08/16/2005 11:00PM

Stardust welcomes 'watchdog'

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For years, the Stardust Invitational had a reputation for having its handicappers give out more losers than winners.

That has turned around in the last two years, since race and sports book director Bob Scucci decided to emphasize solid football handicapping as opposed to the circus atmosphere that came with appearances by quasi-celebrities such as Jimmie "J.J." Walker, Mayor Oscar Goodman, Rudy Reuttiger of Notre Dame fame, and Jerry Tarkanian.

That change resulted in a winning percentage of 56 (66 percent on best bets) for all contestants in each of the last two years - and newfound respect.

It has also led to more handicappers wanting to be associated with the contest.

The Stardust Invitational is an invite-only, single-elimination tournament with a field of 16. Two handicappers give out their top seven plays - and a best bet to be used as a tiebreaker - on Friday night in the Stardust sports book. It is broadcast live on KDWN AM-720 and on kdwn.com. Winners of the head-to-head matchups advance until the final showdown with a winner-take-all prize of $10,000.

"I received more e-mails and letters this year than any other year," said Scucci, who chooses the contestants along with "Stardust Line" radio host John Kelly. "We started with a list of about 60 names and tried to put together the best field we could."

One spot traditionally goes to the defending champion, so "Big" Al McMordie will take on GamingToday managing editor David Stratton, the 2003 champ, in the first matchup on Sept. 9.

The rest of the field - or at least 15 of the 16 because Scucci said they haven't confirmed the final contestant - includes well-known handicappers Fezzik, Andy Iskoe, Marc Lawrence, Dave Malinsky, Kevin O'Neill, and Tim Trushel.

"We also wanted to get some new blood," Scucci said, explaining the inclusion of "Fairway" Jay Ginsbach, James Manos, local radio host Steve Cofield, and Randall "The Handle" Murray, a radio host from Toronto who breaks down games from a point-spread perspective.

The tournament usually also has industry insiders, and that's where Ed Salmons, sports book manager at the Las Vegas Hilton, and Ken Weitzner aka "The Shrink," formerly of therx.com and now eog.com, come in.

But for all of the emphasis on booking well-established, well-respected participants, the biggest buzz this past week involved the inclusion of one Jeff Jones. Who's that, you ask?

On Monday's radio show, Kelly described Jones as a "watchdog" of the sports service industry. Perhaps "critic" would be more appropriate. Or, better yet, "The Anti-Tout."

Jones is a poster - an Internet term for one who posts in a forum - at fezziksplace.com (the website of the handicapper known as Fezzik). He rants about sports services that make outlandish claims and makes fun of their marketing techniques, and those that fall for it. A 56-year-old curmudgeon, Jones has 3,500 posts since joining the site in June 2004.

"I've received more e-mails this week about him than all others combined," Scucci said. "I definitely want to match him up with Fezzik in the first round."

* The Stardust Invitational is just for the chosen few. In Saturday's column, I will list all the football contests in Las Vegas open to everyone.

Harness handicappers get their shot

For any harness bettors who complain that all the handicapping tournaments only use Thoroughbred races, you can stop sulking.

This Saturday, Bally's hosts the Bang Tail Challenge, a live-money tournament involving races from Freehold, The Meadows, Northfield, and Balmoral. The entry fee is $300 plus a bankroll of $360, which must be bought at the time of registration. Players then make 15 parimutuel wagers of $24 each on any races from the contest tracks. They get to keep the proceeds from any tickets they cash, plus the top money-earners will split up the prize pool with the winner getting 50 percent, second taking 30 percent, third receiving 15 percent, and fourth taking 5 percent.

With only about 15 to 20 entrants expected, the prize money won't amount to much, but the top two finishers will also earn an automatic berth in the National Harness Handicapping Championship at The Meadowlands on April 22, 2006, plus a $500 travel allowance. This past April, Jim Lang of Cohoes, N.Y., won the NHHC's top prize of $50,000.

Entries will be accepted as long as a contestant still has 15 available races to play.

Sports book notes

Having watched every NFL preseason game so far (or at least until the starters went to the sidelines), I have formed some opinions. While I'm still going to be watching these exhibitions with an eye toward how the teams are coming together for the regular season, I went ahead with two wagers on this weekend's games: Vikings +1 vs. the Jets on Friday night and the Raiders +1 vs. the Texans on Saturday.

* This week's boxing comeback features two-time junior middleweight champion Fernando Vargas as he takes on Javier Castillejo at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. The fight is not on pay-per-view, instead being shown live on HBO's "Boxing After Dark" series at 10:15 p.m. Eastern, and thus will be shown in most sports books free of charge. Vargas is a -300 favorite.

* Tony Stewart has won five of the last seven Nextel Cup races and has seen his odds plummet each week, landing as Station Casinos' 5-1 co-favorite, along with Greg Biffle, to win this Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Kurt Busch is 9-1, with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman at 10-1, Jimmie Johnson at 11-1, Matt Kenseth at 12-1, and Jeff Gordon at 13-1.

With four races to the Chase for the Championship - Nextel Cup's playoffs, with the top 10 point-earners being eligible for the title to be determined over the final 10 races of the year - Stewart is the 9-5 favorite to win the points title. Johnson is 3-1, Biffle is 7-2 and Busch, the defending champ, is 5-1.

Gordon opened the year at 9-2 at Station Casinos to win the points title, was bet down to 7-2 after a nice start, but is now an outsider in the race for the chase and is 35-1 to win the title.