06/05/2002 11:00PM

Belmont just start of huge day

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Las Vegas is the best spot for parties for events held elsewhere. It happens on Super Bowl Sunday. It happens during March Madness. It happens during horse racing's biggest days, such as the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup.

And you can add the Belmont Stakes when a horse is going for the Triple Crown. Race and sports books were packed in 1997, 1998, and 1999, when Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic came up just short. After a two-year hiatus, in which the Belmont drew a nice crowd here but nothing like when there's a Triple Crown bid, War Emblem's unlikely ascent to the top of the racing world will be packing 'em in.

Most casinos are holding parties in the race book proper. The Gold Coast is among those also opening a showroom to show the race on big-screen televisions.

Nearly every race book will be giving out T-shirts with a $20 wager. Some books, such as the Palms and the Coast Casinos, will have the officially licensed T-shirts from Belmont Park, while others, such as Binion's Horseshoe and the Imperial Palace, have designed their own T-shirts to commemorate War Emblem's bid.

As they do with any other major sporting event, the race books are offering proposition bets in addition to the parimutuel wagers available from Belmont Park.

Head-to-head matchups - in which a horse doesn't need to win but just beat the other horse he's paired with - are the most popular prop. Coast Casinos (Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast) oddsmaker Frank Minervini has War Emblem against many of the other top contenders, plus another with War Emblem vs. the trio of Perfect Drift, Sunday Break, and Proud Citizen. Minervini was also planning a prop on War Emblem not winning the Belmont, with bettors laying -120 (bet $1.20 to win $1).

Park Place Entertainment (Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, Reno Hilton, Caesars Tahoe, Flamingo Laughlin) oddsmaker John Avello posted five matchups, but he didn't use the favorite in any of them: Sunday Break (-140) is matched up against Perfect Drift (+110), Proud Citizen (-180) vs. Medaglia d'Oro (+150), Wiseman's Ferry (-150) vs. Essence of Dubai (+120), and Like a Hero (-160) vs. Sarava (+130). The other matchup was canceled when Puzzlement was scratched Thursday morning.

Mandalay Bay race and sports book supervisor Hugh Citron also planned to put up matchups for his resort, which caters to high-end clientele. "Bettors will be able to bet a couple of dimes" - thousands - "on our matchups, and I'll be looking to put up different ones than you'll see at other properties."

More than just racing

It's not just the Belmont that sports fans will be watching this weekend. Game 2 of the NBA finals was played Friday night in Los Angeles and baseball games are being played all day long. The World Cup certainly got a boost in betting interest with the United States' 3-2 upset of Portugal on Wednesday morning.

After the Belmont is run, at about 3:10 p.m. Vegas time on Saturday, sports bettors can prepare for game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Detroit Red Wings and Carolina Hurricanes at 5 p.m. No parties are planned for that event, but then Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson cap the evening with their heavyweight title fight from Memphis, Tenn.

That fight was supposed to take place here (on April 6), until the Nevada State Athletic Commission denied Tyson a license at a hearing back in January. Some people applauded the Commission for not being influenced by the huge economic impact the fight would bring to Las Vegas. But the MGM Grand, which had signed on to host the fight, was sad to lose the major event.

"We want to keep the fight," MGM Mirage director of sports and promotion Scott Ghertner said at the time, "but we'll certainly abide by the commission's decision."

Ghertner didn't want to speculate on how much the MGM Grand or the city lost on the fight, though the MGM did hold a Paul McCartney concert April 5-6 and a baccarat tournament to bring in some high rollers.

Stories out of Memphis the past two weeks have said tickets are selling slowly. That certainly wouldn't have been a problem in a city like Vegas, which is used to hosting major fights.

"I have no doubt a Lewis-Tyson fight would have sold out here," Ghertner said Wednesday, "but I'm sure by fight day that all the tickets will be sold."

A lot of tickets are being sold for the closed-circuit telecasts that will be shown at no fewer than 20 locations. A number of hotels are using tickets as comps for their top customers, hoping to make up the cost in other areas.

One of those areas is the sports book.

Lewis opened as high as a -250 favorite at Caesars Palace and in the some books and in the -220 range at most other books. Early money has come in on Tyson, dropping Lewis to -185 at Station Casinos and in the -190 range at most other books, with the buyback on Tyson in the +160 to +170 range. Several experts have speculated the public money on Tyson will continue to come in until Saturday, when the wise guys will pound Lewis. That certainly looks like the best bet if you can get Lewis in the -160 to -180 range.

All books have the over/under at 6 1/2 rounds (1:30 of the seventh round). Bettors have been pounding the under, which is -140 with the over at even-money or +120 depending on if the book is dealing a 20- or 40-cent line.

On the KO/decision/draw prop, as of Thursday morning the most money has been coming in on a Lewis KO, which is in the -130 range at most books. A Tyson KO has also been drawing money and is around +180. Odds on a decision have been rising with Tyson at 8-1 and Lewis at 3-1 at the Stardust. A draw is 12-1 to 15-1 at most books.

The most unusual prop is the disqualification/no contest prop offered at Caesars Palace and the Station Casinos. The "yes" is +500 at Caesars and +550 at the Stations. If you're certain that nothing odd will happen and there will be no disqualification or no contest, you have to lay -800.

Regardless of what happens in the fight, it should be a wild weekend.