05/16/2006 11:00PM

Preakness just part of busy slate


Some professional gamblers are able to succeed because they specialize. Maybe they just play the ponies and devote all their energy to that, or they focus on college basketball, or clean up in the poker room.

Many experts will say that's the way to go, but as sports fans, that's easier said than done. Most of us have tastes that range the whole betting menu. So while the focus this weekend might be the Preakness and Barbaro's second test on the Triple Crown trail, there are many other tempting sporting events to whet the appetite.

Playoff action galore

The top stories on SportsCenter this weekend will probably be the NBA and NHL playoffs, as they narrow their fields down to the conference finals. Deadline constraints as of this writing leave the weekend schedule unclear, but the Pistons and Cavaliers will definitely play the sixth game in their best-of-seven series Friday night in Cleveland to set up either a decisive game seven on Sunday or the start of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Heat. In the West, the Spurs and Clippers were trying to stave off elimination and send their respective series vs. the Mavericks and the Suns into the weekend.

* In the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes are a -150 favorite in the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Buffalo Sabres and -125 to win the series at the Stardust. In the West, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks awaited the winner of the Edmonton-San Jose series. If the Sharks were able to win Wednesday night in Edmonton, there would be a game seven on Friday night.

* Getting far less attention will be the Arena Football League playoffs, which kick off Saturday night. According to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the Dallas Desperados, who were 15-1 outsiders before the season, are the 2-1 favorites to win Arena Bowl XX, which will be held June 11 at the Thomas and Mack Center here in Vegas. The defending champion Colorado Crush are the second choice at 5-2, with the San Jose SaberCats and the Orlando Predators both at 4-1. Those four teams receive first-round byes, with the remaining eight teams battling this weekend. On Saturday, the Arizona Rattlers are 4-point favorites over the Utah Blaze at 2 p.m. Pacific on OLN (the cable network that also carries the NHL). The other three games will begin at noon Pacific on Sunday, with NBC providing coverage. Those games have the New York Dragons -1 vs. the Georgia Force, Austin Wranglers -2 vs. the Philadelphia Soul, and Nashville Kats -1 vs. the Chicago Rush.

Rivalries highlight interleague play

Baseball betting is usually pretty constant throughout the regular season, with the same regulars stepping to the window each day, but there should be a slight spike in handle this weekend, when the first round of interleague play begins.

Transplanted fans as well as tourists might be inclined to make a few additional wagers as regional rivalries top the card, including the Yankees-Mets, White Sox-Cubs, Rangers-Astros, Giants-A's, and Dodgers-Angels. Those are the top ones. Other matchups do not feature intense, well-known rivalries, including the Orioles-Nationals, Cardinals-Royals, Red Sox-Phillies, Twins-Brewers, Reds-Tigers, Indians-Pirates, and Marlins-Devil Rays. But even those matchups at least have geography going for them as opposed to the mismatched series between the Blue Jays-Rockies and the Mariners-Padres.

All-Star weekend for Nascar

There is no Nextel Cup points race this weekend, as the circuit holds its equivalent to a mid-spring classic with the Nextel All-Star Challenge on Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

Drivers who won a points race in 2005 earn a spot in the field, as do Nextel Cup points champions from the past 10 years and any previous Challenge winner. Then, on Saturday at 4:40 p.m. Pacific, there is a Nextel Open qualifying race in which any other driver can try to earn a spot. Station Casinos has Jeff Burton as the 5-2 favorite to win the qualifying race, with Clint Bowyer at 4-1 and Denny Hamlin at 9-2.

The Nextel All-Star Challenge, which consists of three different segments, with the winner of the finale collecting $1 million, commences at 6 p.m. Based on his past success at Charlotte, Jimmie Johnson was made the 4-1 favorite by Station auto racing oddsmaker Micah Roberts, with Greg Biffle at 9-2, Kasey Kahne at 5-1, Tony Stewart at 7-1, and Jeff Gordon at 8-1. Roberts has already put "Nextel Open winner" at 10-1.

French Open starts Monday

As if Paris wasn't getting enough tourists from the UEFA Champions League final that took place Wednesday between Barcelona and Arsenal and from the increase in tours based on the movie "The Da Vinci Code," which opens this weekend, the French Open begins Monday. Rafael Nadal is the 4-5 favorite to win the men's title, with Roger Federer at 9-5. David Nalbandian is the third choice at 12-1.

In the women's bracket, Justine Henin-Hardenne is the solid 8-5 favorite, with Nadia Petrova at 3-1, Kim Clijsters at 4-1, Amelie Mauresmo at 6-1, Svetlana Kuznetsova at 8-1, Martina Hingis at 10-1, and Maria Sharapova at 15-1.

Women got next

The WNBA, the women's professional basketball league, tips off its regular season Saturday with four games on the schedule. The Detroit Shock are the 3-1 favorites to win the title, with the defending champion Sacramento Monarchs at 4-1 and the Seattle Storm at 9-2.