10/13/2002 11:00PM

Thank goodness for last-minute change of heart

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LAS VEGAS - The California trio of Ray Moriarity, Joe Cragg, and Ron Cotler came away with the $98,240 first-place prize in the $357,000 Championship at The Orleans handicapping tournament last weekend.

Heading into the final race of the tournament, Saturday's 10th at Santa Anita, they had accumulated 7,178 points and knew they were going to finish pretty high, but had no idea they were in the lead. Contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets per day, with full track odds paid on the first $20 and the rest capped at 20-1.

For their final pick in the $18,000 maiden claiming race for 3-year-olds and up, they were leaning toward the No. 9 horse, then the 10 (which scratched), then the 3 (which also scratched), before, finally, Cotler made his case for the 5, Crystal's Regal, at 4-1. Moriarity, who is the point man for the team, even filled out a contest card with Crystal's Regal.

When Moriarity got back from turning in their final selection, Cotler asked who they were cheering for. Moriarity replied that they were going with the 1, Ufology, at 2-1.

"You never said anything about that horse," Cotler said.

"He's the best horse in the race," Moriarity replied.

Meanwhile, across the Mardi Gras Ballroom, Robert Bertolluci figured he was also in contention with his 6,905 points and decided to go with Ufology to improve his position and because he also felt Ufology was the best horse in the race.

Ufology came from off the pace to win by two lengths, paying $6 and worth 300 points to the contest players. That would have given Bertolluci, with 7,205 points, the top prize if Moriarity hadn't gone with his gut feeling to give his team a final total of 7,478.

"I'm in shock," Moriarity said after being told by the Orleans staff that he was the winner. "I can't believe it came down to a $6 winner that I normally wouldn't play in a contest like this."

They had gotten into contention by firing away on longshots at Keeneland (Paula's Pride, $57.80), Arlington Park (Standard Bearer, $34.80), and two at Santa Anita (Ride and Shine, $27, and U U Star, $16.60).

While many of the top tournament players turn toward computer handicapping, Moriarity still relies on his ability to "ferret out horses in the Daily Racing Form."

The tournament was marred by a computer snafu that led to the cancellation of Thursday's opening day, reducing it to a two-day contest. When everything was straightened out, there were 614 entries at $500 apiece.

Moriarity, who is from Burbank, and Cragg, from Long Beach, are longtime friends and business partners as exposition contractors. Cotler does electrical work for trade shows, and the three have done many conventions in Las Vegas. They started playing tournaments together five years ago. This year, they split their two entries three ways, and will do the same with their $99,025 in winnings (including an additional $785 in daily prize money for finishing fourth on Saturday).

Bertolluci collected second-place money of $49,120 all by himself. He has a wife and two teenage kids to support, along with other family in San Mateo, Calif. Bertolucci won an additional $4,500 for having the highest point total on Saturday. All of his 7,205 points came on the final day; he got zero on Friday.

Other big winners were the team of Israel and Bernard Wiesner, who finished third with 7,050 points for $24,560; the team of Marcel and Clara Vatara, who finished fourth with 6,885 points for $15,350; Tim Haley, who finished fifth with 6,815 points for $9,210; the team of Granville Bradley and Bill Edwards, who won $4,500 as the first-day leader and added another $921 when they finished 33rd overall; and Morris Langburnett, who won Sunday's bonus early-bird contest for $10,000.