04/11/2006 11:00PM

Van Patten right guy for the job

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LAS VEGAS - The poker explosion has made household names of the top players. It has also done the same thing for the hosts of the myriad TV shows that showcase the sport.

The World Poker Tour comes to town next week for the WPT Championship at the Bellagio. The tourney, which runs from April 18-24, has a $25,000 entry fee and an anticipated $12 million purse with about $3.5 million to go to the winner. The event will draw most of the top players in the world, and the WPT crew with commentators Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten.

The Van Patten name was already famous, thanks to Vince's father, Dick, who starred in the 1970's hit TV show "Eight is Enough." But now the son is well known in his own right, thanks to the WPT and all the ancillary projects he has gotten involved in. Among them are an upcoming movie called "Deal" in which he plays himself, two poker novels he has written, and partnering with actor James Woods with hollywoodpoker.com, where you can play poker against celebrities.

Van Patten, long before appearing on the WPT broadcasts, was well known in Hollywood poker circles. His reputation was what persuaded WPT founder Steve Lipscomb to offer him the job.

"I thought it was a perfect fit for me," Van Patten said. "If I'm not playing poker, I love talking about it, and they knew I was comfortable talking in front of a camera. But even though I thought [the World Poker Tour] was a great idea, I had no idea it would explode like this."

For anyone who didn't see the "Living in TV Land" special on cable in 2004, it showed Dick Van Patten talking about his love of gambling and showed him going to the racetrack with fellow actors Tim Conway and Jack Klugman, and his family having a celebrity poker tournament.

Vince Van Patten is proof that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

"I started going to the track with my dad when I was 9 years old and he taught me how to handicap with the Daily Racing Form," said Van Patten, 48. "I loved the action, the atmosphere of the racetrack. We lived near the backstretch at Belmont in the late 60's and I would sneak in and sell pretzels and pencils that my dad would pick up at racetracks from all over the country. Dad would also take us to Saratoga every summer and we'd go to the races every day, and I remember eating at a great little place called Hattie's Chicken Shack."

He also got into acting at age 9 with a Colgate commercial and several small roles. As he grew, he became a tennis prodigy, good enough to be named the Association of Tennis Professionals' Rookie of the Year in 1979, beating out another rising star in Ivan Lendl. He defeated such luminaries as John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitas, and Ilie Nastase and reached No. 25 in the world before back problems ended his career. But even when he was on tour, he maintained his gambling lifestyle.

"Everywhere I went, I brought my poker chips and a deck of cards and tried to get a game going," he said. "And I made a point on our off days of going to the local racetracks in all of the cities we'd visit."

Van Patten said that with his busy schedule these days that he doesn't get to the track as often as he used to, but he sees it in his future.

"It's in my blood, thanks to my dad," he said. "When I get older, I can see myself being just like him, going to the track all the time. I have a system for picking winners, but the problem is not having the patience or the time to wait for the best races to play. It's just like poker, you can't play every hand. That's my dad's problem, he bets every race."

Ultimate fighting gaining credibility

Except for the regular menu of baseball, and the NBA and NHL regular seasons winding down, this holiday weekend is a little slow sports-wise. There is no Nextel Cup race and no major boxing matches on the schedule.

But there is an ultimate fighting card, UFC 59: Reality Check, being held at the Pond in Anaheim, Calif.

Mixed martial-art sports are increasingly popular with the younger generation and have been receiving more widespread coverage. In other signs of its legitimacy, several Las Vegas sports books - including Mandalay Bay and Venetian - regularly post UFC odds, which is not done for professional wrestling, and state athletic commissions have been sanctioning the sport. In fact, Marc Ratner, the respected longtime executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, recently resigned his post to accept a three-year contract to work with the UFC. Ratner was instrumental in helping the UFC clearly define its rules to make it more of a sport and keep it from being a no-holds-barred free-for-fall.

In Saturday night's two big bouts, Mandalay Bay has Tito Silva as a -250 favorite over Forrest Griffin and Andrei Arlovski is a -185 favorite over Tim Sylvia. The fights are available on pay-per-view.

* Some HBO program listings for Saturday night don't show boxing on the schedule, but HBO has announced that the Floyd Mayweather-Zab Judah welterweight fight from last weekend, highlighted by the melee that erupted in the ring following Judah hitting Mayweather with a low blow and a rabbit punch, will be shown Saturday at 9:30 p.m. both on the East Coast and West Coast.

Few spots left in Pick the Ponies

The Las Vegas Hilton's $100,000 Pick the Ponies Invitational horse handicapping tournament, set for May 3-5, has filled 189 spots in its 200-player field.

The entry fee is $500, but those singing up by 5 p.m. this Monday only have to pay $400 with the Hilton kicking in the remaining $100 into the prize pool.

The format calls for contestants to make 10 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day on the available contest tracks. Points are based on the horses mutuel prices, paying full track odds on the first $50 of each bet and the remaining $50 capped at $42 to win, $18 to place, and $10 to show.