12/06/2007 1:00AM

Vegas regulars one-two again in tournament

EmailThe Las Vegas connection did it again.

A month after locals earned the two Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship berths in a qualifying tournament at Red Rock last month, the same thing happened last Saturday when Station Casinos held another feeder tourney at its Green Valley Ranch property in adjacent Henderson, Nev.

Well, actually, the tournament was won by Gary Bain, a 58-year-old owner of a freight company in Vancouver, British Columbia, but he does a lot of business in Las Vegas and is a regular customer of Red Rock, where the $1 million NHC finals will be held Jan. 24-26, 2008.

Bain, who also qualified for the NHC in 2004, topped a field of 86 that put up $250 apiece. It was a war of attrition as Bain's winning score was $108.40 from 15 mythical $2 win-and-place bets with bets capped at $42 to win and $22 to place. Under the same format a month ago at Red Rock, the top score was $172.

Regardless, Bain's score was good enough to hold off Bill Evans, who scored $108.10 - just 30 cents less - as there was a dearth of longshot winners all day Saturday at the seven contest tracks. Their scores wouldn't have even finished in the top five last month, but they earned the NHC berths as well as $10,750 in prize money for Bain and $4,300 for Evans, who is a regular at Green Valley Ranch and also plays at another sister property, Palace Station.

The others who finished in the money were Brian M. Schwade, who had a score of $87.20 and collected $3,225 for third; Steven Turner, who scored $86.70 and won $2,150 for fourth; and Graig Murray, who scored $84.10 and earned $1,075 for fifth.

The one thing the Station Casinos' tournaments didn't offer that other qualifiers around the country did was round-trip airfare, but it's assumed Bain will be able to arrange his own transportation to make it here to compete.

* The above results came on the heels of the Horseplayers Holiday tournament held Nov. 29 at the Orleans. The top 10 finishers earned spots in the Horseplayer World Series on Jan. 24-26.

The field drew 355 contestants who ponied up $100 apiece and was won by well-known horseplayer/handicapper/radio personality Gordon Jones, who made his name on the California circuits from his days with the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and most recently as the house handicapper at Sam's Town Hotel in Las Vegas and co-host of the Sam's Town-sponsored "Track Talk" radio show that can be heard locally on Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 a.m. Pacific on KLAV AM-1230 and online at samstownlv.com.

Contestants made 12 mythical $20 win-and-place wagers on the day's races with Jones compiling the top score of 1,842, thanks in large part to a string of four straight winners, including three longshots.

Jones, aka "The Professor" from his days teaching at USC where his pupils included the gambling-savvy announcer Al Michaels, won the top prize of $12,425 in addition to earning the Horseplayer World Series berth, which is worth another $1,000.

Jim O'Nail finished second with a score of 1,701.60 to claim the $7,100 runner-up prize, while Robert Ruben was third at 1,375.40 to earn $5,325 and Mark Urbanski was fourth at 1,284 to collect $3,550. Fifth through eighth place, worth $1,775 apiece, went to Robert Slegers, Turf Paradise publicity director Howard Hong, Patrick McQuiggan (who works with Jones on the "Track Talk" show and at Sam's Town), and Joel Cohen. Alvin Dufauchard Jr. and Tony Vinella finished ninth and 10th, respectively, to nab the last two Horseplayer World Series berths.

Ruben has also qualified for the NHC. The Orleans has previously announced that anyone qualifying for the NHC could use a proxy to play in the

Horseplayer World Series.

It's rodeo time once again

December used to be a quiet time in the casinos of Las Vegas. Visitor numbers would be way down as it was assumed that people wanted to stay home during the holiday season. Headliners would take extended vacations and the casinos would be relative ghost towns.

But that all changed in 1985 when Las Vegas lured the National Finals Rodeo away from its former home in Oklahoma City. The top rodeo stars and all their fans began flocking to Las Vegas every December and they have kept coming back. Nowadays, December is just about as busy as any other month and big stars - especially country music singers - seek out lucrative gigs. And the casinos are happy that cowboys tend to have bigger gambling streaks than computer geeks who come here for their big annual conventions.

The Rodeo actually started Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center and runs for 10 days with nightly coverage on ESPN2. The popular buckle presentations, which honor each day's top performers, have moved from the Gold Coast to the South Point, which is run by former Gold Coast owner Michael Gaughan, who is credited along with the late Benny Binion for bringing the National Finals Rodeo here in the first place.

In the actual competition, Trevor Brazile is the huge favorite to win his second straight all-around cowboy title and fifth in the past six years based on points he has accumulated at competitions throughout the year, but there are always surprises. The surest bet is that the cowboy crowd will be filling the casinos and bars the next two weekends.

Hatton live underdog vs. Mayweather

As if this city wasn't going to be crowded enough with the rodeo in town and hotel rooms already at a premium, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will put his welterweight belt and undefeated record (43-0) on the line Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against Britain's Ricky Hatton, who is also unbeaten (38-0).

Mayweather, who announced his retirement after his victory over Oscar De La Hoya in May but has since changed his mind, will step back in the ring as a solid favorite, though the line opened at most sports books around town at -270 (risk $2.70 for every $1 you want to profit) and has dipped to -220 in some places.

From this corner, Hatton has a puncher's chance and might not even need a KO to get a decision. He will almost certainly be the aggressor, and even though Mayweather is a great defensive fighter and has a size and five-inch reach advantage, it might be the difference in "heart" that decides this. Mayweather has spreading himself thin with a stint on "Dancing With the Stars" plus other ventures and says it's a bother to scout Hatton by watching tapes of the challenger's fights (this all reminds me of April 2001 when a seemingly disinterested Lennox Lewis lost as a -2,000 favorite to Hasim Rahman after taking time off from training to film scenes for the Ocean's 11 movie). It's not a stretch to think Mayweather might not be at the top of his game while Hatton is hungry for the type of attention and worldwide admiration that Mayweather gets.

I will take a shot with the motivated underdog who has shown that he refuses to lose.