02/28/2005 1:00AM

Can Oscar boost female boxing action?

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"Million Dollar Baby" was the toast of the Academy Awards on Sunday night, winning the Oscar for best picture.

The movie, starring best actress winner Hilary Swank as a female boxer and directed by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood, became only the third film with a sports theme to be named the top picture, following in the footsteps of 1976's "Rocky," another boxing movie, and 1981's "Chariots of Fire," about two runners going for gold in the 1924 Olympics.

"Million Dollar Baby" was an underdog story, but triumphed as the second choice at some offshore books and in the "entertainment-purposes-only" odds of Bally's race and sports book director John Avello. "The Aviator" was the even-money favorite, with "Million Dollar Baby" at 7-5. In the major categories, Avello had three top choices win - Jamie Foxx for best actor in "Ray" and Cate Blanchett for best supporting actress in "The Aviator" in addition to Swank - while two other second choices came through with minor upsets (Eastwood over Martin Scorsese for best director and Morgan Freeman over Thomas Haden Church for best supporting actor).

So it was a pretty formful night.

But looking ahead, sitting here in Vegas - the boxing capital of the world, among other titles - I can't help wonder if the success of "Million Dollar Baby" will lead to an increase in the popularity of women's boxing.

Taking a look at the upcoming boxing matches available on the betting boards in Vegas (which is a pretty good barometer of the popularity of any sporting event), on this Saturday Jose Luis Castillo is a -400 favorite over Julio Diaz for the WBC and IBF lightweight title at Mandalay Bay. The next big bout is March 19 between Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales, who are being offered at pick-em at most casinos, with Pacquiao a slight favorite at others, for the WBA and IBF featherweight title. After that, the next big scheduled fight is Felix Trinidad at -170 vs. Winky Wright at the MGM Grand on May 14.

Obviously, there's not a female among them and no women's bouts have been announced on the undercards. While women's boxing has been growing, it's still not in the mainstream, and even if there are women's bouts added to those events, most people won't hear about them until arriving at the arena.

The only time I remember Las Vegas taking action on a women's bout was in August 2003 when Laila Ali was a -500 favorite and knocked out Christy Martin in the fourth round in Biloxi, Miss.

But maybe we'll see that change. It would be a Hollywood story.

Bookmaker beats bettor at Leroy's

Nick Bogdanovich, the race and sports book manager at the Golden Nugget, went 3-2 with his NCAA picks last weekend in the Leroy's Challenge to defeat professional bettor Alan Boston.

The two made their selections last Friday night at the Riviera as part of the "Leroy's Sports Hour" radio show with the first-place prize of $5,000 on the line plus another $5,000 to be donated to the Sunrise Children's Foundation in the winner's name.

Bogdanovich had a record of 1-2 heading into Saturday night's action and needed Weber St. to cover a 9-point spread vs. Idaho St. and local team UNLV to cover the 2-point spread vs. Air Force. Weber St. won easily, 79-56, and UNLV rallied to win and cover 63-57.

Boston went 2-3 and receives the consolation prize of a watch donated by a sponsor of the show.

Biffle pulls Nextel Cup upset

After the top Nextel Cup drivers dominated the Daytona 500 last week, Greg Biffle (offered at between 12-1 and 20-1 at Vegas sports books) won Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway by holding off Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.

Biffle doesn't get the respect of the Jeff Gordons and Dale Earnhardt Jrs. of the circuit, but he is no slouch either. He won the 2004 season finale in November and has now won 2 of the last 3 Nextel Cup races. The next event on the schedule is the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 13.

Match play a different kind of bet

David Toms rewarded his backers by dominating Sunday's final of the Accenture Match Play Champion-ship against Chris DiMarco.

Toms, a 30-1 longshot before the event started last week, opened as a -160 favorite over DiMarco in the final and was bet to -185 at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Jeff Sherman, the golf oddsmaker at the Hilton, said that bettors look at match-play events differently than the regular stroke-play tournaments. He said the Chrysler Classic of Tuscon, which was also held last weekend with lower-tier PGA pros, had more betting on who would win the tournament than the Match Play Championship.

Because of the format of the Match Play Championship, which began with 64 golfers playing in 32 one-on-one matches, most of the betting is on the individual matchups, and little on who will actually win the tournament. Betting on the individual matchups in the Match Play Championships far exceeded the total handle on the Chrysler Classic.

Sherman said that in the case of the Match Play Championship, the matchups were a "break-even proposition for the house" as bettors fared well on the opening day, with the house coming back over the weekend when more upsets occurred.

Tiger Woods is the 4-1 favorite in this weekend's Ford Championship at Doral, but many golf bettors are already looking ahead to next month's Masters on April 7-10. The Hilton has Woods as the 7-2 favorite, followed by Phil Mickelson at 11-2, Ernie Els at 7-1 and Vijay Singh at 8-1 with a big dropoff after the top foursome.