03/29/2004 12:00AM

Trio conquers Orleans on a whim

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A lot of horseplayers came from all over the country to participate in last weekend's Championship at The Orleans to go after an anticipated top prize of $100,000. Robert Leo, Richard Lloyd, and Robert Klinger - three Hershey, Pa., 55-year-olds who have been friends since high school - had no such delusions of grandeur.

They made their plans to come to Vegas to watch the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds of the NCAA tournament. As fate would have it, a fellow sitting next to them on their plane told them about the other tournament in town.

"We had no idea this big tournament was going on at the same time and decided to head over to the Orleans and check it out," Leo said. "We figured that since the games were at night that we could play the tournament during the day. It seemed like a great way to spend our trip."

They were the 755th entry to put up the $500 fee, and would have been among the last except that on Thursday morning the Coast Casinos, parent company of the Orleans, announced the creation of the $1 million Horseplayer World Series and said the top 50 finishers last weekend would be the first to qualify for the finale on Jan. 27-29, 2005. That helped the Orleans field to balloon to 801, with the first prize be coming $128,160.

But Leo said his group didn't give that much thought, either.

"We were just here to have fun and spend time together," he said. "We would arrive late, walk up, have a couple of cocktails, and go over the races."

Leo might have been selling himself and his friends a little short. Leo, who owns five horses that run at Penn National, said they used Daily Racing Form, Brisnet, and other information from the Internet to help with their selections. They obviously weren't novices, but this was their first handicapping tournament.

Players in the Championship at The Orleans make 12 mythical $100 win bets on each of the three days of the tournament. Full track odds are paid on the first $20, with the remaining $80 capped at 20-1. Leo and Co. were 15th after Thursday's action and moved up to fifth after Friday's races, with 6,380 points. Even then, Leo said, they considered themselves longshots.

"We thought, 'Who are we going against these guys, these professionals that play tournaments all the time,' " Leo said. "We were just trying to get our entry fee back."

Leo manufactures fruit and vegetable extractors, and a horse on one of Internet printouts jumped out at him when going over the races for Saturday's final day: Carrots Only in the ninth race at Gulfstream. When the 3-year-old colt wired the field and returned $40.20, good for 2,010 contest points, the Hershey Trio started to believe.

"When we had the Carrots horse, that's really the first time that we thought we might finish in the top 10 or something," Leo said.

But it wasn't until the tournament was over that they learned from the Orleans staff that their score of 10,670 points won the $128,160 jackpot. Actually, it wasn't close, as they recorded the largest margin of victory in Orleans history at 2,180 points. Bobby Brendler of Rockville, Md., the leader through Friday, held on for second with 8,490 points, good for $64,080 in prize money. Prizes were paid through 80th place, but the goal of many was to be in the top 50 to qualify for the Horseplayers World Series.

Leo and his partners will definitely be back next January, though Leo said they are free to make more road trips to Vegas.

"We now have our wives' permission to come to Vegas and play the horses any time we want," he said on Sunday morning after a night of celebrating, before getting ready to go out and celebrate some more.

So, how did they do on the NCAA tournament games they came to watch?

"What basketball tournament?" Leo said with a laugh.

NCAA tourney keeps marchin' on

Well, even if the Hershey Trio was distracted from the games, thousands of other Vegas visitors were hanging on every basket.

Favorites went 6-2 both straight up and against the spread in the regional semifinals on Thursday and Friday. In the regional finals on Saturday and Sunday, favorites won three of the four games, but the dogs were 3-1 against the spread. UConn rolled over Alabama 87-71 on Saturday as a 9-point favorite, but Oklahoma St. and Duke both failed to cover in their victories. Oklahoma St. beat St. Joseph's 64-62 on Saturday as a 3 1/2-point favorite, while Duke beat Xavier 66-63 on Sunday as an 8-point favorite. Georgia Tech upset Kansas 79-71 on Sunday as a 5-point dog.

For the tournament, underdogs hold a 32-28 edge. Over/unders continue to be even more split, with the under ahead just 31-30 after the over went 7-5 over the weekend.

Bankroll plays still showing profit

My bankroll plays stood at 12-8 heading into the second week of play and went 2-0 in Thursday's print editions (wins on Oklahoma St. and St. Joe's), and 1-1 on Friday (win on Georgia Tech, loss on Illinois). On the drf.com website over the weekend, I went 1-1 on Saturday (win on UConn, loss on Oklahoma St.'s non-cover), and 1-0 on Sunday (win on Georgia Tech, no play on Duke-Xavier).

For the second week of games, I went 5-2 to improve my overall bankroll record to 17-10 (63 percent) for a net profit of 6 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

I'll offer analysis of the Final Four matchups in Saturday's editions, with coverage available at drf.com by Thursday morning.

Odds set for Final Four

In Saturday's first national semifinal, Oklahoma St. is favored by 5 points over Georgia Tech, with the over/under wavering between 142 and 143.

In the other game, as of noon Monday, UConn is favored by 2 over Duke. It's interesting to see how it got there.

Shortly after Duke knocked off Xavier at 4:24 p.m. Pacific time Sunday, Las Vegas Sports Consultants sent UConn out as a 3-point favorite. However, some offshore books offered Duke as a 1-point choice. The Stardust, which leans heavily on LVSC as its primary consultant, put the line up as UConn -2. It quickly got bet down to -1, while the offshore number moved quickly to UConn -1. Over the next few hours a few 1 1/2's were seen, but the number gradually climbed to UConn -2, toward LVSC's original recommendation.

"We're certainly respectful of the offshore industry - they handle a lot of money," said Tony Sinisi, LVSC's senior oddsmaker. "But in this case they had the wrong number."

LVSC made UConn the 6-5 favorite to win the title, followed by Duke (9-5), Oklahoma St. (2-1), and Georgia Tech (6-1).

"Connecticut has been good all year, and they're really hitting their stride," Sinisi said. "They're absolutely the best team right now."