08/18/2004 12:00AM

MLB wild cards take action


LAS VEGAS - At this time of year, with the football season looming, it's usually a good time to check in on the baseball divisional races.

From this point on, many bettors will wager only on teams that still have a shot at the playoffs, and avoid teams that are likely to start calling up minor leaguers and preparing for the future. In addition to limiting plays to teams that are giving 100 percent, handicappers are likely to cut back on time they devote to baseball in order to focus on football.

The divisional playoff races are almost non-existent as three of the division winners are all but foregone conclusions - Cardinals in the NL Central, the surging Braves in the NL East, and the Yankees in the AL East - with the Dodgers holding a comfortable 5 1/2-game lead over the Giants through Tuesday night's action in the NL West. The Twins were looking comfortable in the AL Central until the surprising Indians cut their lead to 3 1/2 games earlier this week. The only real race going into Wednesday was in the AL West, with the A's only a half-game ahead of the Rangers and the Angels only two games out.

At least the wild-card races are keeping some teams' playoff hopes alive, as the Red Sox were in a dead heat with the Rangers in the AL. The Angels and Indians are also in that mix, with the White Sox within striking distance. In the NL, the Giants lead the Padres by one game and the Cubs by 1 1/2 games.

It's the teams battling for the wild card - with the exception of the Cubs - that have attracted the most action lately in the World Series future books around Las Vegas. Value has been long gone on the favorites, such as the Yankees (9-5 at most books, and as low as 6-5 at the Stardust). The Red Sox opened the season as one of the top contenders, and their odds are still low, at around 4-1 at most books. The Cardinals, who opened the season at 12-1, have been bet down to 3-1 since before the All-Star break. The Cubs, who perennially get bet by their die-hard fans no matter how good or bad they are, opened the season in the 6-1 range at most books and are down to 7-2 despite being way behind the Cardinals in the standings.

But sharp bettors have been searching around town for juicy odds on some of the surprise contenders who could offer value if they sneak into the playoffs. The best example right now is the Indians, who were available at several sports books the past few weeks in the 100-1 range (good luck finding those odds now). Bettors were also finding value on the Braves, who many people thought were going to give up their stranglehold on the NL East but have proven many people wrong, at 10-1 or better. The Rangers and The Twins were overlooked in many sports books at 15-1, but not any longer.

About the only value currently out there is the Marlins at 20-1 or 30-1, if you think they'll make a run like they did last year. They were right at .500 through Tuesday night, but only 5 1/2 games out in the wild-card race. Of course, at 20-1, you could argue that those are closer to their odds to make the playoffs than winning the World Series.

A horseplayer's World Series

The free Del Mar Pick 5 Contests at the Coast Casinos (the Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast) continue every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday through the end of the meet.

In addition to playing for the $1,000 first-place prize each day and the progressive jackpot for going 5 for 5 on the first five races on the card, contestants can also earn berths to the $1 Million Horseplayer World Series to be held Jan. 27-29 at the Orleans.

The person who accumulates the most points in all contests from July 21 through Sept. 8 earns a berth, plus each winner of three shorter time frames also earns a berth. The final session starts Friday and runs through the end of the meet.

In addition, the highest point-earner on any single day during each session will also earn a berth, which really helps the chances of those going for a home run instead of trying to string a lot of singles together.

Sports book notes

Jamie Shea, the race and sports director at the Hard Rock, has been making a name for herself as one of the top females in the industry. With that comes job offers, and she's moving to London to work for a British gaming company. Shea says that at age 32 and single, she is in the perfect position to explore new opportunities and travel the world. Her final day is next Thursday.

* In the next major boxing match in town, Bernard Hopkins is a consensus -240 favorite (risk $2.40 to win $1) to beat Oscar De La Hoya in their middleweight unification bout on Sept. 18 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

* The MGM Grand is hosting an Ultimate Fighting Championship card this Saturday night. Mandalay Bay has Randy Couture a -140 favorite over Vitor Belfort in a featured five-round light heavyweight bout.

* Mandalay Bay has Tony Stewart as the 4-1 favorite in the GFS Marketplace 400 on the NASCAR circuit on Sunday at the Michigan International Speedway. Jeff Gordon is the 9-2 second choice, with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman at 5-1 and Jimmie Johnson at 7-1. Kasey Kahne, who Station Casinos auto racing guru Micah Roberts tabbed as his selection in the GamingToday newspaper, is 15-1.