06/27/2004 11:00PM

During lull, horseplayers rule


LAS VEGAS - Maybe it was just me, but the race and sports books around town seemed a little strange last weekend.

We're officially in the slow season as far as sports are concerned, with the NHL and NBA playoffs having ended. The regular PGA tour doesn't generate the same amount of interest as the U.S. Open. Tennis is never a big betting sport, and the rainouts at Wimbledon made it even less popular.

The crowds on the sports side of the books often dwarf those on the race side - especially during football season and when college and pro basketball are in full swing. But this past weekend, it seemed to be reversed. There weren't any marquee races that bring in the huge crowds - such as during the Triple Crown, which is when you expect to see the race books become the focus of attention - but there were full racing cards from coast to coast and horseplayers ruled the roost.

Meanwhile, the only consistent action on the sports side was interleague baseball. Baseball is the sport in which bettors are least likely to sweat their bet for the entire game, but some diehards could be seen taking in the Yankees-Mets, White Sox-Cubs, A's-Giants, Rangers-Astros, and other rivalry series.

San Jose knows way to Arena title

For nonstop action, it was hard to beat the Arena Bowl, which took place Sunday in Phoenix, with the San Jose SaberCats defeating the Arizona Rattlers, 69-62, for their second title in three years.

The Rattlers had opened as 3-point favorites and were bet down to 2 1/2 all over town. The over/under on the game opened at 102 but was bet down to 100. In this space last Saturday, Chris David of vegasinsider.com nailed the game by recommending the SaberCats and the over.

But bettors on all sides got their money's worth as both offenses moved up and down the field. In fact, other than the SaberCats missing a field goal on the opening drive of the game and one stoppage by San Jose's defense when the game was knotted 14-14, every other possession in the game ended with a touchdown (including the SaberCats' scoring on the final play of the first half) until the Rattlers came up just short of forcing overtime when their final possession ended at the San Jose 5-yard line.

An interesting thing happened late in the game when Arizona scored with 31 seconds remaining to make the score 63-62 pending the extra point. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White, the Rattlers' coach, opted to go for the two-point conversion and the lead. SaberCat bettors, who had taken the 2 1/2 points were liking that because even if the Rattlers had succeeded, the SaberCats still would have been covering (bettors who had taken San Jose to win straight up, such as myself, were never cheering harder). The attempt failed, then the SaberCats returned the onside kick for a touchdown and missed the extra point, making the score 69-62, and then had to make their final stand.

It was a roller-coaster ride that really whetted the appetite for the real football season.

Dawning of the age of parity

In another upset on Sunday, Cal State Fullerton defeated Texas, 3-2, to win the best-of-three College World Series two games to none. Texas had looked unbeatable throughout the tournament, but Cal State Fullerton, which had begun the season with a record of 15-16, got hot at the right time.

This underdog phenomenon isn't valid just during the dog days of summer. We've seen this trend for the past year. The Marlins stunned the heavily favored Yankees in the big-league World Series last October. LSU was a 6 1/2-point underdog when it knocked off Oklahoma in college football's BCS title game.

Okay, so the favored Patriots beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl (though the Pats didn't cover the spread), and UConn rolled over Georgia Tech in the NCAA men's basketball title game, but the Lightning were an unlikely Stanley Cup champ. Granted, they were favored over the even more unlikely finalists from Calgary, but it took the Lightning seven games to put out the Flames. And of course the biggest shocker of all would have to be the Pistons taking care of the Lakers in just five games.

Chalk players have been eating a lot of tickets in recent title games.

Calm before the storm

It will be interesting to see if the dogs also bark in international play. The semifinals of the Euro 2004 soccer tournament are this week. Wednesday, host Portugal is between a -125 (Stardust) and -135 (MGM Mirage) favorite over the Netherlands at Vegas sports books. Thursday, the Czech Republic is a huge -300 favorite over Greece.

Both games are scheduled to begin at 11:45 a.m. Pacific, so that will also put them up against the midweek racing cards right when the Eastern and Midwest tracks are wrapping up and the California tracks are getting under way.

The championship game is set for Sunday, but that won't be the reason why the race and sports books will be packed. It will be because every area of the casinos will be crowded on the Fourth of July weekend.