Updated on 09/17/2011 10:07PM

Top handicapper wore red suspenders

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Kendall Carter is a retired Los Angeles County fireman from La Mirada, Calif., who now acts as a fire marshal on Hollywood sets.

It's his job to prevent and put out fires, yet he was the one on fire here last Thursday through Saturday in the Championship at the Orleans horse handicapping tournament.

Carter topped a field of 656 entries in the $500 buy-in event to win first prize of $104,960. Contestants make 12 mythical $100 win bets each day, with full track odds paid on the first $20 and the remaining $80 capped at odds of 20-1.

"I like the equine puzzle; it keeps the mind active," said the 64-year-old Carter. "I do all my handicapping from the Racing Form, so I get a lot of ink on my hands, flipping back and forth between the tracks. I take a lot of pride in the fact I did this all by myself with just one entry against a lot of people with computers and multiple entries."

Carter said he's a tournament veteran of 15 years, dating back to Mike Lavine's tournaments at the Sands and Caesars Palace, and calls Gordon Jones - a former Los Angeles Herald Examiner turf writer who moved his tack to Las Vegas - a mentor.

"I paid my dues," Carter said. "It took a lot of tournaments to know how to do it, but the best way to get better is to play against the best."

Carter was consistent as he earned 2,900 points the first day to stand in 16th place, and then he blazed to the front with 4,260 on Friday for a combined total of 7,160, helped along by three $30 horses.

"When I got in the lead, I wasn't going to change the way I play," Carter said. "I was up here to win. The money isn't as important as winning."

Well, now he has both as he tacked on another 2,670 points on Saturday to finish with 9,830. Tim Downs of Las Vegas was second with 9,228 points to earn $52,480 in runner-up prize money, followed by Ed Spaunhurst of Mercer Island, Wash., who scored 8,626 points to pick up $26,240, and Scott Castillo (the son of tournament veteran Tommy Castillo) of Cushing, Texas, who scored 8,476 to collect $16,400.

Carter said this taste of success leaves him wanting more.

"I feel like I could win another one of these," he said.

He'll get a free chance next January because the victory earns him a berth in the Horseplayer World Series, to also be held at the Orleans. The top 50 finishers from last weekend's tournament earned an automatic entry.

Top teams roll in Final Four

All year long, the consensus has been - despite short flirtations at the top by Kansas and Wake Forest - that Illinois and North Carolina were the two best college basketball teams in the land.

They continued to prove that on Saturday, both winning in blowouts in the NCAA tournament semifinals. Illinois beat Louisville, 72-57, easily covering the 3 1/2-point spread, while the 129 points were well under the closing total of 145 1/2. North Carolina blew open a close game in the second half to rout Michigan St., 87-71, and easily cover the 5-point spread. But the total landed right on the closing number of 158 at the Stardust. A few books were at 158 1/2 or 159, with the Palms at 159 1/2.

My selections, Louisville and North Carolina went 1-1, making my bankroll plays 14-13-1 (52 percent) for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). My overall selections on all tournament games stood at 33-28-2 (54 percent) going into Monday night's championship game.

So, the title game - played after deadline Monday - was to determine whether I end with overall profit. For the record, I took Illinois +2 on the drf.com website.

Master the art of the early wager

It goes without saying that if you're going to bet futures, it pays to bet early - getting on a team before it gets hot and attracts everyone's attention. That may be even more important with individual sports such as golf. Unlike in the Kentucky Derby, in which many hopefuls fall by the wayside, in golf you can be pretty sure that a pro golfer will be teeing off in a major tournament such as the Masters.

After the PGA Championship last August, Las Vegas Hilton sports book supervisor and golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman put up the first future book on the Masters and made Tiger Woods the 6-1 favorite, with Phil Mickelson at 7-1, and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh both at 8-1.

Fast forward nearly eight months later, and Woods is now 7-2 at the Hilton, with Mickelson 9-2, and Els and Singh 7-1. But those aren't the only golfers to have had their Masters odds adjusted downward. Padraig Harrington has been bet down from 40-1 to 25-1 and Luke Donald from 75-1 to 40-1.

This isn't to say that every golfer's odds have dropped since August. Jim Furyk opened at 30-1 and is now 50-1. Chad Campbell was 40-1 and is now 100-1 and Justin Leonard was 50-1 and is also 100-1. But if you're looking to back a hot golfer with a legitimate shot at winning, the time to bet was months ago.

Word to the wise (guys): Opening odds for the U.S. Open, to be played June 16-19 at Pinehurst, will be available at the Hilton after this weekend's action.

Also, Sherman at the Hilton has odds on how many majors Woods will win this year. Zero is the favorite at 4-5, with one major at 7-5, two majors at 11-2, three majors at 20-1, and four majors (the Grand Slam) at 50-1.