03/03/2003 12:00AM

Favorites win, but most bettors lose

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During football season, you can usually tell how the Las Vegas battle of the bettors vs. bookies fared on a given weekend by how many favorites covered in the NFL.

If a lot of favorites cover, that usually means the bettors do well, especially if they're connecting the dots on parlay cards for some big payoffs. But if the dogs are barking, the bookmakers are usually rolling in the dough.

That overly simplistic formula doesn't translate at other times of the year. This past weekend was a prime example. There were five main betting events and all were won by either the favorite or one of the top contenders. Nevertheless, a vast majority of bettors took a loss.

Joe Nemechek won Saturday's Sam's Town 300 Busch Series race at odds of between 8-1 and 10-1 at Vegas sports books. Nemechek was only the fifth choice out of 35 drivers listed at Station Casinos, so for every bettor who tabbed Nemechek there were a lot of people tearing up their tickets.

The same thing happened Sunday in Matt Kenseth's victory in the main event, the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 Winston Cup race. Kenseth opened at 20-1 at Station Casinos (so there were some happy bettors who cashed in nicely) and was bet all the way down to 8-1, which is pretty much where most other books closed him. However, with 41 listed drivers, the books still made out well.

According to Micah Roberts, auto racing oddsmaker for Station Casinos, there were a lot more bets on drivers such as 5-1 favorite Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, who opened at 40-1, and Jeff Gordon, "so those would have hurt us a lot more. It was a record handle again for us and we also did well on our matchups and props."

Roberts said the bettors did get the best of the house on one prop in particular, pounding the over 4 1/2 caution flags. There ended up being six cautions. But the other betting on the race still had Roberts smiling.

The Roush Racing team has historically been a force at Las Vegas. Roush has won three of the first five Winston Cup races here and sent out the favorite in Busch and two-time race winner Jeff Burton at 12-1. But it was his teammate Kenseth who ended up in the winner's circle, and you could have had him at 20-1. The same sort of thing happened at Daytona, where the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team was expected to dominate and Michael Waltrip won the race at much higher odds than his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keep an eye out for those hidden entries in all forms of racing.

Late money on Ruiz was wrong

John Ruiz attracted a lot of late money in his heavyweight title defense vs. Roy Jones Jr., but he wasn't able to carry the added weight. Jones had been as high as a -210 favorite earlier in the week, but late bettors (perhaps fueled by Ruiz's 33-pound advantage and the media's repeated talk about how unsuccessful other fighters have been when stepping up in class) bet it down to between -170 and -180 all over town.

Ruiz looked like a solid bet in the first round, and even part of the second as he went on the attack. He bull-rushed the lighter Jones, who wasn't able to do much to hold him back. Ruiz landed some punches, but even though Jones lost the first round on all three judges' scorecards, you could see he wasn't intimidated by his bigger foe.

After early success as the aggressor, Ruiz changed his tactics and attempted to box Jones in the middle of the ring. He had no chance. Jones consistently landed left jabs and used his edge in quickness over the plodding Ruiz to avoid any counter punches.

After the bell sounded to end the fourth round, Jones turned to his corner and said, "I've got him." Ruiz's nose had started to bleed, and Jones was in control.

Ruiz's only chance late in the fight was to score a knockout, but he was unable to land the big punch and Jones earned a unanimous decision (116-112, 117-111, and 118-110 on the judges' scorecards), taking Ruiz's WBA belt and winning a lot of money for bookmakers.

In addition, books that had a pick-the-round KO prop obviously kept all that money.

Other golfers no match for Woods

Tiger Woods was yet another favorite to win over the weekend, taking the WGC Match Play Championship at odds of 7-2. With 64 golfers as part of the field, bookmakers fared well despite all the tickets on Tiger.

In addition to having 64 entries in a single-elimination format, this event had something else in common with the NCAA tournament: Most of the betting handle is concentrated in the early rounds.

"Our best day was last Wednesday when there were 32 matchups," said Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Palms. "There was a lot of action all day long, and bettors were firing away just like in the NCAAs. We did well throughout [the tournament], and had balanced action in the final with Woods and David Toms."

In Sunday's final, Woods was a -330 favorite with Toms at +250. Woods went wire to wire, though he let Toms close the gap before taking a two-hole lead with one hole to play.

Arena favorite easily covers

The last local event of the weekend also saw the favorite win as the San Jose SaberCats whipped the Las Vegas Gladiators 72-37 in an Arena Football League game Sunday afternoon.

The SaberCats, the defending AFL champions, had opened as a 7-point favorite but were bet down to 6 at some local books.

It looked early like the Gladiators would put up a fight. They scored first to take a 7-0 lead, then also went up 10-7, but they gave up 30 unanswered points to fall behind 37-10 early in the second half and the rout was on.

It was an anticlimactic end to an exciting but frustrating weekend for dog bettors.