11/20/2006 1:00AM

Early bet on Colts looks smart now

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Here and elsewhere, sports betting has often been compared to financial markets because, well, it is a financial market.

Futures are traded. Investors are looking to buy low and sell high. The market changes fast and you have to act fast to seize the opportunities that are out there.

Case in point was an early line available at the Las Vegas Hilton for this Sunday's Colts-Eagles game. The Hilton puts up the following week's NFL lines every Tuesday, 12 days in advance. The Colts opened at -6 1/2. I liked the bet because I felt the Colts would beat the Cowboys and that the Eagles would struggle with the suddenly improving Titans despite being 13-point favorites. I figured if that happened, the line would later be adjusted to at least a touchdown and possibly as high as 8 to create a nice middle opportunity. The worst-case scenario would be that the Eagles would rout the Titans and the Colts would lose to the Cowboys, but I figured that even if that happened, the Colts would still be favored by more than 4 at home and probably closer to 6. It was sound thinking and it actually turned out better than expected as the Colts were put up at -11 vs. the Eagles at the Hilton on Sunday afternoon and as high as -13 offshore. I sold high and would love the Colts to win by between 7 and 11 points.

Now, obviously, I can't take credit for all of that because the biggest reason for the inflation in the line was the season-ending injury to Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb. If the injury had happened to Manning and not to McNabb, the line would be around pick-em and I would feel like a fool for holding Colts -6 1/2. But the underlying lesson is there: If you think you can see the future, you can make the appropriate bets to maximize your profits.

Before the season, my nephew Craig was in town from Denver, and he shopped the "Games of the Year" list at the Hilton and bet a bunch. He ended up with some really bad lines (he had the Broncos -6 vs. the Chargers on Sunday night, for example), but overall he has fared well, especially with the Bears pick-em vs. the Cardinals. If you recall, the week of the Oct. 16 game, the Bears were bet to -13 and Craig was one of the few Bear backers who cashed after Chicago rallied to win, 24-23.

* The Colts-Eagles game was the biggest adjustment from the early Hilton lines, but not the only one. The Thanksgiving Day game between the Dolphins and Lions was Miami -1 1/2 last week but is now -3 after the Dolphins' win and the Lions' loss; the Rams were -8 1/2 vs. the 49ers, but after the Rams were shut out by the Panthers and the 49ers upset the Seahawks, it was adjusted to -6; the Giants were -5 vs. the Texans and that was changed to -3 (though this is written before the Giants-Jags game on Monday night); and the Chargers were -15 vs. the Raiders, but after Oakland covered for the second straight week it was lowered to 11 (and then was bet to 13 when offshore books opened higher). All of the other line moves at the Hilton and Stratosphere were similarly market-driven, moving toward the offshore numbers.

Pacquiao-Morales III short but sweet

Nothing in sports compares to a live championship fight when it comes to the electricity in the air. But in the past few years many boxing matches have failed to live up to the hype, and the crowds have gotten thinner and less enthusiastic.

And then there was last Saturday night's super featherweight title fight at the Thomas & Mack Center between Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales. The parking lot was more full than I've ever seen, as 18,276 people jammed the arena, second only to the 19,000 standing-room-only crowd that saw Julio Cesar Chavez defeat Hector Camacho in 1992. I toured the concourse before the fight and there was nonstop chanting from fans of both fighters. Police had to separate two minor scuffles, with one patron carried out by the seat of his pants. The scene was just as raucous in the men's room, which I won't detail here. The three national anthems (Philippines, Mexico, United States) were sung vigorously and the screaming reached a fever pitch when the fighters entered the ring.

And this was all before a single punch was thrown.

I wasn't on the Vegas beat during the era of Hagler, Hearns, and Leonard, and only caught the tail end (the sad end) of the Tyson years, but this was far and away the most enthusiastic crowd I had ever seen.

Usually, it's easy to discern the betting favorite by the reactions from the crowd, but this was split down the middle despite Pacquiao being bet from -200 to -300 leading up to the fight. National pride was more on display than a love of money.

Both fighters stood toe to toe from the beginning, trading hard blows. Pacquiao seemed to land the harder punches but Morales stood his ground. There was more action in the first round than you see in six rounds of a heavyweight fight.

The two combatants continued in the second round, which could have been ruled even except for Morales going down to a knee and having it ruled a knockdown. The two continued to trade blows into the third round when Morales got knocked down again, and then for the third and final time before Morales shook his head "no" and the referee ended it at 2:57 of the third round. FYI, a third-round Pacman KO was offered at 18-1.

I honestly believe it was a good thing that there was such a definitive result. The arena was a powder keg. If this had gone the distance and there had been a controversial decision, I'm certain there would have been a riot.

If you missed it, be sure to check out the replay on HBO this Saturday night. I only hope the excitement comes through as clearly on the telecast.

Race and sports book notes

Greg Biffle, at prerace odds of 15-1, won the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday but the big winner was Jimmie Johnson, who wrapped up his Nextel Cup championship. Johnson, with a substantial lead heading into the season's final race, was -500 to take the title, but it wasn't easy as he got a hole in his grill 15 laps into the race, nearly left the pits with a loose lug nut, and had to avoid crashes on the track.

* The big golfing news over the weekend was Tiger Woods actually losing a playoff - only the second time in his career in 16 playoffs - to Padraig Harrington in the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan. The Las Vegas Hilton had Woods as the heavy 4-7 favorite in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf that was scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Hawaii. Others in the tourney were Jim Furyk at 11-4, Geoff Ogilvy at 6-1, and Mike Weir at 12-1. In this weekend's Skins Game in La Quinta, Calif., Fred Couples was the 9-4 favorite to win the most money, with John Daly at 11-4, Fred Funk at 5-2, and Stephen Ames at 3-1.

* A reminder that there will be no Delta Downs contest on Thursday at the Coast Casinos due to the holiday. The $10 buy-in contest will resume next Thursday.