02/09/2004 1:00AM

All-star game? Don't bet on it


All-star games in the four major sports are glorified exhibitions, yet it never ceases to amaze me that people actually bet on them.

It's that time of year again, with the NHL All-Star Game and NFL Pro Bowl being played this past Sunday and the NBA All-Star Game this coming Sunday. The lack of defense and the multiple rule changes - such as NFL teams not being allowed to blitz, play bump-and-run, or rush the kicker - mean that these games hardly resemble the sports they are based on. Thus, they're virtually impossible to handicap.

Most bettors just pick a side and bet the over, since chants of "defense, defense" are not heard on these occasions.

True to form, the bettors here in Las Vegas bet the over in the NHL All-Star Game. The books opened the total at 15 1/2 and made over bettors lay -120 (bet $1.20 to win $1) while letting under bettors have it at even money. When the public kept betting the over anyway, some books raised the vigorish to -130 or -135.

The over was never a possibility as the teams played to a 1-1 tie in the first period. The East, a +120 underdog in straight betting, went on to a 6-4 victory. This was the second straight year that the All-Star Game went under.

Bettors also pounded the over in the Pro Bowl. Some books, including the Stardust and Caesars Palace, opened the total at 48, and it got bet up to a consensus of 51 1/2 around town. That result was also never in doubt, as both teams went over the total in the NFC's 55-52 come-from-behind victory. AFC bettors, who bet the opening 3-point line up to 3 1/2 at some books before kickoff, looked to have the game well in hand when their side jumped out to a 14-0 lead, increased the margin to 38-13 early in the second half, and was still ahead 45-27 with 13 minutes to play.

Crazy things like this happen all the time in all-star games. Heck, two seasons ago, they called the baseball All-Star Game a tie when the teams ran out of pitchers.

But the strangest example has to be last month's Hula Bowl, one of the numerous college all-star scoutfests, which was played on Jan. 17. The game was listed as North vs. South by the sports books, even though the official team names were Kai and Aina - which don't mean "north" or "south" but instead stand for "ocean" and "land."

The net result was that most bettors didn't know which team they had bet. The sports books had to take the game off the board and repost the lines with the correct team names.

But they weren't alone in their confusion. Even after the game was played, the college football scoreboard on CBS.Sportsline.com had the wrong scores. It has since been corrected to reflect Aina's 26-7 victory.

It just goes to show that you bet at your own risk, even more so than usual, in any kind of all-star game.

Longshots in front row at Daytona

When you think of who might be the pole-sitter in the Daytona 500, the names that come to mind are Earnhardt, Waltrip, Labonte, Gordon, Stewart, Kenseth - not Biffle.

But that's where Greg Biffle put himself Sunday with a fastest lap of 188.387 mph, edging out Elliott Sadler by 0.008 seconds.

Regardless, Micah Roberts, the Palace Station race and sports book director and the top auto-racing oddsmaker in Las Vegas, said Biffle and Sadler's front-row spots haven't changed his odds for Sunday's race.

"We opened Biffle at 40-1 and raised him to 48-1 early in the betting, and then dropped him to 32-1 after some good test runs last Friday," Roberts said, "but I didn't drop his odds any more over the weekend. I don't put much weight into the pole.

"It's the same with Sadler. He opened at 28-1 and we lowered him to 22-1 after testing in January, but that's where he still is."

The rest of the Daytona 500 field will be determined in the Twin 125 qualifying races on Thursday. Roberts said he would have odds up on those races, as well as taking bets on the main event.

"We overwhelmingly have the most tickets written on Junior [Dale Earnhardt Jr.], more than twice as many as we have on Jeff Gordon," Roberts said. "We have Junior at 4-1, which is higher than anywhere else in the world."

Reno handicapping tournament notes

The Reno Hilton drew 138 entries, at $200 each, for its Winter Challenge handicapping tournament this past Saturday and Sunday for a purse of $27,600. The contestants put $300 through the betting windows each day and cashed their tickets in addition to competing for the prize money.

The top four finishers also earned berths in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship to be held next January in Las Vegas. As of Monday morning, the winner had not signed a media release form, and tournament director Steve Fierro said he was unable to announce the champion's name.

"We have it in the rules that players' names can be used for publicity purposes, but the Hilton still requires a separate media release," Fierro said. "This is the first time it's happened in a horse tournament. It's usually a case like we had a couple that won $3 million on a slot machine and didn't want their names to get out."

According to a standings sheet provided by another contestant, the winner was Hesham Rajab.

The second- through fourth-place finishers, who will also receive round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations for the NHC, were Ed De'ath of Las Vegas, Dick Kistler of Reno, and Connie Roths of Yuba City, Calif.

* The next tournament at the Hilton is the Summer Showdown, another live-money event with the same $200 entry fee and $600 in parimutuel play over two days, on June 19-20. September Shootout II, with a $500 entry fee, is slated for Sept. 11-12. That tourney uses the same rules as the NHC, with each player making 15 mythical $2 win-and-place wagers on each day, including eight mandatory races as chosen by the tournament officials.

* But the Hilton doesn't have a monopoly in the northern part of the state. The Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament is set for April 21-23 with a guaranteed first prize of $20,000. The entry fee is $500, with a limit of three entries per person. Players make 10 mythical $200 across-the-board bets on each day.