11/15/2006 12:00AM

Nascar longshots need some help

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The Chase for the Cup in the Nextel Cup series has done just about everything it was intended to do when Nascar unveiled it last year.

The stock car racing circuit has been the fastest-growing sport for the past decade or so and has seen tremendous increases in attendance, TV ratings, and merchandise sales as the drivers are household names. The only knock was that the race for the season-long points title was anticlimactic because someone usually got out to a big lead and then just coasted the last few races with no incentive to keep trying to win.

So, Nascar borrowed from other sports and instituted the playoff-type Chase for the Cup, in which only the top 10 drivers through the season's first 26 races would be eligible for the title and the second season pretty much started for those 10. The feeling was that tighter races would add more drama to the previously overlooked season-ending races.

Last year, there was a 16 percent increase in the TV ratings for the final 10 races in the Chase over the previous Chase-less year. I can also offer anecdotal evidence that prior to last year it was very rare to see any TV's in Vegas sports books showing a race on an NFL Sunday, but now it's fairly common.

This Sunday is the season-ending race, the Ford 400, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Station Casinos has Tony Stewart as the 6-1 favorite. The defending series champ, Stewart didn't qualify for the Chase this year but has won two of the last three races in the role of spoiler. Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne are the co-second choices at 7-1, with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon at 10-1, and Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards at 12-1.

Johnson is the point leader, 630 points ahead of Kenseth, and can clinch the title by finishing 12th or better. So, in that way, we could have a return to the conservative style of racing that led to the Chase being instituted. But if he has car trouble or an accident, the Chase will be on with Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. still in the running. Station Casinos has Johnson as the 1-5 favorite with Kenseth offered at 7-1, Harvick at 15-1, Hamlin at 20-1, and Earnhardt Jr. at 50-1.

They say that a lot of people watch auto racing just to see a wreck. For those with tickets on those last four drivers, those wishes will be a little more specific. Regardless, it should be fun watching the drama unfold (during football commercials, that is).

New show for horse lovers

Those driving on I-15 parallel to the Las Vegas Strip have probably noticed a white "big top" in the parking lot of the Rio hotel. It looks like the circus has come to town, but it's actually the show Cavalia, a touring company of 49 horses and 35 artists that is described in a press release as "a lavish orchestration of equestrian arts, acrobatics, aerial feats, live music, and dance that unfolds across a 160-foot wide stage."

That stage is under the big top, which at 26,264 square feet is the largest touring tent in North America.

Normand Latourelle, one of the pioneers of the Cirque du Soleil phenomenon, is the visionary behind the show that stars renowned European "horse whisperer" Frederic Pignon and his wife, world-class rider Magali Delgado, and their team of trainers and acrobats. But, just like in horse racing, the real stars are the equine athletes, which include Percherons, Friesians, Appaloosas, Lusitanos, Quarter Horses, and Canadian, Belgian, and Spanish horses.

Tickets range from $50 to $195 for adults and $35 to $115 for children 12 and under. The top tickets include a tour of the stables. Tickets and further information are available at cavalia.net or at the Rio box office.

I will have a review of the show next week.

Boxing now and then

This Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales meet for the third time. Morales won the first bout in March 2005 by unanimous decision and then Pacquiao won the rematch this past January by knockout in the 10th round. Oddsmakers opened the Pac Man as the -200 favorite, but he has been bet to the -240 to -250 range, with Morales being offered at around +190 or +200 depending on where you shop.

But despite this attractive bout taking place here, most of the boxing talk this week has been about the mega-fight announced between undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya. It is set for May 5, though it hasn't been announced if it will be here in Vegas or at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Mayweather is expected to be a -200 favorite.

* Boxing fans in Las Vegas this weekend who don't want to wait until Saturday night for action can check out the card at the Orleans at 7op.m. Friday. Jose Alberto Gonzalez makes the second defense of his IBA featherweight title vs. Daniel Moldonado. The card also includes a women's lightweight title fight between Layla McCarter and Belinda Laracuente in the first women's fight to ever be scheduled for 10 three-minute rounds. Former Olympians Donnie Orr and Cesar Grajeda, both of whom now live in Las Vegas, will also be on the card. Tickets are $25.

Big b-ball game a week away

Those fights take place in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the hotel, but the Orleans Arena will be quickly making a name for itself on the national stage by hosting a college basketball game between No. 1 Florida vs. No. 3 Kansas next Saturday night, Nov. 25, as part of the Las Vegas Invitational. The game will be televised by ESPN2. Tickets to that game, available online at orleansarena.com, are only available as part of a two-day tournament package of $148 (which comes to $151 after fees).