01/14/2003 12:00AM

Two contests, two purses, one busy handicapper


LAS VEGAS - Horse handicapper Tommy Castillo and race car driver Tony Stewart will have two things in common after this weekend. They both will have competed in two events on the same day, and they both have to dodge traffic in their attempts to get to the winner's circle.

Castillo, who qualified for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship to be held Friday and Saturday at Bally's Las Vegas, is also competing in the Coast 2 Coast Super Tournament. Castillo won the inaugural Suncoast Invitational in March 2001. On that occasion, he showed that he is a fan of auto racing, too. He left the Suncoast Invitational not knowing he was the winner because he had to fly home in Grand Prairie, Texas, before the final results were posted. He had promised to take his two grandsons to a NASCAR race the following day.

But he won't have to go out to suburban Summerlin on the west side of town to put in his plays at the Suncoast because the revamped Super Tournament will have a satellite location at the Barbary Coast on the Strip, a short 10-minute walk from the Bally's race book, where the National Handicapping Championship will be held. Castillo will have to cross busy Flamingo Road

"I've had a couple of people advise me that I am making a big mistake by doing that," Castillo said, "but I just couldn't stomach somebody giving away $100,000 in a handicapping tournament across the street from where I'm going to be sleeping and me passing up the opportunity.

"Plus, [race car driver] Tony Stewart has done the Indy [500] thing, drives his butt off, helicopters over to the NASCAR race and gets it on again. That's a little bit tougher than picking horses."

In recent years, the Coast Casinos developed a very successful formula for its handicapping tournaments: cocktail party on Wednesday night, 12 selections a day from six tracks on Thursday through Saturday, $50,000 in added money, early-bird contest on Sunday.

But for this week's Coast 2 Coast Super Tournament, the organizers decided to tweak the formula. The point-scoring system - each play is $100 to win, with the first $20 paid at track odds and the remaining $80 capped at 20-1 - has remained the same, but the contest has been streamlined down to five tracks (Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Laurel, Fair Grounds, and Santa Anita) with only nine selections per day. Also, with many players saying they thought the cocktail party and early-bird contest weren't high on their priorities list, the staff decided to do away with them. The savings were then added to the added purse money, making it $75,000 on top of all the entry fees.

The changes appear to be well-received. As of 9:30 a.m. Pacific on Tuesday, 48 hours before the start of the tourney, 353 players had paid the $500 entry fee. Entries will be taken until about 12:30 p.m. Thursday, or when there are nine races remaining to be played.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your handicapping.