12/28/2005 1:00AM

Looking to party in Vegas? Hope you've got a room

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In the story of Christmas, there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem. The same could be said of Las Vegas for New Year's Eve 2005.

Hotels up and down the Strip are sold out, and if a traveler is lucky enough to find a hotel with a cancellation, the hotels are asking a king's ransom that would make the Three Wise Men consider staying home. Earlier this week, The Venetian and Wynn were quoting $699 for standard rooms. Render unto Caesar what is his, indeed.

But for those living here or who have already booked their rooms, it will be a huge celebration. The Strip will be closed to traffic (vehicular traffic, that is) probably starting at 6 p.m. so that revelers can take full advantage of the open-container non-law and take to the streets in safety. The outdoor party will be capped at midnight with a $500,000 fireworks show from atop 10 casinos from the Excalibur to the Stratosphere.

That show is free. If you're looking for a list of parties, go to vegas.com/newyears. The best bargain I found was the New Year's Eve Street Bash for $40 under the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas with concerts by Cheap Trick, Spin Doctors, and Gin Blossoms.

Show jumping telecast is bounced

Back in October, my e-mail was flooded with news about the Las Vegas World Invitational, the world's richest show jumping event, at the Thomas & Mack Center. I had made a note to mention that a taping of the event would be shown Saturday on CBS.

I was a little surprised that I hadn't received any e-mails recently to publicize that airing. Now I know why.

The district attorney for Las Vegas is looking into complaints that the participants in the $750,000 event, which was won by Rodrigo Pessoa, haven't received their money and that checks to officials and vendors have bounced.

In Nevada, bouncing a check in a case like this is not only a felony but can lead to other felony charges such as theft and obtaining services under false pretenses.

Death of a whale

The death of Australian billionaire Kerry Packer made news all over the world, and it was certainly more than passing news here.

Packer has long been considered one of the biggest high-rollers in Las Vegas history, so big that Wall Street would take notice when he came to town because his wins or losses could have a huge impact on publicly traded casino companies.

His favorite game was said to be blackjack, and he would reportedly play $200,000 a hand and up to six hands at a time. There have been stories of winning $26 million at the MGM Grand in 1997, losing $29 million at the Bellagio in 2001, and many millions more changing hands on his frequent visits.

He was also the king of the tippers, often placing six-figure hands for the dealers, and there's the story about how he paid off a waitress's mortgage. And those are just the over-the-top stories that make it into Las Vegas legend - there's sure to be dozens of similar stories.

In Wednesday's Las Vegas Review-Journal, gossip columnist Norm Clarke told the story of how Packer was upset about the leaks of his losses to the media and refused to tip dealers on a 2001 visit. Clarke quotes a Bellagio employee as saying that dealers were angry that Packer "punished dealers for a leak that could have come from a number of departments."

I find it funny that dealers would feel so entitled to tips that are offered out of generosity and would view it as punishment when they're withheld. Oh, to work in a job where tips flow so freely. The biggest tip I've ever received is when my football picks have gone bad and people tell me not to quit my writing job.

Sun Bowl (Friday)
Northwestern (+3) vs. UCLA

Both teams have explosive offenses averaging over 400 yards and 30 points per game and mediocre defenses that allow the same, so a shootout is very, very likely, as evidenced by the over/under of 74 1/2 points, highest of the bowl season. The Bruins are led by quarterback Drew Olsen and running back Maurice Drew, and they should get their yards. But the Wildcats possess a more balanced offense that has quarterback Brett Basanez spreading the ball around, and I think that balance will be the difference. Northwestern needs just a few defensive stops and should get it if linebacker Tim McGarigle is able to run down Drew on occasion. This is also a game where it probably means more to Northwestern than UCLA, which had national title hopes for the better part of the season.

PLAY: Northwestern for 1 unit.

Bowl bankroll record: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units through Tuesday night's Insight Bowl.