Invitational showcase for best players

Dec 16, 2003 8:26 AM

While Las Vegas changes, some say for the worse, there remains the Stardust Invitational Grid Contest. Never have 16 glorious weeks so clearly defined a city.

"It’s the right format on the right night, on the right radio station at the right sportsbook," said John Kelly, sports radio personality and host of the Invitational since it began nine years ago.

"The winner take all nature of the purse ($10,000), the one and out format and the seven selections from each expert gives the show credibility," Kelly said. "It really helps to have the right handicappers."

Ken White, hailed by many insiders as the best handicapper in the business, is bidding to become the only three-time Invitational champ. White and national radio personality Papa Joe Chevalier has won twice. GamingToday managing editor David Stratton is a finalist this year in a field that included Jimmy Vaccaro, Ted Sevransky, Bob Donahue and Lem Banker.

Each Friday night from early September to late December, the Stardust sports book is packed with wiseguys and fans looking for tips and angles that could produce a financially successful weekend. And, it’s done in the Yankee Stadium of books.

"A lot of things came together when I helped Robert Walker start the event in 1994," Kelly said. "Robert presented it to the marketing people at the Stardust and they ran with it. Joe Lupo and Bob Scucci allowed it to become one of the staples in this town through the football season."

Those staples began coming apart in recent years when the contest began turning away from pro handicappers and more toward personalities.

"GamingToday’s criticism of the way the contest was going was fair," Kelly said. "In past years we had Mayor Goodman, Jerry Tarkanian and former athletes like Rudy from Notre Dame fame. I felt that having women involved would provide marquee value, but we were losing credibility with handicappers."

Scucci, who succeeded Lupo as Stardust’s race and sports manager last year, was instrumental in returning the Invitational back to the formula that worked best ”” recruiting the best handicapping minds in the business.

"The records of the panelists have been around 58 percent this year, which is outstanding," Kelly said. "Ken White was 21-7, Sevransky went 12-1-1 before losing in the semifinals. Banker went 5-2 three straight weeks before White eliminated him. And, the handicappers have been generous with their time. Not a lot of ego or selling here."

Vaccaro has gained as much fame for his generosity as his accuracy. His $550 bet raffled off to a member of the audience went 2-0 this year. The eagerly awaited wager helps bring the fan support that makes the Invitational work.

"They are sharp customers," Kelly said. "These people know what they are doing. A lot of our fans are qualified to be panelists. You can’t lie at the Stardust, nor can you have your facts wrong."

The Invitational kicks off a weekend of the best in sports handicapping on the radio, with 90-minute shows from the Stardust on Saturday night and the Plaza on Sunday evening that get the early jump on next week’s lines.

"The Stardust Line Radio Show has been around for 20 years," Kelly said. "The key is having expert handicappers take part. The Stardust has done a great job promoting it. The marquee is famous."

Kelly said the show may again branch out to college basketball and possibly horse racing, but football is and will always be the king in Vegas books.

"This is Las Vegas at its best and I’m just glad to be a part of it," Kelly said.

So are we.