02/18/2003 12:00AM

Gladiators' home debut a success

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By all measures, the Las Vegas Gladiators' home debut on Monday night in the Arena Football League couldn't have gone better at the Thomas and Mack Center.

The house was packed with 12,521 fans (officials were hoping for between 8,000 and 10,000) and the Gladiators - who had lost their first two games of the season on the road - rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Storm 61-55 in overtime. The only thing missing was Celine Dion.

The pop diva, who will be headlining in a new theater at Caesars Palace starting March 25 and is on a whirlwind of promotional appearances, wasn't on hand to sing "God Bless America" like she did at the Super Bowl. But that's probably a good thing. This raucous crowd, similar to the ones that made the Outlaws one of the XFL's few successful franchises in its one-year experiment two years ago, would have booed her off the field.

In fact, the crowd lustily booed the halftime entertainment - Skip Banks the Balloonman, who took his sweet time getting into his performance. The crowd was finally won over as Banks gyrated and danced inside an elastic bubble (see www.skipbanks.com since I can't adequately describe it in print).

Like Skip Banks, the Gladiators took a while to get their act together. They fumbled away an early lead and seemed to just be hanging in the game with no real intention of challenging the Storm - one of the AFL's top franchises - despite a 27-27 score at halftime.

The Storm seemingly took control of the game in the second half and eventually built a 55-34 lead with 11:45 left to play. A lot of people headed for the exits, but that just showed how unfamiliar people still are with Arena Football. It's hard to criticize those who departed early. They're probably the same fans who have gotten used to seeing the UNLV basketball and football teams fall apart in recent years. Even the Outlaws started their franchise with a 2-0 start before disappointing their faithful fans with a weak finish.

But the bubble didn't burst on the Gladiators' performance this night.

The offense marched for a touchdown, and defensive specialist Jerroid Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown to pull the Gladiators within 55-48. Johnson, who earned the game's most valuable player honor, then intercepted another pass to set up the tying touchdown with one minute remaining.

The Storm failed to score on their final drive of regulation, and the game went to overtime tied 55-55. By then, several hundred fans had returned to the arena. The Gladiators stopped the Storm to start overtime, and then punched in a touchdown for the 61-55 victory as the crowd went wild.

The Gladiators (1-2) travel to New York Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. EST game against the Dragons (0-3). A victory Saturday could lead to a sellout when the Gladiators return home for a March 2 game versus the defending Arena Bowl champion San Jose Sabercats. The Thomas and Mack is configured for 15,875 seats.

If the Gladiators' popularity grows, Celine Dion might need to recruit them when she opens her show next month at the 4,000-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Not-so-hidden entry

How many times have you or someone you've known bet on a top stable's star horse only to see its lesser-known stablemate - running uncoupled in the wagering - win at much higher odds?

It happens all the time, and not just at smaller tracks where the impulse reaction of many losing bettors is to scream, "Fix! They wanted the higher price horse to win so they'd make more money."

It also happens on the highest levels. Just look at some recent runnings of the Kentucky Derby: The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Derby at 24-1 over stablemates Timber Country and Serena's Song, who were coupled at 7-2; Lukas-trained Grindstone won the 1996 Derby at 5-1 as part of an entry, outperforming four other Lukas standouts that year; Bob Baffert-trained Real Quiet won the 1998 Derby at 8-1 over stablemate Indian Charlie, the favorite; and Lukas-trained Charismatic won the 1999 Derby at 31-1 instead of Cat Thief, who was 7-1.

Of course, I'm not suggesting any fixes here. Rather, it's a case of a top trainer having a lot of good runners and not really knowing himself who will peak on big race days.

Well, the next time it happens, remember back to Sunday's Daytona 500 and how it happened outside the Thoroughbred racing world.

A lot of bettors were on the favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 7-2 at most Las Vegas sports books.

In Saturday's column, Palace Station's race and sports book manager Micah Roberts called Earnhardt and his stablemate Michael Waltrip (they're both part of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team of drivers) "untouchable if they're on their game."

Roberts had good cause for that assessment. The two drivers had won six of the previous eight restrictor-plate races at the superspeedways on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.

Make that seven of nine.

Earnhardt was in control of the race until the 89th lap, when he had carburetor troubles that caused him to lose two laps to the leaders. After getting his car fixed, but still a lap down, he helped teammate Waltrip draft past the leader Jimmie Johnson to take the lead before the final yellow flag of the rain-shortened race.

In a classic example of a hidden uncoupled entry, Waltrip was 7-1, even though he was part of the most powerful stable at the track. An overlay all the way.

Woods a reliable favorite

One favorite came through Sunday - but it's never a surprise when he does.

Tiger Woods, who missed the first six PGA events of the year following knee surgery in December, won the Buick Invitational with relative ease. Woods was the 5-2 betting favorite and coasted to a four-stroke victory despite being rusty and playing with - as Phil Mickelson so eloquently said with his foot in his mouth - "inferior equipment."

Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Palms, said Woods's return meant a big spike in handle.

"There's always more interest in a tournament when Tiger plays," he said. "It was the largest handle we've had yet this year. With him back, it's like the regular season has started. Everything else was the preseason."

Sherman said Woods has been bet from 7-4 down to 3-2 for this weekend's Nissan Open. Woods is 3-2 to win The Masters in April.