09/16/2003 11:00PM

Nomadic Expos could find a home in the desert

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The hottest thing in Las Vegas this past week, now that temperatures have dipped below 100, has been the rumor about the city being the potential future home of the Montreal Expos.

It has been widely assumed that Portland (Ore.), Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia were the front-runners to acquire the nomadic Expos franchise, which played 22 of its "home" games in Puerto Rico this season. But then news leaked out last Friday that Mayor Oscar Goodman, who has been quite clear that one of his main goals is to bring a major league team here, had met with Lou Weisbach and John McHale Jr.

Weisbach is the front man of a group called Teamscape, which is attempting to bring a team to Las Vegas. He also is a business partner of former Cy Young winner and current Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone, who has previously sought to buy the Oakland A's and has been vocal about wanting to be a general manager. Stone spoke candidly in the Chicago Sun-Times over the weekend about his desire to make this happen. Stone loves the Southwest - having spent many an off-season in the Phoenix, Ariz., area, where the Cubs hold spring training, and owning several bars and restaurants - and thinks Las Vegas is an untapped market.

McHale is the executive vice president of administration for Major League Baseball. To have a representative from the commissioner's office present at the meeting is probably no small coincidence.

There are obstacles to be sure. First of all, Las Vegas only has a minor-league stadium that the current tenant, the Las Vegas 51s and its parent organization, the Los Angeles Dodgers, find unacceptable. Second, the issue of Vegas sports books taking bets on baseball games is sure to be a stumbling block. Two years ago, when Goodman was trying to get the Vancouver Grizzlies to move here, the sports books were reluctant to drop basketball wagering to appease the NBA.

The third obstacle, and the one that would determine the long-term success of any local sports franchise, is the fans. Las Vegas is unlike most major-league cities in that a third of the population works at night, including weekends, because that's when its biggest industry (casino gambling) does its peak business. In addition, 90 percent of the population is from elsewhere, with those loyalties intact.

But having lived in Phoenix, which also has a high percentage of transplants, I found those sports fans were quick to adopt the Phoenix Coyotes and the Arizona Diamondbacks while still cheering for their former hometown teams.

On the plus side, fans of other teams would likely book road trips to see their team play in Vegas (and make a vacation out of it), and which free agents wouldn't be enticed by playing here? Heck, we see players coming through here all the time during the winter, and even during the summer when they're on the injured list.

This story will certainly be brought more to light in the coming weeks.

Vegas on TV

Las Vegas is already in the major leagues when it comes to television, from the show "Vega$" with Robert Urich in the late 1970's and early 1980's to the present-day hit "CSI." Vegas is also a popular destination or setting when TV shows want to send their characters out of town, as has been done in recent years with "Friends," and "The Simpsons," among many others. The tool will be revived with this fall's season premiere of "Malcolm in the Middle." ABC's "Primetime Monday" also did a full show this past week from Vegas.

But this could all be taken to a new level Monday with the premiere of "Las Vegas," starring James Caan as a casino surveillance chief at the MonteCito Resort and Casino (fictional name for the Mandalay Bay). Judging by the pilot, it's a fast-paced drama in the same vein as "ER," "The West Wing," and "CSI."

The only drawback is that it airs at 9 p.m., which could be fine out West, but is the same time as the start of Monday Night Football back East. In a clear case of counter-programming, NBC is doing a full night of Vegas-related shows with the season premiere of "Fear Factor" (taped here) and a Vegas-themed "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Football contest update

In last week's opening match of the Stardust Invitational, defending champ "Papa" Joe Chevalier and Dave Malinsky both went 4-3 with winners on their best bets. As part of the regularly scheduled second-round match between National Sports Service handicappers Dave Cokin and Bob Donahue at 9 p.m. Friday (broadcast live from the sports book to nine western states on KDWN AM-720 and worldwide on www.kdwn.com), Chevalier and Malinsky will supply seven more picks apiece to try and break their tie and advance in the 16-player, single-elimination tournament. That will be 28 selections available for free.

The most sought-after picks this week, however, will likely be from a Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest player named Keith Ogata. Picking five NFL games a week against the spread, he is 10-0 through two weeks. Three contestants are tied for second at 8-1-1 with six more at 8-2. All their selections will be available Friday afternoon in the Hilton sports book as well as at www.nss.net/Hilton.asp.

* A contestant going by the alias "Johnny V." is in first place at 8-1-1 in the Station Casinos Gambler's Challenge with four others tied at 8-2.

Horse racing notes

For Las Vegas horseplayers, the weeks between the Del Mar and Oak Tree at Santa Anita meets is usually the slowest time of year, but a few events will help liven things up this weekend:

* Period 3 of the Breeders' Cup future bet runs Friday through Sunday and includes wagering on the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Mile, and the Filly and Mare Turf. Bettors can compare the parimutuel odds to the fixed odds that have been hammered into place at the Nevada-based Park Place Entertainment casinos by checking out www.ballysraceandsports.com.

* Daily Racing Form publisher Steven Crist will be at The Orleans at 9 a.m. Sunday to give a Belmont handicapping seminar and sign copies of his new book, "Betting on Myself." Other Las Vegas stops on the book signing tour will Oct. 20 at the Suncoast and Oct. 22 at Bally's.

* Industry officials and racetrack representatives from all over the country are coming to The Mirage from Sunday through Tuesday for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's annual meeting and marketing summit. NTRA commissioner Tim Smith will give his annual report on Monday, as well as reports from other NTRA officials, including a preview of the 2004 advertising campaign. The speaker at Monday's luncheon will be "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross. The Players' Panel Forum at 9 a.m. Tuesday will be webcast live on www.drf.com (and later archived). The panel will include James Quinn, David Gutfreund, and Mike Maloney, and will be moderated by Crist.