12/17/2009 1:00AM

MGM hits home run with CityCenter

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Everyone is singing the praises of MGM Mirage's $8.4 billion CityCenter, highlighted by the Aria hotel-casino that opened Wednesday night.

CityCenter is exactly that, a city within a city in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, located between Flamingo and Tropicana roads, just south of the Bellagio and north of the Monte Carlo. The space includes the 57-story Vdara non-gaming hotel-condominium complex, the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental hotel, The Crystals 500,000 square-foot retail and entertainment district, a 6,900 valet-only parking structure, and several other buildings. The total project is 16,797,000 square feet on 76 acres. It is the largest privately financed development in the United States, and the most awe-inspiring aspect of it is the fact it was even completed.

MGM Mirage first announced plans for CityCenter in November 2004 at a more modest price tag of $4 billion. Since then, the economy took a turn for the worse, but CityCenter forged ahead despite countless projects falling by the wayside during what at one time was seen as a city-wide building boom. The most notable:

* Boyd Gaming tore down the Stardust in 2006 to build the $10 billion Echelon Place. They broke ground in 2007 but didn't even get halfway done before stopping construction, leaving a vast wasteland of empty shells of buildings and idle cranes.

* The $2.9 billion Fountainbleau, a sister property of the resort in Miami Beach, Fla., rose from the ashes of the El Rancho on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip and was supposed to open this past October. It was another victim of the recession. Recently, Penn National Gaming was looking to buy the property but has been outbid by corporate raider and financier Carl Icahn and its future is up in the air.

* The Las Vegas Plaza, not to be confused with the downtown Las Vegas Plaza though a lawsuit over the name is unresolved because the Elad family, which owns the Plaza in New York, has yet to break ground since buying the former site of the New Frontier from Phil Ruffin for $1.24 billion in 2007.

As with most new projects, a lot of the focus at CityCenter has been on the restaurants (there are dozens of those, though not all are open yet), shopping (high end all the way) and production shows (Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil production), but you know I will tell you about the race and sports book.

The 10,156-square-foot book, located in the Aria, is the 11th in the MGM Mirage network (which had dropped to 10 after Treasure Island was sold to Ruffin earlier this year). Odds will be set by Jay Rood, MGM Mirage director of race and sports, at the Mirage and will be managed by Raphael Esparza, formerly of New York-New York.

Entering from the left, you go past the adjacent SKYBOX Sports Bar and Grill with 102 seats, plus a "to-go counter" for those on the run. You then see the VIP area and then a wall of 90 televisions to show all the action, highlighted by two 16-foot-by-9-foot huge screens that can be split into eight picture-in-picture screens, plus six 103-inch TVs and then smaller screens throughout the book. There are nine ticket windows that can write both sports and race bets. The race book area has 20 seats with Interactive Player Terminals (IPTs) at each seat.

"Picture it like a big 'L' with the long line being the sports side and the short line being the separate race book," Rood said. "With the betting options and the big screens and the nearby dining options, I know I'm biased but I think we hit a home run."

There is also a print-on-demand terminal where you can access race and sports results.

Rood said the only things not operational this weekend are the two self-betting kiosks which he expects to be working by Monday.

Back to the NFL betting board

Last week, I went 2-1 with my plays in this space - unfortunately, the loss was a 2-unit play on the Bengals, who lost 30-10 to the Vikings, so I ended up with a net loss of 0.2 units despite winning with the Dolphins over the Jaguars outright and the Panthers covering in their 20-10 loss to the Patriots.

Cowboys +7 vs. Saints (Saturday)

Yes, Tony Romo and the Cowboys continue to have problems winning in the month of December (despite Wade Phillips trying to avoid the subject) and the Saints are undefeated and shooting for a perfect season, but I have to take the underdog with the points here. The Saints have failed to cover the past two weeks in three-point wins over the Redskins and Falcons, and very well could have lost either game. Granted, those were on the road while this is at home, but the Cowboys are better than those teams and should come with their best effort. The key for the Cowboys is to get their running game back on track to take the pressure off Romo. I also think the Cowboys' defense will step up and at least slow down the Saints' vaunted offensive attack. This line was +7 as of this writing at most Vegas sports books, so that's what I'm stuck with, but it's looking like money is continuing to come in on the Saints, so grab +7 1/2 if you can get it.

PLAY: Cowboys for 1 unit.

Browns +2 vs. Chiefs

They have the wrong team favored. The Browns have covered four straight games and are coming off the outright upset of the Steelers (with three extra days of rest to boot) while the Chiefs have dropped three straight against the spread and the "home-field advantage" that they're supposedly getting here certainly didn't help them the last two weeks against the Broncos and Bills.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Bengals +6 1/2 vs. Chargers

I lost with the Bengals last week as they got steam-rolled by the Vikings in the second half, but that happens in the NFL and they certainly match up well here with the Chargers, who are on a roll but just as likely to let a quality team like the Bengals stick around. This potential playoff preview looks like it can certainly come down to a late field goal.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-1, including 0-1 with a 2-unit play on the Bengals, for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 23-21, including 2-2 on 2-unit plays, for a net loss of 0.2 units.