09/24/2001 11:00PM

Lesson One: Follow the (early) money

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Horseplayers look at odds changes on a tote board differently. If a horse's odds drop, some bettors will pass because they're not getting an overlay, while others will get onboard since the "smart money" has. If a horse's odds rise, some will see it as better value while others will consider the horse dead on the board.

The same goes with football betting. Some bettors follow the money, while others look to go against the general public.

In Las Vegas, the Stardust puts up the following weekend's first betting lines on Sunday around 5:30 p.m. local time, just after the kickoff of the night game. A "lottery" is held in which some of the biggest bettors in town sign up and are assigned a number to get a crack at the opening lines. The limits are $10,000 on the NFL and $5,000 on colleges. The minimum bet is $1,000. The bettors move to the window one by one, and the Stardust staff moves the numbers accordingly.

This past weekend, the lottery bettors were 14-10 against the spread on college games and 3-4 in the NFL. For Week 1 of the NFL bettors were 4-1 in the NFL and 13-7 in the colleges.

Especially notable are "double moves," lines that move at least a full point. Since the Stardust generally moves the lines half a point at a time, it usually shows that the wise guys have a strong opinion on a game if the line gets moved and they keep betting it. Double moves in colleges were 9-8 last weekend after going 11-6 three weeks ago.

The biggest moves Sunday night were Stanford, which opened as a 3-point dog at USC but was bet down to 1 1/2; Western Michigan, which opened -19 1/2 over Eastern Michigan and was bet up to 21; Wake Forest, which opened +26 at Florida State and was bet down to 24; Middle Tennessee State, which opened -18 1/2 at UL Lafayette and was bet up to -20; and San Jose St, which opened as a 17-point dog at Arizona State and was bet down to 14 1/2.

The NFL only had three line moves for this weekend's games. Bettors backed the Dolphins as a 7-point dog to the Rams and bet them down to

6 1/2. This was actually a double move of a sort as the Stardust first moved the line to Rams -7 at even-money, meaning Dolphins bettors would have to lay -120 (bet $1.20 to win $1) to get +7. They kept playing it, and the line was dropped to 6 1/2. The Steelers-Bills games opened pick-em and the Steelers were bet up to a

1-point favorite, while the Chargers were bet up from -4 1/2 to a 5 1/2-point choice over the Bengals in a battle of unbeatens.

Bettors clean up

Las Vegas bookmakers were happy to see bettors filling the sports books again this weekend, but they weren't happy with the results.

Overall handle was down from 20 to 30 percent according to most estimates, with Strip properties (which rely more on tourist business) suffering the most. Neighborhood casinos didn't see as much of a dropoff in football handle, but the number of casino customers was noticeably lower than usual. Street traffic was also down.

But after the results of this weekend's game, casino accountants might be happy the handle was less, at least in the sports books. Bettors did very well on the college games Saturday, highlighted by UCLA's

13-6 win over Ohio State. That line was UCLA -6 1/2 most of the week and the late money flowed in on the Bruins. The books lost the bets at 6 1/2 and refunded wagers at 7. Some books got middled when they also had to pay off on Ohio State bettors taking +7 1/2 or 8.

Bettors also won most of the major decisions on Sunday as the Colts, Eagles, Chargers, Jets, and Broncos all won and covered. They were not only straight-bet winners for players, but also popular teams on parlay cards.

The Dolphins also covered for chalk players in a wacky finish. The Dolphins, a 1 or 1 1/2-point favorite, trailed the Raiders 15-10 when Miami QB Jay Fielder scrambled and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5 seconds remaining. Dolphins bettors just needed the extra point for the cover, but Miami, playing the percentages by trying to get a 3-point lead, went for two. The ball was given to receiver James McKnight on a reverse and it looked like he was going to be wrapped up around the five-yard line, but he spun out of the tackle and stumbled into the end zone for the 18-15 spread-covering victory.

The bookies must have felt that play epitomized their whole weekend with so many games slipping out of their grasp.

Baseball better for books

Bookmakers got good news in baseball.

With the Twins and now the Cubs dropping out of contention with two weeks remaining in the regular season, the books now face little liability in their future books.

Bookmakers are also cheering for Barry Bonds to continue his home run streak. Many books put up props this summer on whether Bond would break Mark McGwire's record of 70 home runs. Most books took more action on the "no." Bonds's two homers Sunday put him at 67 with 12 games to play.