08/17/2003 11:00PM

Still the place to meet, greet, and bet

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With the explosion of the offshore gambling industry, a lot of people say that Las Vegas is no longer the sports betting capital of the world. Many people say it never was, but that's a discussion for another time.

Be that as it may, Las Vegas must still hold an allure because it sure looks likes the mecca of sports betting to a lot of people in the business this month.

Cases in point:

* The website www.theprescription.com is arguably the top site devoted to the offshore gambling industry, with ratings of bookmakers and an active posting forum. Last Saturday night, Ken "The Shrink" Weitzner hosted a big party for forum posters that drew a crowd of 100 from coast to coast. The location: the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas.

* The website www.bodog.com, while not one of the big dogs of the offshore bookmakers, has become well known thanks in large part to its fan-friendly weekly column written by president Rob Gillespie, who was networking at The Prescription party. Bodog, which is located in Costa Rica, is hosting an invitation-only party on Thursday night for customers and business associates. Where? The Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.

* "Papa" Joe Chevalier is the popular host of a Sporting News Radio Network show (3-7 p.m. Pacific Time) that often features discussions about sports betting. Chevalier is based in Chicago, but he often does remote broadcasts from top sporting venues. With football season approaching, he's doing his show the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September from the Mandalay Bay sports book in Las Vegas. His trip will conclude with an appearance in the Stardust Invitational handicapping tournament (he's the defending champ and also won the event in 1999) on Friday night, Sept. 12.

* The inaugural Sports Betting Festival this weekend will feature handicappers who market their services to bettors all over the country, including Jimmy Vacarro, Marc Lawrence Sr. and Jr., Larry Ness, Andy Iskoe, and many others. It could have been held anywhere, but organizer Lawrence "The Prez" Prezman of www.who2beton.com chose to hold it at Bally's Las Vegas.

The main topics of conversation at The Prescription party revolved around the upcoming football season, specifically the preseason bets won and lost last Saturday and the injury to Atlanta quarterback Mike Vick. Sports books all over the world were scrambling to drop the over/under on the Falcons' season win total from 9 1/2 to 9 while raising their odds to win the Super Bowl.

Another discussion revolved around the list of relative no-names atop the leaderboard at the PGA Championship heading into Sunday's final round. As it turned out, Shaun Micheel won the tourney, getting his first Tour win of any kind and completing a banner summer for bookmakers in golf's majors. It was the first time since 1969 that all four majors were won by golfers who had never won a major before. That equates to a lot of torn up betting tickets, especially considering the British Open and PGA Championship were won by guys in the field with low odds.

The year didn't start out so well for bookmakers when Mike Weir won The Masters in April as a pretty popular betting choice (pounded from 60-1 down to 25-1 at some books), and the low scoring at the U.S. Open in June found bettors on the winning side of many prop bets, as well as backing local favorite Jim Furyk. But summer really heated up for Vegas bookmakers when Ben Curtis won the British Open as part of the field, between 3-1 and 6-1 around town, and then Micheel won Sunday as part of the field at 4-1.

Football will be the main topic again Saturday at Bally's during the Sports Betting Festival, with up to 30 handicappers sharing their thoughts.

"I had wanted to do a who2beton.com seminar along the lines of what Vegas Insider did the past few years, but I never got moving on it," Prezman said. "I was talking to some people on June 15 and said it was probably too late to do it this year. They told me that Vegas Insider wasn't doing one and that I should fill the void. Within an hour, I had freepicksbyemail.com, Marc Lawrence Sr. and Jr., signed up. It took off from there.

"Instead of trying to be the hero and putting my name on it, I wanted to make it an actual event with no brand name where everyone would feel welcome no matter their affiliation. Handicappers have a bad name and we want to de-hostilize, if that's a word, the environment and get everyone to meet together."

Hotel and seminar packages have been on sale at sportsbettingfestival.com, and the Saturday morning sessions from 10 a.m. to noon will be free to the public. Go to the website for full details.

It doesn't look like Vegas is going to be a sports betting ghost town anytime soon.

Nevadans go to the races

While sports bettors invade Las Vegas, a lot of locals head to Del Mar for their weekend getaways. The same thing happens in the northern part of each state. This Thursday, Reno/Tahoe-area residents will participate in the second annual "Nevada Day at the Races" at the Cal-Expo Fairgrounds in Sacramento, Calif.

Organized by Reno-Tahoe News Distributing, he day is meant to acknowledge the support of California race fans for both the sport and the Nevada race books. All the races on the card will be sponsored by Nevada companies, including the Reno Hilton, The Peppermill Hotel-Casino, the Western Village Inn & Casino, Circus-Circus Reno, Caesars Tahoe, Nevada Wallboards of Las Vegas, and Steve Fierro of ESPN Radio.

Four hit Coast's Pick 5 jackpot

The Del Mar Pick 5 at Coast Casinos is held on the first five races on Wednesdays and Fridays. The progressive jackpot (all $5 entry fees plus $2,000 added each day by Coast Casinos) grew to $37,480 heading into last Friday's twilight card. After not being hit the first five times the wager was conducted, four people had winning tickets, earning $9,370 apiece.

The winning horses were Baltic Nations ($8.60) in the first, Zoolu Nights ($3.20) in the second, Slew of the Night ($5) in the third, Desert Boom ($23) in the fourth, and Dream Weekend ($5.20) in the fifth.

The jackpot resets at $2,000 this Wednesday at The Orleans, Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, and Suncoast race books.