04/11/2002 11:00PM

Tourney winnings fall in gray area


The U.S. tax code is undecipherable for most of us. But it's not a cakewalk for accountants either. There are many gray areas.

Take horse racing handicapping tournaments, for example. There are a dozen in Nevada this year with buy-ins ranging from $500 to $3,500 and winning prizes from $20,000 to more than $100,000. In the past, winners have experienced "sticker shock" - as one race book director called it - when they had 27 percent withheld from their winnings and had to fill out a W2-G form.

When the Coast Resorts were planning tournaments for this year (two at the Suncoast and two at The Orleans), organizers wanted to address players' concerns about why Uncle Sam gets a cut.

The argument is that a "signer" in horse racing is only required if a payoff is more than $600 and the odds are 300-1 or higher. In a $500 buy-in contest, that would put the threshold at $150,500 for both conditions to be met.

"We showed the circumstances to a number of accountants and they all had a different interpretation," said Bob Gregorka, race book director for Coast Resorts.

Some thought W2-Gs or 1099s (miscellaneous income) should be required by everyone who cashed. Some thought only those winning $5,000 or more (the rule for casino winnings) should have to declare their earnings. Some thought no forms and no withholding should take place.

The Coast Resorts went with the last interpretation when it held the Suncoast Invitational in January and players were grateful. The same tack was taken at the recently completed Championship at The Orleans.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board doesn't have any black-and-white regulations, so casinos are left to rule as they see fit. And they all do it differently.

From a player's perspective, the Coast Resorts have it right. It's not gambling because all the entry fees are collected and then returned to the players with no takeout (as a racetrack does) or house edge (like they do at table games). It's a competition. Of course, the IRS probably sees it as income regardless of the source, like it does with game show winnings and lotteries.

Mayor Bobble-head

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is many things: outspoken, controversial. You can add bigheaded to the list.

The former mob lawyer - who defended Anthony Spilotro, Herbie Blitzstein, Meyer Lansky, and other family members, and played himself in the movie "Casino" as Lefty Rosenthal's counsel - will have his likeness used as a bobble-head doll at a Las Vegas 51s game in August. As far as anyone knows, he will be the first political figure immortalized in such a way.

It makes sense because he is larger than life, moreso than any player on the 51s. Some examples of his over-the-top behavior:

* A martini drinker, Goodman has long given free publicity to Beefeater as his gin of choice. He tried working out an endorsement deal late last year, but Beefeater wouldn't reach his demand of $100,000 - which would go into the city's coffers. He's now negotiating with Tanqueray.

* Goodman was on hand Thursday at Jerry's Nugget when the casino's bar launched a new drink called the Yucca Mountain Meltdown, with proceeds going to help Nevada's battle against the nuclear waste repository.

* Goodman has called John Sununu, the former White House chief of staff who is now a pro-Yucca lobbyist, a "big old fathead" and referred to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham as "that piece of garbage." While calling Sen. John McCain a war hero, he calls him a "bum" when it comes to his support of a college betting ban.

* And he loves to bet. Back in September, he proclaimed Laffit Pincay Jr. Day when that legendary jockey gave a seminar at Bally's. While he and I were looking at the college football games on the board, he said to me, "A day isn't complete if I don't make a bet." I don't remember the team he gave me or the horse he picked at the seminar, but I know they both lost. But he had fun.

* You can't say that Goodman forgets his roots. He has proposed that a downtown post office be converted into a mob museum to commemorate the mob's role in building Las Vegas.

He drinks. He gambles. He calls the days of the mob "the good old days." He's the mayor.

NFL games open for betting

The NHL and NBA playoffs start later this week (there will be a look at first-round matchups in Wednesday's Form), but the NFL is attracting just as much attention in local circles with the amateur draft next Saturday and Sunday.

Adding to football fever is the fact the Palms and the Imperial Palace, in a joint effort, have posted odds on Week 1 of the NFL season. You might think that these odds will be far off from what will be available when the season opens, but last year, when the IP released the opening numbers in April, only four were off by more than two points from the lines that went up in September.

Week 1 has bookend pick-em contests. The season kicks off on a Thursday night, Sept. 5, with the 49ers visiting the Giants. The Monday night matchup is a rematch of the AFC title game as the Steelers visit the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

With the Houston Texans joining the league, there will be 16 games in weeks that don't have byes. The Texans make their regular-season debut on Sunday night, Sept.8, as a 3-point underdog vs. the Cowboys.

The Packers are the biggest Week 1 favorite as an 8-point home choice over the Falcons. Maybe the most exciting opening-week game - and the one that will undoubtedly have the highest total - will be the Rams at the Broncos. The Rams are a 3-point road favorite.

Other matchups: Redskins (-6 1/2) at Cardinals, Ravens (-1 1/2) at Panthers, Dolphins (-7) at Lions, Colts (-2 1/2) at Jaguars, Browns (-3) vs. Chiefs, Bears (-4) vs. Vikings, Jets (-3) at Bills, Eagles (-1) at Titans, Bengals (-1 1/2) vs. Chargers, Buccaneers (-6) vs. Saints, Raiders (-4 1/2) vs. Seahawks.