05/22/2003 11:00PM

Big auto racing weekend cranks up

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LAS VEGAS - The auto racing calendar is different from that of any other sport.

The year begins with the most important NASCAR race, the Daytona 500 in February, and then, at least from a betting standpoint, the next big race is the Las Vegas 400 on the first weekend in March. For the rest of the year, the masses pretty much ignore auto racing while the sports books see mainly the regular battery of diehard fans week in and week out.

But this Sunday is the exception as we get a fuel-injected doubleheader with the Indianapolis 500 at 9 a.m. (PDT) and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at 2:40 p.m.

"We see our biggest handle on the Daytona and the Las Vegas races," said Micah Roberts, who sets the auto racing odds for the Station Casinos. "But those last just three to four hours. This Sunday we'll have six to eight hours of intense action. What also makes this day fun is that we can post a lot of proposition wagers, including ones to tie the two races together."

Helio Castro-Neves is going for his third straight win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (known as The Brickyard). He opened as the 6-1 favorite, but heading into the weekend he shared favoritism with fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan. Those two are part of a prop bet that asks what the winning driver's home country will be. You can take "the world," with 28 drivers, at -160 (lay $8 to win $5), or get +130 with the five Brazilian drivers, who also include Gil de Ferran (10-1 on his own), Felippe Giaffone (22-1), and Vitor Meira (60-1).

Michael Andretti is said to be retiring after this race, win or lose. He is 8-1 to have a storybook ending. Other top contenders are Kenny Brack and Robby Gordon, both at 9-1.

"Casual racing fans might recognize Gordon as a regular on the NASCAR circuit, but he's a much better open-wheel driver," Roberts said.

On Sunday, Gordon is racing in both events, so Roberts put an over/under of 27 1/2 on Gordon's combined finish.

Roberts said he's also seen considerable action in the Indy 500 on sentimental longshots A.J. Foyt IV (the grandson of four-time winner A.J. Foyt who is making his Indy debut) at 75-1 and Sarah Fisher (pulling an Annika Sorenstam as the only female driver in the field) at 125-1. Two-time champ Al Unser Jr. is 30-1.

Station Casinos also has nine head-to-head matchups as well as props on the engine of the winning car (Toyota and Chevy at -150, Honda at +120), over/under the number of lap leaders (8 1/2), over/under the number of drivers on the lead lap (7 1/2), and a hybrid prop on who has a better finish between Castro-Neves in the 500 (-150) or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 600 (+120).

The Coca-Cola 600 has a trio of favorites at 7-1: Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, and Matt Kenseth. Other top contenders are Earnhardt Jr. (8-1), Jeff Gordon (9-1), and Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, and Jimmie Johnson all at 10-1.

Station Casinos has 10 head-to-head matchups, plus props on the winning manufacturer (Ford and Dodge are -140, General Motors is +110), over/under the number of cautions (10 1/ 2), over/under the number of lap leaders (12 1/ 2), and the most combined Winston Cup points (Rusty and Mike Wallace are -140, Steve Park and Jeff Green are +110).

"We should have good betting on both races, but we'll probably have more on the NASCAR race just because it's later in the day," Roberts said.

Belmont plans begin to emerge

Sam's Town, the locals' hangout on Boulder Highway, got a leg up on its competition by luring Laffit Pincay Jr. to appear in its racebook the day before the Belmont. Pincay will be part of a 6 p.m. seminar on June 6, with Gordon Jones and the "Track Talk" radio crew. Pincay also will be greeting fans at the racebook on Belmont Day, June 7.

Pincay won the Belmont with Conquistador Cielo (1982), Caveat (1983), and Swale (1984), and is one of only two jockeys to win the race three straight years. For trivia buffs, James McLaughlin did it twice: from 1882-84 and 1886-1888). And, no, Pincay didn't ride against him.

Casino adds Belmont matchups

Mandalay Bay has put up five head-to-head matchups for the Belmont, including three with Funny Cide. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is pick-em vs. Empire Maker (bet -115 either way). Funny Cide is -140 vs. the fast-closing Derby fourth-place finisher Atswhatimtalknbout (+110), and -220 vs. Lone Star Derby winner Dynever (+160). Empire Maker is -140 vs. Atswhatimtalknbout (+110) and -220 vs. Dynever (+160).

Early bettors appear to be doubting Funny Cide's chances of completing the Triple Crown. Minutes after his Preakness victory, Mandalay Bay made Funny Cide +120 (odds of 6-5) to win the Belmont with bettors having to lay -160 that he won't. But that hasn't deterred early bettors who have bet against Funny Cide, driving the price on the "no" to -185 as of Thursday. The "yes" was raised to +145, in excess of 7-5.

Sports book notes

The French Open begins Monday with Serena Williams trying to keep her grand slam hopes alive. She's the prohibitive 3-5 favorite, with her sister, Venus, the co-second choice at 6-1 with Kim Clijsters.

The men's bracket is more wide open with Juan Carlos Ferrero a lukewarm 7-2 favorite, followed by Roger Federer (5-1), Andre Agassi (6-1), Carlos Moya (8-1), Gustavo Kuerten (8-1), and Lleyton Hewitt (10-1).

With the time difference, bets must be made by the time your sports book closes Sunday night.

* A few weeks ago, the Las Vegas Gladiators were 15-1 to win the Arena Football League title. But that was when they were leading their division and in line for a first-round bye and some home playoff games. Now, they are 40-1 because they have to visit the Arizona Rattlers as 10 1/2-point underdogs on Sunday in the wild-card round.

The defending champion San Jose SaberCats are the 5-2 favorites to win it all, followed by the Tampa Storm (3-1), Orlando Predators (3-1) and Rattlers (9-2), who are rated ahead of the Los Angeles Avengers (6-1), who have a first-round bye along with the first three choices.