03/17/2005 1:00AM

MGM Grand opens state-of-the-art race, sports book


There was a time, not too long ago, when casinos here were downsizing race and sports books and downsizing or eliminating poker rooms.

The poker explosion speaks for itself, with poker rooms being expanded or opened where they previously didn't exist. And now it appears another trend is reversing, with sports books getting upgraded in terms of space and the warp-speed advances in high-definition screens.

The MGM Grand is known for many things, including being the world's largest hotel, with 5,034 guest rooms. But it also has had a race and sports book that, while nice, was tucked way in the back of the casino (one of the hardest books in the city to access from the front door, and even farther from the vast parking garage) and didn't offer much in the way of amenities.

That changed Thursday with the opening of its new race and sports books, relocated near an entrance right off Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard (aka The Strip) and between the nightclub Studio 54 and the Rainforest Cafe. A new poker room, which the MGM didn't have before, will be opening soon.

The timing was perfect, as the book was unveiled with the start of the NCAA basketball tournament. Lamarr Mitchell, race and sports book manager, said that was the plan all along.

"We had a lot of meetings in late 2004 in designing what we wanted to do," Mitchell said, "and the aim was to open it by March Madness. With the Manny Pacquiao-Erik Morales fight also this Saturday, it's a 'Grand' grand opening," he said, adding the name of the property into his description.

The sports area has 100 seats facing three huge projection screens, complemented by 40 60-inch and eight 48-inch plasma screens for viewing all the action in sporting events from all over the country (and the world, for the MGM's international clientele). Horseplayers don't get short shrift, either. They have 47 seats with individual 13-inch flat-screen monitors.

In addition, Mitchell said they're still working on an elevated skybox area that will feature private 300-square-foot rooms behind the book for high-rolling casino customers, celebrities, or for rent.

"This is totally state-of-the-art," Mitchell said. "You won't find anything nicer in the world, and I say that with confidence."

At least until the next casino pushes the envelope (read: Wynn Las Vegas, which hasn't been available for review yet).

Pacquiao slight favorite over Morales

As mentioned above, the MGM Grand is hosting the Pacquiao-Morales fight for the WBA and IBF featherweight belts on Saturday night in the Grand Garden Arena. Most books around town have Pacquiao between a -120 and -135 favorite, with Morales offered at just over even money.

And it is a pretty even fight. Morales is bigger and the bigger name to the general public, but Pacquiao has been making a name for himself. In a 2003 bout, Pacquiao dominated Marco Antonio Barrera, who has defeated Morales two out of the three times they met.

The fight is scheduled for 12 rounds, with "won't-go" the distance a -140 favorite and "will-go" the distance +110.

It should be an exciting end to a great sports day.

NCAA weekend picks available online

Thursday's opening round of the NCAA tournament opened with some bracket-busting upsets, as No. 12 seed UW-Milwaukee knocked off No. 5 seed Alabama 83-73 as a 5 1/2-point underdog in Cleveland, and No. 8 seed Pacific, a 4-point dog to Pittsburgh, winning 79-71 in Boise, Idaho.

As of press time Thursday for Daily Racing Form's print editions, matchups and odds for Saturday's second-round action hadn't been determined, but my second-round selections can be found online at www.drf.com. Selections for Saturday's games were due up by noon Friday, and Sunday's game will be up by Saturday afternoon.

Nascar fans need not hold all tickets

Jimmie Johnson, who went off as between a 4-1 and 5-1 favorite at most sports books, won last Sunday's UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, finishing ahead of rookie Kyle Busch, a Vegas native, and his brother, defending Nextel Cup champ Kurt Busch.

It was a good result for the books with Johnson at such low odds and the high volume of betting the race brought.

Some questions were raised among novice auto-racing bettors when Nascar announced after the race that it was investigating rules violations by Johnson's crew, as his car's roof was found to be too low. Kyle Busch's car was also in violation of having its quarter-panels too high. There was a possibility one or both could be, put in horse racing terms, taken down. But no decision came down on Sunday.

As in horse racing, when stewards might change the order of finish or redistribute purse money, any change after the day of the race wouldn't have changed the betting payouts.

As it was, Nascar chose to suspend the crew chiefs and dock the drivers 25 points in the standings.

* In this Sunday's race, the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson is the co-favorite at 7-1 along with Jeff Gordon at Station Casinos. Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart are each 8-1, with Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Ryan Newman all at 10-1. Kyle Busch is 40-1.