12/17/2003 1:00AM

Stratton plays underdog role in finale

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When GamingToday managing editor David Stratton was preparing for his first-round appearance in the Stardust Invitational handicapping tournament back in September, a reporter for a certain racing paper stopped by his office to wish him luck.

Stratton all but pleaded for a story not to be done on him, saying, "I want to stay as low-key as possible."

Well, that's no longer possible.

The marquee outside the Stardust advertises in big, bold letters that Stratton is taking on a professional bettor known as Fezzik in the $10,000 winner-take-all finale Friday at 9 p.m. in the sports book, where both contestants will release their seven top selections for the weekend. The contest will be broadcast live on KDWN AM-720 and www.kdwn.com. Stratton's name is also in the public domain, as several offshore books are taking bets on the matchup. As of Wednesday, Fezzik was between a -130 (risk $1.30 to win $1) and -150 favorite.

Stratton has overcome similar odds each round to get to this point. When odds to win the Stardust Invitational went up before the tournament, Stratton was the longest shot on the board, ranging from 15-1 to 30-1, and has been the underdog in each of his victories over professional handicappers Bryan Leonard, Kevin O'Neill, and Ted Sevransky. But Stratton says that apparent lack of respect isn't what motivated him to do well.

"The real motivation is that you don't want to lose and be humiliated," Stratton said. "When [host] John Kelly gives the wrapup each week, in addition to mentioning the winner's record, he also gives the loser's record, and if it's bad he'll say they 'fell on their face' or 'stubbed their toe.' The fear in all of us is we don't want to get on the short end of the John Kelly stick."

Stratton has received nothing but kudos from Kelly, as he has compiled an overall record of 16-12 (57 percent), and 3-1 in his best bets. Not bad for someone who doesn't consider himself to be a handicapper.

Stratton is a journalist first and foremost. Originally from Hawaii ("Unfortunately, I was dragged to the mainland when I was 12," he says), he worked for several newspapers in California, including the Orange County Register, before moving to Las Vegas in 1989. Stratton is the author of the book "Insiders' Guide to Las Vegas," which is in its fifth printing. He also worked for the Las Vegas Sun, the city's afternoon daily, and various magazines, before starting at GamingToday four years ago. He succeeded yours truly as managing editor in July 2000.

Stratton says he is just a recreational bettor, and that keeps it fun for him. He loves to play parlays, so considering he hasn't had a perfect week, he might be the only person to lose money on his picks so far.

While he is not a professional bettor, his opponent sure is. Fezzik, who writes for and sells selections at lvasports.com, says he derives more than 90 percent of his income from gambling. He advanced to the finals by going 4-3 last week with a best-bet winner to defeat oddsmaker Ken White, co-owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants. In his three appearances, Fezzik is 13-8 (62 percent), with wins on all three of his best bets (Stratton has appeared four times and made seven more selections because he needed a tiebreaker to eliminate Leonard.).

Stratton isn't overconfident by any stretch - "I'm staying positive by assuming a negative result," he jokes - and says his opponent will be tough to beat, but he's more concerned with battling the point spread.

"This is a tough card this weekend, with no colleges, and so many are coin flips," Stratton said. "At this time of year, I'll probably look at some divisional teams that are playing their second game. Teams that lost the first meeting have done well against the spread the second time, and that worked well for me in the last round. I'll also look at some home dogs that are playing for pride and want to knock someone off.

"Other than that, I'll just get the dartboard out, and with so much on the line, maybe this time I'll even take the blindfold off."

Other football contest news

An even more impressive handicapping feat than those of Stratton and Fezzik has been the performance of a contestant under the alias "Jarhead" in the Las Vegas SuperContest and the Station Casinos Gambler's Challenge.

"Jarhead" went 4-1 last week to move back into a first-place tie with "Peter and Paul" in the SuperContest with 49 1/2 points. Picking five NFL games a week, "Jarhead" has a season-long record of 47-23 (67 percent) with five pushes, which count as a half-point each under the scoring system. "Azeri" is third with 48 1/2 points, followed by "betaadss.com" with 48 and a group of four handicappers at 46, including the aforementioned Leonard, who uses the name of his website, "footballwinners.com."

In the Gambler's Challenge, "Jarhead" has a record of 48-23 (68 percent) with four pushes for 50 contest points and has opened up a 3 1/2-game lead on "Big Richie" at 46 1/2. "IMO-DUE Factor" is third at 45 1/2 and "AJ Sports" is fourth at 44 1/2 after going 0-5 last week.

Horse racing contests scratched

While the football contests around Las Vegas are unaffected by the holiday season, the same can't be said for the daily horse handicapping contests.

With little racing on Christmas Eve and a dark Christmas Day, there will be no contests Wednesday or Thursday of next week. The contests that are regularly held Friday - including those at Sunset Station, Texas Station, Circus Circus, and Las Vegas Hilton - will resume Dec. 26, the opening day of the Santa Anita meet. The Imperial Palace's "Super Saturday" contest will also return from its holiday hiatus next Saturday.