06/04/2006 11:00PM

Brazil solid favorite in World Cup

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The World Cup starts Friday in Germany. Football is the No. 1 sport in this country, especially from a betting standpoint, but soccer - known as football everywhere else in the world - is the No. 1 sport in the world.

If you're like me, and don't know Ronaldo from Ronaldinho, you'll probably be compelled to follow at least some of the action for the next month, just like some people follow figure skating, bobsledding, track, or curling only during the Olympics.

The popularity of the World Cup didn't really sink in with me until 2002. One night, I had the itch to play blackjack and went to the Orleans. I got on a good run and was playing for about four or five hours. I was in a zone, not thinking about the World Cup or sports of any kind.

Usually, the loudest noise you hear in a casino is when a group goes nuts around a craps table. So, it really caught me off-guard when I heard a roar that sounded like it came from a packed stadium. I couldn't figure it out, especially since it was about 3 a.m. I staggered over to the sports book and was blown away to see a standing-room-only crowd of at least 1,000 people, mostly Hispanic, watching a World Cup match from Japan. It amazed me that so many people would show up at a locals' casino in the middle of the night to watch a game half a world away.

The Las Vegas Hilton has Brazil as the solid 9-4 favorite to win this year's World Cup, with England and Germany each at 6-1, Argentina at 7-1, Italy at 8-1, and France and Holland at 10-1 apiece. The United States is a 30-1 longshot.

"The interest in World Cup soccer is always big," said Jeff Sherman, sports book supervisor at the Hilton, "but it seems increased this year. We expect to see a lot of betting interest and increased crowds."

With the games in Germany this time as opposed to Korea and Japan in 2002, fans and bettors won't have to watch in the middle of the night. The games are scheduled for 6 a.m., 9 a.m., and noon Vegas time.

The opening game is Friday with host Germany taking on Costa Rica at 9 a.m. Pacific time. The Hilton has Germany as a 1 1/2-goal favorite at -125 (risk $1.25 for every $1 you want to profit) and Costa Rica offered at +1 1/2 goals and +105.

The Hilton is setting its lines using a combination of goals and a money-line. Some casinos will offer betting on the games using just a money-line, and some will offer a three-way bet that will have a draw as the third option.

The over/under on Germany-Costa Rica is 2 1/2 goals, with the over offered at -130 and the under at +110.

Sherman said England is always overbet, and that's the case again with England a 1/2-goal favorite over Paraguay on Saturday with a price of -165 attached. Sherman said the Hilton sports book will open at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to accommodate bettors for the 6 a.m. match.

Another big opening-round game is Monday's match between the United States and the Czech Republic. The Czechs are -1/2 and even money while the U.S. is +1/2 and -120.

"This is a monumental game, especially for the U.S.," Sherman said. "The loser will have a hard time advancing out of the group, so the U.S. needs at least a draw."

Overweight Castillo meant no fight

Saturday night's WBC lightweight title fight, which was to be the rubber match in a trilogy between belt-holder Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, didn't take place because Castillo failed to make the 135-pound weight limit at last Friday's official weigh-in.

He first stepped on the scales at Caesars Palace at 140 pounds and only was able to shed half a pound in subsequent weighings.

Even though it cost him more than $1 million, Corrales refused to go ahead with a non-title fight like he did last October when Castillo didn't make weight and then knocked out Corrales in the fourth round.

All bets on the fight were to be refunded.

Sports book notes

Last week, Station Casinos' auto racing oddsmaker pointed out that no Nextel Cup race so far this year had been won by a driver at better than 10-1. Matt Kenseth broke that string by winning Sunday's Neighborhood Excellence 400 at Dover International Speedway at odds of 12-1. But that stat really could have been blown to smithereens if Jamie McMurray, who led for most of the final 90 laps of the race, had held on. He was 60-1.

* Carl Pettersson is another in a line of PGA Tour winners this year who were so lightly regarded that they weren't listed as individual betting interests. Pettersson won the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, as part of the field at 5-1 at the Hilton.

* The Arena Football League saw two outright upsets in its semifinal games over the weekend. On Saturday, the Chicago Rush went into San Jose as 4-point underdogs to the SaberCats and pulled out a 59-56 victory. On Sunday, the Orlando Predators traveled to Dallas as prohibitive 10-point dogs and shut down the Desperados in a 45-28 defensive battle (by arena football standards). The Rush and Predators will meet in ArenaBowl XX at the Thomas & Mack Center at noon Sunday.

Under the way to go in NBA Finals

The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks meet in the NBA Finals, which start Thursday.

The Mavericks opened as a -160 favorite to win the series, but money has been coming in on the Heat - fueled by the one-two punch of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade - and most books are down to -150 or -155 with the Heat offered around +130.

Thursday's opener has the Mavericks -4 1/2 with a total of 193. I'm not ready to get on the Miami bandwagon and not going to lay the points with the Mavs. The under has been good - a winner in all six games of the Heat-Pistons series and going 4-2 in the Mavs-Suns series.

I think both teams will play with the styles that got them here, so look for the under trend to continue.