04/26/2005 11:00PM

MGM on top of gaming world

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Most of the attention this week has been focused on the much-anticipated opening of the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas megaresort.

But meanwhile, MGM Mirage made news of its own with the completion of its $7.9 billion merger with Mandalay Resort Group, creating the world's largest gaming company.

MGM Mirage now owns 24 casinos - as well as part of four others, including Borgata in Atlantic City - and most of its casinos are on the Las Vegas Strip, including the MGM Grand, the Mirage, Bellagio, Treasure Island, New York-New York, and the Boardwalk. The new casinos added to the mix are the Mandalay Bay, the Hotel at Mandalay Bay, the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay, Excalibur, Luxor, and Circus Circus. The two companies formerly had a joint interest in the Monte Carlo, also on the Strip.

The additions give the new MGM Mirage half of the 75,000 hotel rooms on the Strip, with 70,000 employees and annual revenues estimated at $7.3 billion.

The deal eclipses MGM's $6.4 billion buyout of Mirage Resorts in 2000. Steve Wynn operated the Mirage group at that time, including the Bellagio, and used the money he made from that deal to help finance and build Wynn Las Vegas.

MGM Mirage's record merger will be short-lived, however, with Harrah's $9.4 billion merger with Caesars Entertainment expected to be completed by the end of June.

NBA favorites chalk up early wins

The NBA playoffs, which seem to go on forever with each series spacing its games two to three days apart, continues this weekend at the home courts of the lower-seeded teams.

It hasn't been a good start for my playoff betting. Favorites were 9-4 both straight up and against the spread through Tuesday's action. Two of those underdog wins came from the Rockets, who beat the Mavericks twice in Dallas to take a 2-0 lead in the series. My best bet of the opening weekend was the Pacers' win over the Celtics, which evened the series at 1-1 heading into Thursday night's Game 3 in Indiana.

My worst bets were on the first two games of the Nets-Heat series, which both resulted in dominant victories for the Heat. My 10-1 ticket on the Nets to win the series looks pretty dead, and there also is not much value now that they're being offered at 20-1. Being a glutton for punishment, I went ahead and took a piece of 20-1 just in case the Nets turn it around at home.

In Friday night's action, the 76ers are worth a play, getting 3 points at home vs. the Pistons. The Pistons, the defending champs, dominated the first two games in Detroit, but Allen Iverson should keep the 76ers from being swept on their home floor.

The Kings should get back on track against the Sonics on Friday and Sunday in Sacramento, but I'm not willing to lay the 5 1/2 points that oddsmakers have set for Friday.

Boxing gets dose of MSG

This weekend's biggest boxing match is Saturday night, when James Toney continues his comeback vs. John Ruiz at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Toney, about 10 years past his prime, is a -190 favorite. Ruiz is being offered at +160 even though he is defending his WBA title belt. Ruiz is attractive at that price, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the line move closer to pick-em as the fight approaches.

The next big bout in Las Vegas is May 14, when Felix Trinidad takes on Ronald "Winky" Wright in a middleweight bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Trinidad is a -200 favorite. After opening at -110, the "will go 12 rounds" prop at Station Casinos has been taking money, and it is now at -140, with the "won't go 12 rounds" prop at +110.

More racing on the betting boards

Nascar's Nextel Cup circuit continues Sunday with the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala.

Jeff Gordon is the 4-1 favorite at Station Casinos, though with the return to restrictor-plate racing on the biggest and fastest track on the circuit, it's no surprise the DEI drivers of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip are 9-2 and 6-1. Defending champ Kurt Busch, who got to the winner's circle for the first time this year by winning last week's Subway Fresh 500 in Phoenix, is 8-1.

Jimmie Johnson, the series points leader, is the 5-2 favorite to win the season-long title, with Gordon at 4-1 and Busch at 6-1.

* Caesars has odds up already for the Indianapolis 500, to be run on Sunday, May 29.

Dan Wheldon is the favorite at 5-1, followed by Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan at 6-1, Sam Hornish Jr. at 7-1, and Bruno Junquiera and Helio Castroneves at 8-1. Head-to-head matchups and over/under driver finish positions for the top drivers are also available.

Arena Football season heats up

The Arena Football league is down to its stretch run, with four weeks left in the regular season.

Typical of point-spread sports, most teams are around .500 with their record against the spread. The Colorado Crush once was way ahead of the league with a 7-2 record against the spread, but now shares the top spot at 8-4 with the Los Angeles Avengers, Nashville Kats, and San Jose SaberCats.

The defending champion SaberCats have really been coming on strong lately after a slow start, scoring more than 80 points in each of their last two games. On Friday night, they are 15-point favorites when they host the Kats, who could be a live dog.

The local team, the Las Vegas Gladiators, are in a three-way race with the Avengers and Chicago Rush in the American Conference. A key game is Sunday's nationally televised game on NBC, in which the Gladiators are 5-point underdogs at Chicago.