05/25/2001 12:00AM

Auto racing's big betting day


LAS VEGAS - Racing has been on a lot of bettors' minds during the month of May with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but a different kind of horsepower takes center stage as the month draws to an end with two major auto races on Sunday.

Micah Roberts, who sets the motorsport odds for Station Casinos from his office at the Santa Fe Station in northwest Las Vegas, said that Sunday's Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 will combine to be the busiest day for auto racing bets of the year.

"The Daytona 500 is obviously huge, and we have our largest handle on the NASCAR race that is run here in Vegas, but as far as the amount of tickets, this is the biggest," Roberts said.

"The Indy 500 is also the most historical event in racing, and a lot of people watch that who don't follow racing all year. And now with the growth of NASCAR and increased TV coverage over the last 20 years, it's become an even bigger day with the Coca-Cola 600 later in the day."

Roberts points out that the racing day actually begins at 4 a.m. local time with the Grand Prix of Monaco. Roberts said he has a regular clientele of about a dozen fans who come in early every Sunday morning to watch Formula One races.

But the main focus Sunday will be on the two American races. Roberts opened Gil de Ferran and Buddy Lazier as 5-1 co-favorites to win the Indy 500.

Jimmy Vasser and Helio Castro-Neves are next at 7-1, followed by Tony Stewart and Scott Sharp at 8-1.

Roberts opened Greg Ray at 10-1, but bettors jumped on that and bet him down to 6-1, mostly because they saw value when other books, including Mandalay Bay, opened Ray at 5-1.

Station Casinos also has 10 head-to-head driver matchups plus proposition bets, such as the number of drivers to finish on the lead lap (over/under 5.5), and which series will have the winning driver (CART FedEx Series is -115 with the Indy Racing League, which has 26 of the 33 entrants, at -105).

One of the biggest news stories in advance of Sunday's races has been Tony Stewart's attempt to race in both. Roberts has put an over/under of 19.5 on Stewart's combined finish in the two races.

In the Coca-Cola 600, Jeff Gordon is the 4-1 favorite, followed by Dale Jarrett (9-2), Stewart (5-1), Bobby Labonte (6-1), and Rusty Wallace (8-1).

Station Casinos also has 10 head-to-head NASCAR matchups and props with over/under cautions (7.5) and over/under lap leaders (11.5). General Motors is also a -145 favorite to be the winning manufacturer over either a Ford or Dodge.

College betting bill dealt new blow

The Nevada casino industry won an indirect victory Thursday in its fight to stop Congress from passing a bill to ban college wagering in the state's sports books. The main headlines have been about Sen. James Jeffords (Vt.) leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent, giving the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Senate.

However, the domino effect is what helps Nevada and its sports bettors. With the Democrats taking control, Tom Daschle (D-N.D.) will become Majority Leader in place of Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) and now Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) will become the second most powerful member of the Senate. Reid, who fights diligently for the casino industry against the religious right, will have a lot of say in what legislation reaches the Senate floor and will have more power in shaping those bills.

In addition, John McCain (R.-Ariz.) will lose his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he was pushing for passage of his Amateur Integrity Act. No one is declaring the bill dead, but it's definitely on life support. Now Nevada will probably focus its efforts on defeating a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

Book notes

Homecourt advantage doesn't mean as much as it used to, especially in the eyes of bookmakers. For example, the San Antonio Spurs had the NBA's best record this year and had the home court edge vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, yet Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Lakers as a -130 (bet $1.30 to win $1) favorite in the Western Conference finals series. Bettors weren't afraid to lay the money on the Lakers, who were bet up to -150 at several sports books. The Lakers justified their favoritism by sweeping the two games in San Antonio for a 2-0 series lead heading into Friday night's game in Los Angeles.

In some ways, Las Vegas is considered a suburb of Los Angeles, so it's been no surprise that bettors have been taking local bookmakers to the cleaners during the Lakers' winning streak (17 games dating back to the regular season). The Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs and 7-1-1 against the spread.

*Another example of a road team being favored is the Stanley Cup finals between the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils. The Avalanche have home ice, but LVSC made the Devils a -220 favorite to win the series that was set to begin Saturday night, and the Devils were a -130 to win the opening game. But just as with the Lakers, there's good reason why the Devils were made the favorite: the Devils are the defending champs; the Devils swept the season series, 6-1 in New Jersey and 6-3 at Colorado (which makes betting "over" 5 in every game of the series a logical play); the Devils are 6-1-1 against the Avalanche over the last four years; and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is 13-2-5 lifetime vs. the Avalanche.

*Betting on tennis isn't a big deal in Nevada, but it definitely picks up at this time of year with the French Open starting Monday and Wimbledon just around the corner. Station Casinos has Gustavo Kuerten as the men's favorite at 5-2, while Martina Hingis is favored on the women's side.

Just like horses, some tennis players excel on different surfaces. Kuerten is a clay court wiz, while Pete Sampras does well on just about every other surface - and is a 30-1 shot at Roland Garros. Juan Carlos Ferrero is the second choice in the men's bracket at 3-1, with Las Vegas resident Andre Agassi next at 6-1. Venus Williams is a 3-1 second choice in the more competitive women's field, followed by Jennifer Capriati (4-1) and Lindsay Davenport (5-1).