05/12/2004 11:00PM

Not as much hoopla, but still action

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Saturday is Preakness Day, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any proof of it in the casinos and race books.

There aren't lavish VIP parties at the hotels like there are on Derby Day. There's no equivalent of mint julep glasses, and Preakness T-shirts won't be a sought-after souvenir.

But it's still an important race and even if there isn't all the fanfare of a Derby Day festival, an awful lot of eyes will still be gathered around the televisions around 3:15 p.m. Pacific to see if Smarty Jones can win the second leg of the Triple Crown.

It might not be the most exciting two minutes in sports - mainly because, at a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby, the Preakness is expected to take less than two minutes. In fact, it should take 1:55.50, if you put any stock in the oddsmaking ability of John Avello, the director of race and sports for Bally's and Paris and who sets the horse racing odds for all of the Caesars Entertainment properties.

"I just looked at the times from past runnings of the Preakness - last year, Funny Cide won in 1:55.61 - and figured that was a good place to start," Avello said.

While there also won't be as many race books offering special proposition wagers as they did on Derby Day, head-to-head matchups will still be popular. Avello has five matchups for the Preakness, starting with the one-two finishers in the Derby, Smarty Jones -160 (risk $1.60 for every $1 you want to win) vs. Lion Heart +130 (bet $1 to profit $1.30). Two other Derby runners are matched up: Imperialism -170 vs. Borrego +140. Originally, Avello was going to match up Imperialism with The Cliff's Edge, but decided to leave The Cliff's Edge as the odd horse out of the 11 entries, since there's a chance he will be scratched before Saturday's race.

The most intriguing matchup is the two new shooters who were excluded from the Derby: Eddington is -130 vs. Rock Hard Ten at even money. The interesting thing is that Rock Hard Ten is 6-1 in the Pimlico morning line while Eddington is 8-1, yet Avello had Eddington as the favorite.

"I don't pay any attention to that," Avello said. "I go with my own opinion of the horses. Besides, in matchups, the horse doesn't have to win the race, so there's more that goes into it."

An example would be a speed horse trying to wire the field. Many times, if those types don't win, they fade badly down the stretch, so even if their win odds are low, you have to consider the possibility that they will finish dead last behind horses with much higher odds.

Sir Shackleton is -135 vs. Song of the Sword at +105, while Water Cannon is -150 vs. Little Matth Man +120 in the final two matchups.

A reminder of special new bets being offered around town: The Station Casinos have a prop on whether Smarty Jones will win the Preakness, with the "no" opening at -175 and the "yes" at +145, while the Caesars Entertainment books have the odds on Smarty Jones completing the Triple Crown at +375 with a "no" option at -500.

One Preakness promotion will be the same as the Derby: The New Frontier will be giving away a 42-inch plasma television about an hour after Saturday's big race. Following the Derby, David Murphy of Grand Junction, Colo., was the winner.

Any losing race ticket at the Frontier (same day only) may be redeemed for an official drawing ticket. The winner will have one minute to claim the prize or another ticket will be drawn. Entries will remain in the drum for the drawing following the Belmont in three weeks.

Looking for value in the Preakness

As a handicapper, it's usually a good idea to go against public opinion, especially when you get inflated prices. That's why whenever I hear people - so-called experts and novices alike - saying the Preakness is shaping up as a two-horse race with Smarty Jones and Lion Heart, I start seeing dollar signs.

We have seen all year that no horses are head and withers above their generation, a la Affirmed and Alydar or Easy Goer and Sunday Silence. Yet I keep hearing people say that Smarty Jones and Lion Heart are the cream of this crop just because they dominated one race, forgetting that races in the slop often lead to lop-sided results for front-runners and offer valid excuses for closers who don't fire.

But let others feel that way, as they will be taking the worst of it odds-wise. I'm going to toss Smarty Jones completely. If he wins, I'll be cheering his performance like everyone else, but I refuse to take an underlay at 8-5 or thereabouts, and he will be used extensively in the exotic wagers, too.

The biggest overlay in the field is Water Cannon, number 11 in your program and on the saddle cloth, at a juicy 30-1 on the morning line.

Most people are saying he has no shot, especially since he usually likes the lead and is stuck with the outside post. He is also knocked because he hasn't faced the quality of competition as his peers.

I acknowledge all those points, but my feeling is that he has been running in slower races to begin with (24- or 25-second opening quarters and half-miles between 47.40 and 51 seconds), so I don't see him challenging Lion Heart or Sir Shackleton for the lead, anyway. He just has to cut over and get in that second flight with the likes of Smarty Jones, Eddington, and Rock Hard Ten.

His last win, over this track at 1 1/8 miles in the Federico Tesio on April 17, was in 1:50.50, which is just about a second slower than the major Derby preps. The fact he is the only entrant with a win - or a race of any kind - over the track certainly works in his favor.

The other thing I like is that he has won five straight races. He's a horse who knows how to win. Remind you of anyone?

At a pre-Derby seminar at the Stardust, I was asked by host John Kelly what I thought of Smarty Jones's chances. My response was something like this: "He's the type of horse I normally love. He's been dominating on a lesser-regarded circuit and now moving up to face the big boys. A lot of people discount those invaders, feeling they're of inferior quality, and you can usually get overlays. I just can't take 7-2 or 4-1 on him in an 18-horse field."

Well, Water Cannon fits the same mold, and I have no such trepidation at 30-1. I will be betting Water Cannon across the board, as well as using him up and down in the exotics with my other top contenders: Lion Heart, Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten, and Eddington.

NBA playoffs heat up, tighten up

As of Wednesday night, all of the NBA conference semifinals were tied 2-2.

From this point on, the defenses should step up, and I expect to see tighter, lower-scoring games as the playoff intensity heats up.

Three of the four series play again before Saturday, so the next bankroll plays I will make are on Saturday's game in the Heat-Pacers series. I'll go with a 1-unit play on under the total of 176 points, and since I expect a close game I'll take the Heat +11 for another unit.

While both previous games in Indianapolis were blowout wins by the Pacers, they both were under this total and I expect a better effort from the Heat now that they have the momentum.