02/04/2004 1:00AM

Record handle for Super Bowl

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LAS VEGAS - Over the Super Bowl weekend, sports book directors in Las Vegas said they were pleasantly surprised by the amount of handle generated by the less-than-glamorous Patriots-Panthers matchup. Most said they had an increase over last year, but none thought that a record would be set in either handle or win.

Well, according to figures released Wednesday morning by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, that was one of the few things the sports books got wrong on this year's Super Bowl.

The game generated a Nevada-record handle of $81.2 million, an increase of 5 percent over the previous mark of $77.3 million set in 1998 on the Broncos-Packers game, and a whopping 13.2 percent higher than last year's $71.7 million on the Buccaneers-Raiders game.

"We were quite surprised," Frank Streshley, senior analyst for the Gaming Control Board, said from his office in the state capital of Carson City. "We were thinking with the two teams playing, and neither being a West Coast team or with a strong national following, that this would be around the $67.6 million that was bet on the Baltimore-New York Giants in 2001, or a bit more than that."

Streshley said the total handle includes all straight bets, parlays, and proposition wagers as well as Super Bowl futures, which get added into the revenue on the day of the event.

But while a high handle is great, the thing that had to have most sports book directors smiling and getting pats on the back from their bosses was the record win of $12.4 million. That exceeded the $11 million won on the Ravens-Giants Super Bowl. The books kept 15.3 percent of all money wagered this year, falling just short of the record 16.3 percent from 2001.

"In talking to the licensees," Streshley said, "the majority of the bigger properties said the same thing: a lot of the betting was geared toward a low-scoring game. The other biggest factor was the very popular two-team parlays. Bettors were mostly parlaying Carolina with the under and the Patriots with the over. When it came in Carolina and the over, that really helped the books."

Sports book directors said there were fewer five- and six-figure wagers than in years past - presumably because more big sports bettors took their action offshore - but that that loss of handle was offset by a huge increase in the number of smaller bets.

Arena Football League fills void

The real football season is behind us, but for those who enjoy gridiron action in all its forms, the Arena Football League starts its season this weekend.

According to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the San Jose SaberCats are the 7-2 favorite the win the Arena Bowl. The Arizona Rattlers are the second choice at 5-1, followed by the defending champion Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Predators at 6-1, the Los Angeles Avengers at 7-1, the Las Vegas Gladiators at 10-1, and the New York Dragons, Dallas Desperados, Chicago Rush, and Georgia Force all at 12-1.

The SaberCats, who were also the top team in a poll by the Arena Football League Writers Association, were favored by 6 points over the Detroit Fury in the league's season-opener on Thursday night. The local Gladiators are a 7-point road favorite at Colorado on Friday night.

Ken White, the chief executive at LVSC, said he is thrilled by the AFL's acceptance of gambling on its games and the league's cooperation with his office. The league will have games televised nationally by NBC, usually at 3 p.m. Eastern on Sundays, and there is expected to be on-air discussion of the point spread, according to John Miller, NBC vice president of sports.

The AFL has grown to 19 teams this year, with expansion teams being the Austin Wranglers, New Orleans VooDoo, and Philadelphia Soul. The season breaks down into a 17-game schedule with one team having a bye each week, except in the eighth week, when three teams are off. Arena Bowl XVIII is slated for June 27.

Reno Hilton hosts live-money tourney

Steve Fierro, handicapping tournament host at the Reno Hilton, had to scramble to make sure he was going to be able to go ahead as planned with the Winter Challenge this Saturday and Sunday.

New accounting procedures that went into effect Jan. 21 call for all tournaments to be conducted through a computerized system, from entry fees to selections to payouts. CBS, a Las Vegas-based subsidiary of American Wagering Inc. that supplies most of the books in Nevada with betting equipment and software, has been working with its race book clients to sort out all the bugs related to the many different sorts of tournament rules.

"The Gaming Control Board gave us a variance so we could go ahead with the tournament," Fierro said Wednesday. "Our tournament is a live-money event, so all the plays go through the system anyway, but we just weren't able to get the part with the entry fees in the system.

"We were never going to cancel the tournament. The worst-case scenario is that we would have waived the entry fee and just had the live-money contest for the four DRF/NTRA spots."

But now it's full speed ahead, and Fierro said he expects a field of around 125. The top four finishers will earn berths in next January's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, including round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations.

Contestants pay a $200 entry fee and then make $300 in parimutuel wagers on each of the two days. Bets must be in denominations of $2 or higher, and no parlays or pick sixes are allowed. Players get to keep the money from their winning bets, plus compete for the highest accumulated bankroll to win their share of the prize pool.