03/16/2006 12:00AM

Books abuzz as Big Dance begins

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LAS VEGAS - At the top of his 9 a.m. "Raceday Las Vegas" radio show on Thursday, Ralph Siraco warned his horseplayer listeners: "It isn't going to be the usual easy, laid-back Thursday in the book, folks."

He wasn't kidding.

The NCAA tournament tipped off and the sports books in town were jam-packed with college basketball bettors, with the overflow filling the adjacent race books and resulting in standing-room crowds all around. At Caesars Palace, a line 100 deep snaked back to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in the back of the book as the start of the first game, Seton Hall vs. Wichita St., approached at 9:20 a.m. The line continued through the start of the Oklahoma vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee at 9:25 and Boston College vs. Pacific at 9:40, and then there was still a steady stream of bettors throughout those games as fans learned to get their bets in early for the later games or risk getting shut out.

Wichita St. jumped all over Seton Hall and cruised to an 86-66 victory as a 2 1/2-point favorite, but the underdogs were live in the other two early games. No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee grabbed an early lead as a 3-point underdog to No. 6 seed Oklahoma, and even though the Panthers let the Sooners back in the game, they never let Oklahoma take control and pulled away late for the 82-74 minor upset.

But even more than that upset, things really got exciting when No. 13 seed Pacific, an 8-point dog, rallied vs. No. 4 seed Boston College and appeared to be a point-spread winner.

The Wynn Las Vegas sports book (and, for certain, books all over town) went crazy when Christian Maraker hit a 3-pointer with 9.1 seconds to play in regulation to tie the game 65-65. Pacific bettors were blatantly cheering for Maraker to miss, or for Boston College to score on the ensuing possession to avoid overtime. Their worst fears were realized when, in the second OT, Boston College took control and won 88-76 to cover the spread.

After looking like a stone-cold under most of the game, the extra sessions also allowed the game to go over its 135 betting total as all three early games went over.

The madness had officially begun.

* Felix Taverna will host his "Race & Sports Radio" show, which airs on KOGO AM-600 in Southern California and online at kogo.com, at 7:05 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Caesars.

* Second-round matchups weren't determined by Thursday's deadline for Saturday's print editions, so my selections for Saturday's and Sunday's games will be available at drf.com. I'll be picking all eight games each day against the spread, with write-ups on the top three or four plays.

Other bets to be made

It would be easy to assume that the NCAA tournament was the only sporting event worth betting on this weekend, but that's far from the truth.

The NIT. The NBA. The NHL. The World Baseball Classic. Exhibition baseball. All of those combined won't match the betting handle on the NCAA tournament, but some of the sharpest bettors around will be focusing on those opportunities, where they think oddsmakers maybe haven't devoted enough time while putting most of their focus on March Madness.

* On Saturday night in Atlantic City, Hasim Rahman will put his WBC heavyweight title on the line against the aging wonder James Toney, who has been made between a -180 and -200 favorite at Vegas sports book. The "will go/won't go" (the same as an over/under) has that the fight will go the full 12 rounds between -160 and -180.

* The Nascar circuit left Vegas last Sunday, but the Nextel Cup series is still popular on the betting boards. This weekend's stop is Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson, fresh off his victory in Vegas and with finishes no worse than second in the three races so far this year, is the 6-1 favorite, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are the co-second choices at 7-1, with Tony Stewart and Mark Martin at 8-1 and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon at 10-1.

Looking for live action?

This will be too late for anyone reading this on Saturday (as opposed to early birds who read the Form either online or pick up an advance copy the day before the publication date), but there are a few sports events scheduled for Friday night in Las Vegas for those who prefer to go to an event in person instead of watching on television.

The local Arena Football League entry, the Las Vegas Gladiators were to host the Arizona Rattlers at 7:30 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center. But the more intriguing game of the night - and one that out-of-staters might hear on their local newscast because of the absurdity of the promotion - was the minor league hockey game between the Las Vegas Wranglers and the Alaska Aces at 7:05 p.m. at the Orleans Arena. The Wranglers are hosting a "Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night" in which the first 1,000 fans will be given orange hunting vests with the words "Don't Shoot, I'm Human" printed on them.

South Coast hosts equestrian events

The South Coast, the newest hotel-casino in the Las Vegas area, debuted its $6 million Equestrian & Events Center on Wednesday with the start of the 30th Annual Silver Dollar Circuit Show, which is sanctioned by the American Quarter Horse Association and formerly held in Reno.

It was the start of a busy calendar that already has 124 such events scheduled this year in the South Coast's 31,250 square-foot arena. The Equestrian & Events Center has 4,400 seats and 1,200 climate-controlled horse stalls, plus another 100,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space for other activities. The daily competitions are free to the public.