12/01/2004 1:00AM

Hang onto your hats! Here comes the rodeo


LAS VEGAS - This city is a booming metropolis, but in many ways it's still an old Western cowboy town.

That's never more the case than when the National Finals Rodeo rolls into town each December, when the top cowboys from all over the country compete in seven categories: saddle bronc riding, bull riding, bareback riding, calf roping, team roping, steer wrestling, and barrel racing. The cowboys take on rock-star status as they perform in front of sold-out crowds of screaming fans.

The NFR runs Friday through Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Thomas & Mack Center with nightly coverage on ESPN2. Most shows are shown on tape delay at midnight Eastern time, but this year is the first time that three sessions will be broadcast live. The first is this Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern. The final two rounds will also be shown live at 9 p.m. Eastern next Saturday, Dec. 11, on ESPN, with the 10th and final round being shown at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Dec. 12.

Each day's session will be replayed the following day at various times on ESPN and ESPN2, so check your local listings.

No local sports books are taking bets on the competition, but the casinos will certainly be catering to the crowds with cowboy-themed decorations and plenty of drinks to quench the fans' thirst.

As a service to the sports books, here are some propositions they can post:

Odds that Trevor Brazile wins the all-around title: 3-5. Brazile is the two-time defending champ and a finalist in two of the individual events.

Odds that your blackjack dealer will be wearing a cowboy hat: 2-1.

Odds that your bartender will be wearing a cowboy hat: 3-2.

Castillo favored in title defense

Mandalay Bay hosts an interesting boxing card Saturday night. WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo will be defending his title belt against Joel Casamayor, the former WBA super featherweight champ who is stepping up in class.

The Mandalay Bay sports book has Castillo as a -160 favorite (risk $1.60 for every $1 you want to win), and Casamayor is at +130 (win $1.30 for every $1 wagered). The odds are -130 that the fight "will go" the scheduled 12 rounds. The "won't go" is offered at even money.

Odds are expected to go up later in the week on the undercard. One up-and-coming fighter on the card is IBF super middleweight champion Jeff Lacy (17-0 with 14 knockouts), who will face Omar Sheika. Undefeated heavyweight contender Samuel Peter (20-0 with 17 KO's) will take on Jeremy Williams in the first bout of the night. The entire card will be shown on Showtime and begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time (and shown on tape delay at 9 p.m. Pacific).

* A reminder: Last Saturday's Marco Antonio Barrera - Erik Morales bout will be replayed as part of the HBO boxing card at 10:45 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.

Stardust semifinals matchups set

Jimmy Vaccaro and Al McMordie advanced in the Stardust Invitational last weekend with subpar weeks. Vaccaro went 3-4 in his seven contest selections to defeat fellow oddsmaker Cesar Robaina, who went 2-5. It was the third meeting between Vaccaro and Robaina, after they had tied the past two weeks.

In the other quarterfinal match, McMordie and one-name professional gambler Fezzik both went 2-5. Both lost their best bets, which is used as a tiebreaker, and the result went to a second best bet in order to set the semifinals. McMordie used the Browns-Bengals game over the total of 38 (which went way over in the Bengals' 58-48 victory) while Fezzik lost with San Jose St. +26 vs. Fresno St.

This Friday night, Vaccaro faces professional poker player turned sports handicapper Brent Carter at 9 p.m. in the sports book and broadcast live on KDWN AM-720 in nine Western states as well as worldwide on kdwn.com. Next Friday, McMordie takes on Cal. State-Hayward statistics professor Mike Orkin, and the winners will meet Dec. 17 for the $10,000 winner-take-all finale.

In Thursday's paper, I wrote about individual handicappers regressing to the mean after fast starts. The same thing happened this season with the collective group of 16 handicappers in the Stardust Invitational. In the first round, the composite record of all contestants was 67-43-2 (61 percent) and 11-5 (69 percent) with best bets. In the second round, the first-round winners went 38-43-3 (47 percent) and an even worse 4-8 (33 percent) on best bets. The recent results have been even worse, considering Carter and Trace Fields went a combined 11-3 and 2-0 on best bets in the first quarterfinal match.

For the year, all Stardust Invitational plays are 105-86-5 (55 percent), with best bets at a barely profitable 15-13 (54 percent).

Other football handicapping contests

A handicapper using the alias "Tiger Wilson" went 5-0 last week in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest to break out of a four-way first-place tie and take sole possession with a record of 40-19-1, which is good for 40.5 contest points (pushes are worth half a point). "TNT" went 3-2 to hold on for second with 38.5 points, and "Ok wat Nak" and "Spongebob" are another half-game back at 38.

* "JR Buck" went 4-1 with a best-bet winner to remain atop the standings in the Golden Nugget Ultimate Football Challenge. He has a record of 40-20 for 48 contest points; in this contest, best bets are worth two points, so he has gone 8-4 with his top plays. "El Loco IS" went 5-0 last week for six contest points to move into second place with 46.

* In the Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge, "4 Aces" has opened up a three-game lead with a record of 41-18-1 for 40.5 contest points. "Sdsoda + LV Moosh" is second at 37-20-3 for 38.5 contest points.