08/16/2001 11:00PM

Where elite handicappers meet and greet

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LAS VEGAS - The Championship at The Orleans, which was set to wrap up Saturday, is not only a handicapping tournament, it's also a networking opportunity.

Friendships are made, deals are completed, and organizers for upcoming tournaments try to recruit players for their events.

For starters, The Orleans formally announced that in 2002 it would return to its twice-yearly format, which it had when it was called the National Handicapping Challenge. The first event will be April 3-6 with a second one on Oct. 9-12. Both have entry fees of $500.

The Suncoast, a sister property of The Orleans under parent company Coast Resorts, will also have two events in 2002. The inaugural Suncoast Invitational was held in March this year, but next year's dates will be Jan. 16-19 and Aug. 7-10. The entry fee is $1,000, primarily because there are fewer rooms at the Suncoast and it is not able to accommodate as many players.

The recruiting door wasn't closed to other properties. Information was also being distributed on the two biggest tournaments in Reno.

The Flamingo Reno Challenge VIII Horse Handicapping Tournament will be held Feb. 7-9. The entry fee is $600, though it's reduced to $500 for those putting down a $100 deposit before Jan. 15.

Reno Hilton Summer Showdown II is set for June 13-15. The entry fee is $200, plus players wager $300 of their own money on each day (and keep any winnings). The prize pool is then awarded to the people with the highest bankroll.

Potentially the most exciting contest news coming out of the weekend was the Reno Hilton's tentative plans for a 64-player elimination tournament (much like the NCAA tourney) that would require a $3,000 entry fee. A format being considered would be pool play with the winners moving on in brackets until the four survivors square off in the finals on Breeders' Cup Day with their picks being announced to those at the Hilton's big BC party.

Race and sports book director Steve Mikkelson and tournament organizer Steve Fierro said response has been great and the main concern is whether it could be put together on relatively short notice.

For information on any of the Reno contests, contact Fierro at 1-866-238-7366.

Around the diamonds

Barry Bonds hit two home runs Thursday to put him back on pace to break Mark McGwire's season home run record, and that has sports books buzzing about a number of baseball proposition bets. The Imperial Palace had a prop at the beginning of the season that asked if Bonds would have over or under 54 1/2. He had 53 through Thursday and, barring injury, will pass that number with more than a month to spare.

At the All-Star break, the Stardust hung three props, and they're definitely cheering for Bonds to break McGwire's record. The Bonds prop opened at -200 (bet $2 to win $1) that Bonds would not break the record and bettors jumped all over it and bet it all the way up to -1000 (bet $10 to win $1).

The Stardust also had a prop on whether the Diamondbacks' Curt Schilling would win 20 games. The "yes" opened at -145 and got bet to -230. Schilling won his 18th game Wednesday and looks like he will reward his backers.

Another prop was whether the Mariners would win 115 games and break the AL record of 114 wins, set by the 1998 Yankees (the 1906 Cubs won 116 for the major-league record). The "no" opened at -300 and bettors bet it all the way to -800. The Mariners, winning at a .719 clip through Thursday, are on a pace to win 116. That could be another big win for the house, but Stardust sports book supervisor Bob Scucci said it's nothing compared to the handle on the Bonds prop.

"We had a lot of action, a lot of action, on Bonds not getting the record," Scucci said. "That was by far the most popular prop. Everyone knows McGwire hit 70, so more people were obviously keeping an eye on Bonds' home run pace than on the Mariners' win pace."

* In other baseball news, betting the under since the All-Star break - when some umpires were told to call more strikes - is still hitting at a 55 percent clip in major league baseball. Since July 12, there have been 260 unders and 212 over and 25 pushes. A bettor averaging $110 (to win $100) on every under would be showing a profit of $2,680. The rate of return isn't as high as it was immediately after the "searching for strikes" controversy, but it's still profitable.

Televised football

The second full week of preseason games got off to a rough start for the bankroll as the Jaguars and Steelers were blown out. Heading into Friday's games, the bankroll (which started at 100 units) was at 115 units based on a 7-5 record.

Raiders at 49ers (under 38 1/2): The most intriguing part of this Sunday matchup will be Jerry Rice's return to San Francisco as a member of the Raiders. There will be a lot of standing ovations, hugging, and hand-shaking and it'll take the edge off the two teams. A regular-season matchup would probably surpass this total (which would also be higher), but I'll wager 11 units (to win 10) on the game to stay under.

Broncos at Green Bay (under 39): Talent-wise, I like the Broncos much better, but the home-standing Packers should have a more inspired effort than they showed in a 10-3 loss to the Browns last week. The Broncos' improved defense dominated the Cowboys and should hold the Packers' offense in check, especially after Brett Favre heads to the bench. The Broncos have lost second-string QB Steve Beuerlein for at least half of the season, and that moves Gus Frerotte and Jarius Jackson up on the depth chart. That leads me to believe there's not a shootout in the making. I'll wager 11 units on the game to stay under.