner or later, desert will get a pro franchise


It now appears that the front-runners for the relocation of the Montreal Expos are northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., with Las Vegas being relegated to also-ran status.

Las Vegas has been considered a longshot all during the bidding process, which has been going on for two years, since the other 29 Major League Baseball owners bought the franchise and the league has been debating what to do with it. But even though its bid has come up short, Sin City is not a loser in this, far from it.

There have been a lot of jokes about Las Vegas's pursuit of the Montreal Expos. They usually lead to a punchline such as ". . . and Pete Rose is going to be the manager." Or the joke teller will put a spin on it like, "Bud Selig doesn't mind moving the Expos to Las Vegas, as long as Pete Rose isn't the manager."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bargaining table. Last Wednesday, the investment group that is trying to bring a major sports team to Las Vegas made its final pitch to MLB's relocation committee and they weren't laughed out of the room. That was a huge victory to not be dismissed out of hand.

The fact Las Vegas is being taken more seriously is due to many factors, not the least of which is the city's growing population, which is up to 1.6 million residents (ranking No. 34 nationally) and an estimated 7,000 moving here every month, plus more than 30 million visitors a year. Another major factor is the expansion of gambling from coast to coast so that the public isn't as shocked to have a casino in their own back yard, or near a ballpark.

The biggest obstacle remains the sports leagues, which are still leery of being associated with gambling, but that fear appears to be subsiding, bolstered by Nevada's insistence that legal sports betting helps act as a watchdog for point-shaving scandals. Street and Smith's sportsbusinessjournal.com polled "400 professional and college senior-level sports industry executives" and found that in response to the question "Would the elimination of legalized sports betting have a positive impact or negative impact on the sports business?" 68 percent said negative impact while only 6 percent chose positive impact. No impact came in at 26 percent.

On another question, sportsbusinessjournal.com asked, "Do you think that a professional sports franchise will be located in Las Vegas in the next 10 years?" About 79 percent responded yes to only 19 percent for no.

So, it might not happen this year, but the groundwork has been laid.

But Vegas still has a World Series

The championship event of the World Series of Poker started last Saturday at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, and the size of the field exceeded all expectations, even with everyone knowing about the explosion in the popularity of tournament poker.

Last year, a record 839 players either put up or won the $10,000 entry fee to play for the $2.5 million first prize. This year, the field is more than triple the size with a whopping 2,576 entries and a first prize of $5 million going to the champion.

The field is so big - with the Horseshoe not being equipped to handle that many players - that it was split into two groups, with half the players starting Saturday and the other half on Sunday.

By the end of Sunday's play, the number of players was down to 1,108, which is still 32 percent more than last year.

Play continued earlier this week with five two-hour sessions each day. Wednesday, the players will go until there are 36 remaining. Thursday's action will go until they are down to the final table of nine. The final table will be on Friday and play will continue until a winner is crowned, which last year didn't happen until 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Last year's champ, Chris Moneymaker, the Tennessee accountant who parlayed $40 in an online qualifying tournament into the first-place prize, busted out this past Saturday after just four hours.

With the anticipated continuing popularity of poker, Harrah's (which now owns the Horseshoe brand) is planning to hold the early rounds in ballrooms at the Rio with the finals still being held downtown as part of the city's centennial celebration.

Two World Series, in fact

Okay, so you're not a professional baseball player, or a pro at the poker table, but you can still play in the World Series.

In addition to sending the top finishers from its major handicapping tournaments to the $1 Million Horseplayers World Series, the Coast Casinos are giving free entries to winners in its weekly handicapping contests. And there is no entry fee.

The Pick 5 Contests run every Wednesday through Friday through July 9 at the Coast Casinos (The Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast), and the contests are split into four "seasons" with the top point-earner in each one winning a spot in the World Series on Jan. 27-29 and a chance at the $500,000 first prize.

The first season ended last Friday, but Wednesday starts the second season and it runs through June 18.

There is also $1,500 up for grabs each day in daily prizes, plus there's a progressive bonus for going 5 for 5 that is up to $10,000 for Wednesday's contest, which will be on the first five races on the Hollywood card.

Sports book notes

After a number of high-profile boxing upsets lately, Floyd Mayweather Jr. easily won a unanimous decision over DeMarcus Corley in Atlantic City last Saturday night. Mayweather, a -1000 favorite (bet $10 to win $1) despite moving up in class, is expected to be matched up next with junior welterweight champion Arturo Gatti.

* Matt Kenseth, last year's Winston Cup champ, won the Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway last Saturday at odds of 12-1. The event was NASCAR's equivalent of an all-star game and did not count in the driver standings.

* The Stanley Cup finals were scheduled to start Tuesday night with the Tampa Bay Lightning installed as a -250 favorite over the Calgary Flames. I have been riding the Flames the whole postseason and see no reason to stop now. But I wish I was in Eric Wing's shoes. He is a spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. When he comes to town for the NTRA annual meeting or the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, he likes to shop around for future-book prices in all the sports. This past January, he bought two Stanley Cup futures: The Lightning at 35-1 and the Flames at 75-1. Talk about a win-win situation.