08/29/2004 11:00PM

Rise in independent books a good thing

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Change isn't always good, even if done in the name of progress. One example is the consolidation of the casino industry in Las Vegas and how that often makes it harder to shop around for the best sports betting lines.

But as true as that is, there continues to be independent books popping up to provide some variety. The Golden Nugget being sold by MGM Mirage to dot-com millionaires Tim Poster and Tom Breitling provided one such high-profile independent sports book. The Las Vegas Hilton being sold by Caesars Entertainment to Resorts International resulted in another.

The downtown Plaza (formerly a Coast Casinos satellite book) will be an independent book starting this week, under new sports book director Lou D'Amico, longtime member of both the Hilton and Caesars operations. The Plaza's new owner, Barrick Gaming, has already tipped its hand by saying it wants to be an innovative book and put up lines on every NFL game on the schedule before the season starts. Walt Wilczewski continues to run the race book.

On Wednesday, Planet Hollywood owner Robert Earl and his team take over control of the Aladdin and will be renovating and re-theming the property over the next two years. Race and sports book director Brad Bryant said he likes the new direction the new owners will be taking.

There are more changes (of the good kind) coming down the road, with Wynn Las Vegas opening April 28 as an independent book, and Binion's could have its own lines down the road when it drops the Horseshoe name and is taken over by Mountaineer Gaming in the next year or two.

Pick the Ponies returns at Hilton

The Las Vegas Hilton's Pick the Ponies handicapping tournament is set for Oct. 27-29. Traditionally held twice a year, during the weeks of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup, the spring contest is gone, a victim of the sale of the property from Caesars Entertainment to new owners Resorts International.

New race and sports book director Jay Kornegay is keeping the rules the same for the $500 buy-in contest, which only costs $400 if you sign up by Oct. 4. The field is limited to 200 entries and has sold out the last three times well before the early-bird deadline. The Hilton, which kicks in the extra $100 for each early entrant to bring the total purse to $100,000 with a full field, also offers $15,000 in daily bonus prize money.

* In other Hilton news, 289 football handicappers each paid a $1,500 entry fee by the 5 p.m. Sunday early-bird deadline and are eligible for the $10,000 mini-contest held over the last three weeks of the season. That's a 35 percent increase over last year's 214 early entries. Final entries are due by 1 p.m. on Sept. 10.

Football action heating up

The football season officially started Saturday night with Southern Cal's 24-13 victory over Virginia Tech in the BCA Classic. The line closed at USC -17 with an over/under of 50, so those betting on the underdog or the under cashed.

Although I sided with Virginia Tech in last Saturday's Daily Racing Form, I didn't make it an official pick and I didn't make a bet.

I'm a bit upset that I misread the line movement when I stated, "I might bet Virginia Tech if the line goes back up to 20 or higher." Since it was public knowledge that USC receiver Mike Williams was waiting for the NCAA's decision on his eligibility and that he wasn't likely to play even if the NCAA ruled in his favor, I really thought the situation had been factored into the line and that the line wouldn't move if Williams was declared out. Instead, when he lost his appeal the line on the game dropped everywhere. The line was as low as 15 1/2 around town before creeping back up to 17 and 17 1/2 at some books with the USC money, but nowhere near the 20-point line I was anticipating.

* I will, however, take credit for picking the Cardinals +3 vs. the Raiders on Saturday night. Anyone who bet the game on Saturday should have had +5 1/2, as the line this time moved in my favor. The Cards covered all game, even leading 13-3 late in the third quarter. Oakland scored two late touchdowns to take a 17-13 lead, and even though the Cards were still covering the 5 1/2 points on the ticket in my pocket, I was glad to see a Neil Rackers field goal to make it a 17-16 final and a winning bet for all Cardinals backers.

Sports book notes

Also on Saturday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Sharpie 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway at odds of between 10-1 and 15-1 around Vegas. Earnhardt hasn't been performing up to his usual standards the past month and a half - partly due to a crash last month that left him with second-degree burns - and has seen his odds rise each week. But Junior has shown he's back, and Station Casinos has him at 5-1 to win the Nextel Cup points championship. Jeff Gordon is the 5-6 favorite, with Jimmie Johnson at 8-5.

* Speaking of ending cold streaks, Woody Austin hadn't won a PGA Tour event since 1995, so it wasn't a surprise that he was part of the field bet at odds of 2-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton for last weekend's Buick Classic. Austin beat Tim Herron in a playoff at the TPC at River Highlands course in Cornwall, Conn. Bettors who came up with Herron at 30-1 had to be disappointed.