12/18/2002 12:00AM

Stardust contest down to final pair

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LAS VEGAS - Professional handicapper Mike Lee and national radio host "Papa" Joe Chevalier have compiled great records so far in the Stardust Invitational . . . but they both know they have been lucky.

Chevalier is 16-5 (76 percent) against the spread, including two straight 6-1 performances, in his three appearances in the tournament, which pits two handicappers against each other each week in a single-elimination format.

After the field of 16 contestants combined for just under 44 percent winners (based on a record of 73-93-2) through the first two rounds, tourney host John Kelly said, "Papa Joe has single-handedly saved the promotion."

Then last week, Lee went 6-1 to defeat Rudy Ruettiger and advance to the finals with an overall record of 14-7 (67 percent).

Chevalier and Lee will go for the $10,000 winner-take-all first prize Friday when they give out their seven selections from 9-10 p.m. Pacific in the Stardust sports book. The contest can also be heard in nine western states on KDWN AM-720.

"John [Kelly] told me after I won the Tennessee game Monday night that he was happy he would be able to bill it as a battle of 6-1 handicappers," Lee said. "It was pretty ugly there for a while."

Both finalists are past tournament champions. Chevalier won this event in 1999 and is trying to become the second two-time champ (Ken White won the first two Stardust Invitationals in 1995 and 1996).

While he tends to pump himself up on his show on the Sporting News Radio network, Chevalier was more candid in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal when he said: "Nobody knows better than me how tough this racket is. I'm no better over the long haul than most people."

Lee, who is part of the Jim Feist stable of handicappers, won the 1985 Castaways Challenge, the predecessor of the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest as the most prestigious tournament in town. In the late 1980's, he had an incredible run in the SuperContest. He finished ninth in 1986, the contest was canceled in the strike year of 1987, he finished fifth in 1988, and then won it in 1989 and won $114,000.

"I was like a song moving up the charts," said Lee.

In his first three Stardust appearances in past years, Lee never made it out of the first round.

"This is far different than the contests that go week to week," Lee said. "You really have to pray that you have a good week when your turn comes up. It's do or die."

We will see who Lady Luck continues to smile on this weekend.

Other contests near finish line

With two weeks left in the NFL regular season and teams battling for playoff position, handicappers in the two high-end contests in Las Vegas are also battling for positions in their standings.

* "Little Awful Andy," the alias of local handicapper Andy Iskoe, went 5-0 last week to move into a first-place tie in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest with "I Walk a Beat" at 49-26 (65 percent). Each of the 281 contestants put up $1,500 and makes five NFL plays each week against the spread. The champion receives 40 percent of the pot, which this year comes to $168,600, and prizes are paid through 25th place. "Jersey Red" is a half-game back with a record of 48-26-1. "Ghost" is fourth at 48-27. "C.C.5," who was tied with "I Walk a Beat" heading into last weekend, went 1-4 and is in a group of three tied for fifth place at 46-27-2.

* In the Gambler's Challenge at Station Casinos, last week's leader "RG Sports II" went 0-5 and fell into a three-way tie for first place with Roland Phillips and Robert Burns with 46 contest points. The scoring is just like the SuperContest with players getting 1 point for a win and a half-point for a push. Phillips and Burns are 46-29 while "RG Sports II" is 45-28-2. "Jersey Boyz" and "Vegas Connection" are a half-game behind the leaders at 45-29-1. There were 129 entries in the Stations contest at $1,000 per, with $64,500 going to the champ.

The leaders' selections and consensus plays are available at the Hilton for the SuperContest and Station sports books all over town for the Gambler's Challenge by Friday afternoon.

Azeri an odds-on favorite

Eclipse Award ballots were received by voters this week. John Avello, director of race and sports at Bally's, the host of next month's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, has come up with odds on the Horse of the Year category.

Avello makes Azeri the overwhelming 1-2 favorite, followed by High Chapparal (2-1), Rock of Gibraltar (5-1), Street Cry and Orientate (15-1), Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi (20-1), War Emblem (35-1), Vindication (50-1), Golden Apples (100-1) and a field of all others (1,000-1). The odds are for entertainment purposes only because Nevada regulations prohibit any wagering on voting results.

Race and sports book notes

Wednesday usually rivals Friday as the busiest day for local handicapping contest players, but with Christmas falling on Wednesday next week (and no racing from coast to coast), all contests will take the day off. The tournament circuit then begins anew on Thursday with the opening day of Santa Anita.

- The Poker Palace has added night racing to its horse racing menu, including Sam Houston, Penn National, Delta Downs, Mountaineer, and Yonkers. If the race book builds up its clientele at night, it will add a handicapping contest similar to its current free $1,000 Wednesday through Sunday contest held during the day.

- After upgrading the race and sports book at its Rio sister property, Harrah's Las Vegas has enhanced its intimate race book (seating capacity of 60) with a huge screen, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, to go with two 60-inch TVs and two 30-inchers.

- Mark Jackson, Ricky Nattiel, and Vance Johnson, the receiving corps of the Denver Broncos from 1985-93 who were well-known as the Three Amigos, will be signing autographs at the Caesars Palace sports book on Sunday from 9 to 10:30 a.m.