06/21/2007 12:00AM

Trip to Sparks yields disappointment


SPARKS, Nev. - It has been two years since a northern Nevada casino hosted a high-end horse handicapping tournament. The region's long history of holding handicapping contests includes the Club Cal Neva's high-end tourneys from 1982 through 2000 and the Flamingo Hilton's contests earlier this decade. But after a couple of years without a major tournament in northern Nevada, Leroy's stepped up to offer the Leroy's Thoroughbred Challenge, which was to run June 14-16 at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, which borders Reno.

The operative words are "was to run" as the tournament was declared a non-starter when not enough entrants ponied up the $500 entry fee to get in the starting gate. In the months prior to the tournament, which was originally being aimed for April, tournament director Chris Andrews had said he wanted to "start out small" and maybe have a field of 100 players, but instead attracted only a handful. Messages left at the sports book and on Andrews's voicemail were not immediately returned Thursday.

It had been six years to the week since my last trip from Las Vegas to the Reno-Sparks area, and there was more disappointments than just the loss of a chance to improve on my highest finish in a high-end handicapping tournament, 25th. My last visit was for a tournament at the Flamingo Hilton, which was sold by Park Place Entertainment in fall 2001 and renamed the Golden Phoenix, but now it sits boarded up and is being changed into condominiums. Another memory of mine that has been wiped from the map was the Reno Turf Club, a stand-alone race book that looked like a perfect locale for a Damon Runyon story. The Turf Club was closed in 2004 to make way for a railroad project. The club and its gaming license were supposed to be moved to another part of town, but residential protests scuttled those plans.

Even the places that still exist have undergone changes, and not necessarily for the better. Harrah's used to have very nice separate race and sports books in a secluded area. Now, the books are combined in an area that not only has less space than either of the previous rooms, but is near a casino pit and surrounded by slot machines and the accompanying racket.

I was glad to see that two of my previous haunts are pretty much intact. The Club Cal Neva, with its separate race and sports book, looks exactly the same, including old-fashioned wallboards that make it the perfect location if a movie were to be filmed about sports books in the 1970s or 80s. On past trips, I regarded the Reno Hilton as the northern version of the Las Vegas Hilton and it looks exactly the same as I remember it, though the casino is now called the Grand Sierra Resort.

All in all, it was a depressing trip to what many would call a depressed area. And it'll be hard to imagine anyone else attempting another horse racing tournament up here.

Echelon Place project under way

Ground has been broken on Echelon Place, the megaresort that is being built on the former Stardust site on the Las Vegas Strip. The last time I wrote about it, the price tag was $4 billion, but before the first shovel of dirt was turned, it had been increased to a $4.8 billion project.

Sports book notes

These are the dog days of summer, but even though the NHL and NBA finals have concluded, there is plenty of sports action besides baseball and the WNBA.

* This Saturday night's IBO/WBC light welterweight title bout at the Thomas & Mack Center between champion Ricky Hatton and Jose Luis Castillo won't get 1/10th the hype or viewership as last month's Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya fight, but it should be a much better fight to watch. Hatton, from Britain, is one of boxing's brightest young stars and is around a -185 favorite (risk $1.85 for every $1 you want to profit), but Castillo will be able to stand toe-to-toe with him. Castillo is best known for his 2004 bout against Diego Corrales, who died in a motorcycle crash last month, which was the fight of the year and on most boxing experts' short list of best fights ever. Castillo knocked down Corrales twice in the 10th round before getting knocked down and out himself. Castillo is a live underdog at +160 or better.

* The Nextel Cup circuit moves to the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., this Sunday for the Toyota/Save Mart 350, and road-course specialist (not that he's too shabby on the superspeedways) Jeff Gordon is the prohibitive 2-1 favorite at Station Casinos. Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya are the only other drivers in single digits at 6-1.

* Last weekend's U.S. Open at Oakmont was thrilling, with Tiger Woods having a chance to catch Angel Cabrera down to the final hole. Cabrera's backers were especially excited as he was 150-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton before the tournament. At the Harrah's book in Reno, as well as affiliated books in Las Vegas, including Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris, and Rio, Woods is the 5-2 favorite to win next month's British Open at Carnoustie Golf Club, with Phil Mickelson at 10-1, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington at 15-1, and Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk at 18-1. Those same books also have odds on the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship on July 13-16 at the Edgewood Golf Club in Lake Tahoe, Nev. Former major-league pitcher Rick Rhoden is the 6-5 favorite with former NHL player Dan Quinn at 2-1, and actor Jack Wagner at 5-1 along with former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver.

* Wimbledon starts Monday and the Las Vegas Hilton has Roger Federer as the 4-11 favorite to win the men's title, with Rafael Nadal, off his preferred clay surface, at 5-1, and Andy Roddick as a distant third choice at 10-1. In the women's bracket, Serena Williams is a lukewarm favorite at 5-2, with Justine Henin at 3-1, and Maria Sharapova at 4-1.

Dave Tuley's column appears every other Saturday and every Saturday during football season.