05/15/2006 12:00AM

South Coast celebrates Preakness

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The card of eight Breeders' Cup races aside, there are two horse races a year that prompt Las Vegas race books to turn to the marketing department in order to plan special parties and promotions.

The first, obviously, is the Kentucky Derby, and we saw that two weekends ago. The second is the Belmont Stakes, but only when there's a Triple Crown bid. Other than that, race books here just use their day-to-day facilities, rather than ballrooms or convention centers, to host the crowds since no other big stakes race warrants such special treatment.

Not even the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown. It is mostly seen as a race to prove if the Derby winner is legit and will be heading to New York with a chance for immortality.

But the handicapping tournament organizers at Coast Casinos have seen fit to change that, at least at the South Coast property on Las Vegas Boulevard South, approximately five miles south of Mandalay Bay. This Thursday and Friday, the South Coast is hosting the inaugural Turf Club Invitational in its Grand Ballroom, and that room will host a Preakness party all day Saturday.

For regular tournament players, there are some noticeable differences from the long-running megapopular tournaments at the Orleans. The entry fee is $400 (compared with $500 at the Orleans) and contestants make 12 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day (as opposed to the win-only format at the Orleans). Points will be awarded based on each horse's mutuel payoffs, with the first $20 credited at full track odds and the remaining $80 capped at $42 for win, $22 for place, and $12 for show.

Another difference is that there are only 290 entries for the contest, said contest administrator Debbie Flaig, and the final total is expected to be around 350, far less than the 600 to 800 entries the Orleans regularly gets for its tournaments. As is custom at all Coast contests, entries will be accepted up on the opening day until there are 12 playable races remaining.

First prize will win 46 percent of the entry fees, or $64,400 if the field reaches 350, and prizes are paid through 40th place. There will be no daily prize money available Thursday, but on Friday there will be a "Get Even Contest" with the top 10 point earners on the final day receiving prize money even if they don't get into the top 40.

In addition, the top 10 finishers will earn automatic berths into the Horseplayer World Series (a $1,000 value), to be held Jan. 18-20 at the Orleans.

Getting ready for World Cup

Soccer remains the world's most popular sport, even if Americans tend to care more about other sports.

I don't follow the sport, but occasionally see odds posted in local sports books and occasionally grab some odds sheets.

This Wednesday, at 11:45 a.m. Pacific, the UEFA Champions League holds its finale at the Stade de France in Paris with Barcelona and Arsenal competing for the title.

A sheet I have from last December, shows that Barcelona was the 4-1 favorite to win the title while Arsenal was the 10th betting choice at 15-1.

Jeff Sherman, sports book supervisor at the Las Vegas Hilton, confirms those were the opening odds when the field of 16 teams was announced last fall, and the futures didn't take too much action, even though Arsenal, a popular English team, continued to advance.

For Wednesday's final, the Hilton opened Barcelona as a -180 favorite (risk $1.80 for every $1 you want to profit) with Arsenal at +160 (win $1.60 for every $1 wagered). To spark more betting, Sherman reduced the vig from a 20-cent line to a 10-cent line and as of Monday morning Barcelona was -185 with Arsenal available at +175.

Interest in soccer betting will obviously spike next month with the World Cup being held from June 9 through July 19 in Germany. The Hilton has Brazil as the 9-4 favorite, with Germany at 6-1, England and Argentina at 7-1, Italy at 9-1, France and Holland at 10-1, and Spain at 12-1. The U.S. is a 40-1 longshot.

Sports book notes

Greg Biffle, one of the early-season favorites to contend for the Nextel Cup points championship, had been 0 for 9 so far this year yet was Station Casinos' 7-1 co-favorite for Saturday's Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington Raceway. He finally came through for his backers as he led 170 of the 367 laps.

* Practice for the Indianapolis 500 was rained out this past weekend, but auto racing oddsmaker Micah Roberts said betting on the May 29 race has been all wet anyway. "We've had the odds up for a month and a half and interest has been minimal," Roberts said from his office in Sunset Station. "We had more on the Busch race at Darlington this weekend than we've had so far on the Indy 500."

Tony Kanaan is the 5-1 favorite, followed by Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castronveves at 7-1, Danica Patrick at 8-1, and Dan Wheldon at 9-1.

* The PGA's Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Tex., was won by Brett Wetterich. If you asked, "Who?" you're not alone. It was his first win on tour, the fifth first-time winner already this year. One would think there would be very few unknowns left, but the Hilton had the "field of all others" at 11-4 heading into the tournament.

* Tracking the zig-zag theory has been just as exciting as following the NBA playoffs. The zig-zag (aka "loser of the last") theory just says to bet on the straight-up loser against the spread in the next game. Through Sunday's games, the zig-zag was 24-20-3 since the playoffs started. But it has done its own zig-zag, going 11-5-2 (69 percent, after tossing pushes), then 5-13-1 (28 percent) to close the first round, and now 8-2 since the start of the conference semifinals, heading into Monday's games. Home-court advantage, which had been huge in the first round, is now at 28-28-3 overall against the spread. Underdogs went 10-4 in the first week of the second round and are 30-25-3 (55 percent) overall, with the over in totals betting at 32-26-1 (55 percent).