06/09/2003 12:00AM

Race books relish Triple Crown quest

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Race books were packed throughout Las Vegas Saturday to see Funny Cide's Triple Crown quest.

A lot of bettors and fans walked away disappointed, but bookmakers were happy with the crowds and the handle, even though the amount wagered on the big race was more than a quarter of a million less than last year.

In Nevada, $1.69 million was bet parimutuelly on the Belmont, compared to $1.97 million last year, but the War Emblem race last year had 11 betting interests.

"Considering it was a six-horse field, that's a pretty big number," said Vinny Magliulo, director of corporate affairs for Las Vegas Dissemination Co., the hub for Las Vegas's race books. "If it was an eight-horse field, I think it would have topped $2 million."

To show that the Triple Crown pursuit drew the crowds, the daylong handle from all tracks was $4.56 million, an increase of $48,000 over last year.

Those figures don't include house quinellas, which are booked by a race book when the host track doesn't have quinella wagering. The payoff is computed by taking the mutuel price of the winner times half of the price of the place horse.

Over the years, this has been a wise-guy play with two standout horses towering over a field, especially in a short field like in the Belmont. Local legend points to the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence rivalry of 1989 and how the race books were paying off house Q's for hours in all three Triple Crown races.

Bettors both big and small were going around town Saturday trying to make the wager with Funny Cide and Empire Maker. Bookmakers knew that a Funny Cide-Empire Maker one-two finish would probably pay about $5 ($4 for Funny Cide's win price, times about half of a $2.50 or thereabouts place price on Empire Maker), while an Empire Maker-Funny Cide finish would pay around $7. They also knew they wouldn't get anywhere near enough money on all other quinella combinations to balance their books.

Most books took low limits or only accepted quinellas close to post time to manage their liability, while others didn't take the bet at all. One race book director I talked to said he refused a $10,000 Funny Cide-Empire Maker quinella on Friday and suggested the bettor go across the street. Similar scenarios were rumored to be taking place around town.

When Ten Most Wanted finished between the two favorites, it saved the books that took the bet a lot of money.

Funny Cide-Empire Maker "was a Q that a lot of people were betting," said John Avello, director of race and sports at Bally's and Paris, which booked house Q's. "They looked like the two standouts. With the outcome, it was a good day overall."

In a way, the result also saved a lot of money for bettors who had been unhappy when they couldn't put more on the Funny Cide-Empire Maker Q.

"In retrospect, I wish I had booked the house Q's," Robert Walker, MGM Mirage race and sports book director, said with a chuckle.

Another bookmaker who breathed a sigh of relief when Funny Cide finished third was Jeff Stoneback, race and sports book director at the Excalibur. He had future-book prices on Funny Cide not only to win the Belmont but also to place and show.

"We got hit on the win and place," Stoneback said before the race. "We need him to finish third or worse since we got balanced action on him to show."

Funny Cide was bet down from 3-2 to 6-5 on the win end, while the real line movement came on the place, on which he opened at -140 (risk $7 to win $5) and bettors laid it up to -180.

U.S. Open set to tee off

Tiger Woods has failed to win in three straight majors, but that doesn't keep him from being the 2-1 favorite to win the U.S. Open this weekend at the Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois.

Bettors aren't clamoring to bet him like they used to, as those were the odds put up at the Palms right after the Masters in April. The over/under on Woods's finish position is 3 1/2 at the Palms. That seems low, but compared to recent majors, it isn't.

"In the Masters, we used 2.5 because of how he was playing at the start of the year," said Jeff Sherman, sports book supervisor and golf oddsmaker at the Palms. "He's sort of out of form, for him, and bettors are starting to bet against him, so we bumped him back up. Still, he's favored on the under."

Bettors have to lay -140 (risk $1.40 to win $1) on Tiger to finish in the top three or can take +110 (bet $1 to win $1.10) if they think he'll throw in another clunker.

Anti-Tiger bettors can also go to the MGM-Mirage properties. Woods is +220 to win the tournament, but you can get the whole field vs. Woods at -270.

The Palms has a dozen head-to-head matchups, plus a variety of props, including over/under winning score (276 1/2), number of golfers to finish under par (2 1/2), will there be a playoff (+300 on the "no," -400 on "yes"), plus first-round over/under for several of the top contenders, and odds on several other golfers either making the cut or beating a certain finish position.

* Annika Sorenstam won the LPGA Championship in a playoff over Grace Park, but the Palms didn't offer any odds on the tournament.

"After she played in the Colonial and the interest she generated, I put up odds in her next tournament and didn't get enough action to justify it," Sherman said. "I didn't put on odds on the LPGA and didn't get any complaints. What she did was great for the Colonial, but it didn't do anything for women's golf from a betting perspective."

MGM Grand hosts rodeo

The Pro Rodeo Tour Finale comes to the MGM Grand Garden Arena Thursday through Saturday with a $500,000 purse. But they won't be the only ones going for the green: The MGM Mirage properties will have odds on many of the events, including bull riding, bareback riding, and steer wrestling.

Thursday's tickets are half-price for Nevadans, while all three days are half-price for anyone with a military I.D. Thursday is the preliminary round, in which all 12 qualifiers (based on points they earned on tour) compete for the eight spots in Friday's semifinals. Friday's top four advance to Saturday night's finals.

The action starts at 8 p.m. each night.