12/20/2001 12:00AM

Development goes on despite tourism woes


The economy is struggling, right? Vegas visitor totals are down, betting is down, so casinos must be putting plans on hold, right? Wrong!

The Palms had a hugely successful opening last month and continues to draw crowds. Green Valley Ranch opened Thursday night to rave reviews, and even though it's being touted as a locals casino, rooms are booked well into January, and owner Station Casinos is already talking about a hotel expansion.

A much smaller venture, the Wild Fire Casino, is scheduled to open Thursday on Rancho Boulevard near Texas Station. It won't have a race book, but sports bettors will welcome it because it offers another independent outlet. The book will be run by Buffy McKinney, who worked under legendary bookmaker Sonny Reizner at the Rio, as well as at Texas Station and Barley's.

Other changes to existing properties include Marriott taking over The Regent Las Vegas (previously The Resort at Summerlin), and The Reserve being renamed the Fiesta Henderson. That property was bought by Station Casinos last year and is being converted from a jungle motif to the Southwestern theme of the Fiesta in North Las Vegas. The grand reopening takes place next Saturday.

Bookies bowling over bettors

It's early in the bowl season, but the bookmakers like how the first two games turned out.

In Tuesday's New Orleans Bowl, bettors bet North Texas and the under, driving Colorado St. down from a 13- to an 11-point favorite and knocking the over/under from

47 to 45. Colorado St. won 45-20 to make a lot of oddsmakers happy.

It looked like bettors were going to even the score Wednesday night when East Carolina rolled to a 38-8 halftime lead after being bet up from a 1- to a 2 1/2-point favorite over Marshall. Marshall, however, came back in the second half to win 64-61 in overtime. The ending was even crazier than it sounds because Marshall rallied in the final minute with no timeouts to score the tieing TD, only to miss the extra point that would have given it a victory in regulation. At least a lot of bettors were happy, as the over had been bet from 64 1/2 all the way up to 68.

Speaking of college wagering, the proposed betting ban that was defeated earlier this year might be revived. The NCAA has hired two lobbyists to replace the two who resigned earlier this year. Sen. John McCain's (R.-Ariz.) office has promised to make this bill a top priority again next year.

Frank Fahrenkopf of the American Gaming Association, the top lobbyist for the casino industry, said he expects McCain to try to attach it to another piece of legislation, since it seems unlikely to succeed as a stand-alone bill.

Officer's odds soar

What a difference less than two months can make. Officer, the Bob Baffert trainee who was the latest second coming of Secretariat, is now considered a longshot to win the Kentucky Derby. Before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Officer had been bet down to 4-1 (even lower at some books around Las Vegas). Now, Coast Resorts has him at 15-1 behind Siphonic (5-1), Johannesburg (8-1), and Saarland and Repent (both 10-1). The Park Place Entertainment properties have Officer in a group at 10-1 with Siphonic and Saarland. Johannesburg and Repent are both 8-1 at Park Place. If you're shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts, you're better off buying Siphonic at Park Place and Officer, Saarland, or Repent at Coast Resorts. Of course, there are many more longshots available.

Wizards sharper than expected

Speaking of future books, sports book directors around town are probably very happy right now that they didn't open the Washington Wizards at much higher odds during the off-season. Most books kept the Wizards off the board until Michael Jordan announced his return. When he made it official, Las Vegas Sports Consultants recommended odds of 15-1. Those odds were seen to be embarrassingly low considering how unlikely an NBA title was for the Wizards, but if they had opened higher the books would have a lot more liability. The Wizards won their seventh straight game Wednesday night, a 103-76 blowout of the Hawks, and would be in the playoffs if they started today. They're still a longshot, but bookmakers know it isn't wise to underestimate Jordan, or the public's willingness to bet on him.

Hoops tourney finals on Saturday

The Las Vegas Classic college basketball tournament wraps up at Valley High School on Saturday with four games. The field included Cincinnati, Purdue, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe, Richmond, Southwest Missouri, Texas A&M, Illinois-Chicago.

The same organizer, Chris Spencer of Worldwide Basketball Inc., conducted two tournaments in November that allowed local college hoops fans to see top-ranked teams such as Oklahoma State and Illinois win those two titles. Most of those games have been on the betting boards in Nevada.

No betting is allowed, however, on the Holiday Prep Classic, which is one of the biggest high school basketball tournament in the country. The 80-team event (actually it's broken down into five different 16-team fields) concludes Saturday with title games at five area high schools: Silverado, Green Valley, Foothill, Durango and Sierra Vista.