11/23/2001 12:00AM

High-rollers taking their action elsewhere

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The returns are in, and it appears gaming regulations enacted last year have had a negative effect on sports-betting handle in Nevada.

According to figures released by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, handle generated at the 156 sports books in the state from July 2000 through June 2001 was $2.1 billion, down from the $2.5 billion handled in the previous year.

At least some of that decline can be attributed to regulations enacted in September 2000. One put a limit of $2,200 a day on the amount that could be bet on sports by telephone. Another outlawed the use of "runners," or bet carriers dispatched to casinos by large bettors or syndicates. These regulations made it less convenient for high-rolling sports bettors to make wagers.

These latest regulations have some in the gaming industry asking: Have regulators in Nevada gone too far in trying to control the integrity of sports and horse wagering in the state?

This is not the first time gaming regulations have affected betting handle.

In the mid-1990's regulations were passed outlawing the practice of rebates on parimutuel horse-race bets. Before then, some casinos were rebating to horse bettors as much as 8 percent of their action in an effort to attract the heavy hitters. But racetracks that simulcast their races to Nevada complained that rebating stole ontrack bettors and were an indication that the casinos weren't paying enough to take their simulcast signal.

The situation was exacerbated when California's racetracks - by far the most popular with Nevada bettors - refused to send their signal to the casinos. Agreement between casinos and California's racetracks was reached only after rebates were outlawed.

Since then, many big gamblers have left Nevada's race books for offshore casinos and other betting outlets. As a result, parimutuel handle in the state has dropped.

Last year, when Congress was entertaining a bill to prohibit betting on college sports, which is responsible for a sizable chunk of sports-book profits, Nevada regulators mollified legislators with the phone-wagering limit and runner prohibition.

Although sports handle declined by $4 million, there was a silver lining - at least for the casinos. With professional players in Nevada being limited in their action, or simply chased off, the casino hold (profit on bets) was the highest in 27 years. The 5.36 percent hold was only the fourth time in 20 years that sports books had retained over 4 percent. So although the total state handle was the lowest in seven years - when the numbers were based on 108 sports books - Nevada bookmakers made more money on less action.

There are several reasons in addition to the new regulations that account for the casinos' success on sports bets. They include a recent growth in Las Vegas-area population, which means more inexperienced, or "square," bettors, and the growing popularity of parlay cards, which serious bettors shy away from because they are so hard to hit.

But it takes many casual bettors to make up for one high-roller. As the numbers show, many of them have departed for betting outlets where there are fewer restrictions on their action.

The jury still is out on whether Nevada's new gaming regulations are of benefit to the industry, or if they are simply a hindrance to bettors.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.