05/27/2002 11:00PM

For most, an Indy quick official

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LAS VEGAS - When there is a dispute, when does a race become official for betting purposes?

That's easy for horseplayers because the stewards flash the "official" sign and post the prices. Even if a disqualification happens later and purse money is redistributed, the pari-mutuel payoffs do not change.

That's the way most Nevada casinos, including the Palms, saw it when Helio Castroneves was declared the winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and drank his milk in the winner's circle. The Palms paid off its bets on Castroneves, who successfully defended his title as one of the co-favorites at 11-2.

There was an immediate appeal from second-place finisher Paul Tracy, who claimed he passed Castroneves before the caution light came on to tell the drivers to stop racing. Other sports books, including the Stardust, chose to not cash tickets until the race was declared official.

Tracy's appeal was denied on Sunday, and he made another appeal on Monday that was also shot down. Tracy's team submitted videotape from the TV broadcast that shows Tracy, a Las Vegas native, was in the lead before the yellow lights went on at the track, but race officials maintain that the yellow lights inside the cars might turn on first.

Castroneves said he saw the yellow light in his car and decelerated, and that's when Tracy passed him.

Bettors who had money at Station Casinos on the winning country were watching the results closely. Castroneves is from Brazil, which was the -200 favorite. The U.S. and Tracy was 5-2.

The U.S. lost that battle in the Indy cars, but NASCAR stock car racing is clearly a more American sport. Mark Martin won the Coca-Cola 600 Saturday night. Martin was only 12-1 despite being winless in his previous 73 starts. Jimmie Johnson had the dominant car most of the race, but a costly pit stop took him out of contention and no other driver could outlast Martin's Viagra car.

It was the fourth straight Coca-Cola 600 win for Roush Racing, whose owner Jack Roush is still hospitalized from a plane crash last month. Roush drivers have also won four of NASCAR's first 12 races this year and three of the past six.

There was also a Formula 1 race on Sunday, but good luck finding a bookie who will take action on that sport after the controversy earlier this month when Rubens Barrichello slowed down to allow Ferrari teammate Michael Shumacher, who is the series leader and in line for many records, to pass him less than 100 yards from the finish line in the Austrian Grand Prix. And you thought Michael Strahan's sack record was fixed (when Brett Favre took a dive in the last game of the regular season).

Station Casinos is no longer offering odds to win Formula 1 races - only head-to-head matchups on teams other than Ferrari. Maybe they should just offer odds to win on racing teams instead of on individual drivers.

Road dogs get money in playoffs

Through Monday, both NBA conference final series were knotted 2-2, but it wasn't a case of the teams romping on their home floor. In fact, over the weekend, the road dogs covered all four games.

The Kings upset the Lakers 103-90 Friday as 6 1/2-point underdogs. On Sunday, the Lakers won 100-99 on Robert Horry's 3-point buzzer-beater, but Kings bettors were still celebrating because they covered the 7-point spread.

In the Eastern Conference, the Celtics made the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history, erasing a 74-53 deficit after three quarters and beating the Nets 94-90. Boston trailed by as many as 26 points in the third quarter. Despite the stunning comeback, it wasn't enough to cover the 4 1/2-point spread. The Nets won outright 94-92 on Monday to even the series 2-2. Three of the first four Nets-Celtics games went under the total.

The under has also been a winning bet in the NHL's Eastern Conference finals. The Hurricanes held a 3-2 series lead over the Maple Leafs heading into Tuesday's game at Toronto, and all five games have gone under the total.

The road trend is also alive and well in the NHL playoffs as road teams have won four of the five games in the Canes-Leafs series, as well as three of five in the Avalanche-Red Wings series (and all the road teams have been underdogs). The Avalanche held a 3-2 series lead heading into a home game Wednesday night.

Champion handicappers square off

The Bettor Racing OTB, with a field limited to 50 players and four berths to the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship up for grabs, has annually attracted a stellar field to J. Randy Gallo's outpost in Sioux Falls, S.D. But this year Gallo outdid himself, attracting all three national handicapping champions - Steven Walker, Judy Walker and Herman Miller - to his one-day tourney on Saturday.

"People have to go out of their way to get here, but we always get top handicappers," said Gallo, who has qualified twice for the national finals himself.

The entry fee is $250 with contestants allowed to buy two entries. Gallo said about half the players will do that, so he anticipates 75 total entries and a prize pool in the neighborhood of $18,750 with 40 percent going to the winner. The top four finishers also win free trips to Las Vegas next January for the chance to be crowned 2002 Handicapper of the Year.

* The Grand Racing Festival handicapping tournament at the MGM Grand, originally scheduled for this weekend, is being moved to either the first or second week of December, race and sports book manager Lamarr Mitchell said. The MGM's Surf & Turf tournament, based solely on races at Saratoga and Del Mar, is still slated for Aug. 17-18. The entry fee is $2,500.

* The next handicapping tournament in Nevada is the Summer Showdown II at the Reno Hilton on June 14-15. The next major tournament in Las Vegas is Summer Stakes III at Bally's on Aug. 2-3.

* Robert Varkonyi won $2 million for his victory in the World Series of Poker on Friday, but he wasn't the biggest money-winner in Las Vegas over the Memorial Day weekend. Johanna Heundl, of Covina, Calif., was staying at Bally's to celebrate her 74th birthday. She capped off her weekend by hitting Megabucks for $22.6 million. Megabucks is a progressive jackpot manufactured by International Game Technology and is available on 751 linked machines at 157 Nevada casinos. All machines in the state were reset to $7 million after Heundl's win.