01/08/2003 12:00AM

A stampede of horseplayers


LAS VEGAS - Beginning early next week, horseplayers from all over the country will be invading for two major tournaments.

The marquee event is the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, to be held Jan. 18-19 at Bally's Las Vegas on the Strip. The field, consisting of 212 players who earned their seats in qualifiers last year, plus defending champ Herman Miller of Oakland, Calif., will compete for the $100,000 first prize and the title of National Handicapper of the Year. The winner will also be a guest of honor at the Eclipse Awards.

Meanwhile, the Coast 2 Coast Super Tournament will take place next Thursday through Saturday at two locations - the Suncoast in suburban Summerlin and the Barbary Coast, right across from Bally's on the Strip. When it was first announced that the two tourneys would run concurrently, there was some criticism from players, but there hasn't appeared to be any backlash.

"If anything, it's been the opposite," said Debbie Flaig, tournament coordinator for the Coast 2 Coast. "We've added a lot of players who were coming in for the DRF/NTRA tourney and decided to play ours, too. Some are sending proxies and others are going to run back and forth. It's less than a 10-minute walk (between the Bally's and Barbary Coast race books)."

As of Wednesday, the tournament had 319 entries at $500 apiece. All entry fees are returned to the players, plus an additional $75,000 is added to the prize pool by Coast Casinos. A total of 177 people (buying 211 entries) had signed up at the Suncoast. The original plans called for 50 players at the Barbary Coast, but demand prompted seating to be expanded to 90 in the race book and adjoining lounge. Those 90 seats are sold out (with those players buying a total of 108 entries). Flaig said more people can sign up at the Barbary Coast but they won't be guaranteed a seat. Entries will be taken until about 12:30 p.m. next Thursday.

Betting the Derby futures

With all those horse racing fans in town, they will likely be shopping around for Kentucky Derby future book prices on their favorite 3-year-olds. Bally's and the Coast Casinos have two of the most popular future books in town. The Excalibur, the only book to have War Emblem on its future book list last year prior to the Illinois Derby, has a list of 50. It has Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication at 10-1, but that won't last long.

Vindication has been bet down to 4-1 at most books and will continue to get pounded if he excels on the road to the Derby. But what if you have faith in trainer Bob Baffert but were burned by last year's future-book favorite Officer? Well, you can go to the Imperial Palace and get Baffert at 7-5 to be the Derby-winning trainer. The IP has 45 trainers listed. Bobby Frankel, the trainer of Empire Maker (the second choice in most Derby futures), is the second choice at 7-1. He has been bet down from 25-1.

Of the jockeys, Mike Smith has been bet down to 4-1 based on having the mount on Vindication. If you think Jerry Bailey will find the winner, he's also 4-1. There are 32 jockeys on the list, including foreign stars such as Kieren Fallon and Mick Kinane, who have both been bet down from 100-1 to 15-1.

Other contests

This Friday, Sunset Station has a $6,070 carryover in the bonus pool of its $10 buy-in handicapping contest on the Santa Anita card. The entrant with the highest combined winning mutuels wins $1,500, but the bonus pool is split by those whose selections all finish in the money. With all of the entry fees going in the bonus pool, the jackpot could reach $12,000 by first post at 1 p.m.

After taking a holiday hiatus, the Plaza downtown has reinstated its free $1,000 contest on Fridays. The contest comprises the last five races at Santa Anita with $500 going to the contestant picking the most winners and $500 to the person with the highest win mutuels.

Vegas tourism notes

A lot of people catch their first glimpse of Las Vegas on the multitude of cable shows that feature Sin City content. This weekend there are several such shows, with a "True Hollywood Story" Friday night on Wayne Newton on E! and two shows named "Gambling Games" and "Casino Diaries" Saturday night on the Discovery Channel. For those whose New Year's resolution was to go on a diet, you can still live vicariously with "Battle of the Buffets" Sunday night on the Travel Channel. And "The Real World," which was filmed mostly at the Palms, continues to air each Tuesday night on MTV.

* Out-of-towners who catch Vegas fever by watching the above shows will find it easy to get here. Starting next Thursday, low-fare airline JetBlue is adding its third daily round trip route from New York's JFK International, with a fourth to come Feb. 20. In March, America West is adding two more flights a day from San Francisco (making a total of seven arrivals per day), and extra flights each day from Phoenix (for a total of 12), Denver (7), San Diego (3), San Jose, and Eugene, Ore.