09/29/2003 12:00AM

Rumor mill can move a line

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Usually, the line moves from the Stardust lottery on Sunday nights are accurate indicators of which direction they will continue to move during the week. But there are exceptions.

This week, Washington State opened as a 28-point favorite over Arizona and the Cougars got bet up to 29 1/2. When I got home late Sunday after a full day of NFL viewing, I saw the news that Arizona had fired coach John Mackovic and there was speculation that the school might hire former Washington State coach Mike Price, who had a cup of coffee as Alabama coach before being fired this past spring without ever coaching a game. My immediate thought was of last season's Super Bowl, when Jon Gruden led the Buccaneers to victory over his former team, the Raiders.

I contemplated going back to the Stardust to bet Arizona plus the points, but since this was all speculation, instead I went to sleep. Obviously some other bettors had the same thought as the line was bet down to 27 early Monday morning.

Other big early line movements Sunday night were on Tulsa, which opened at +16 vs. Hawaii and got bet down to +13 1/2, and Kansas State, which was bet down from the key number of 7 to 6 1/2 and then again to 6 within the first hour of wagering.

Betting on the NFL again was light with many games off the board due to injuries, plus the four teams that were playing Sunday and Monday night. Lines were only offered on six of the 14 games this coming weekend, with action coming in on two sides and one total.

The Giants opened as a 1-point favorite over the Dolphins, but early Miami money moved that to pick-em. The Eagles opened as a 4-point favorite over the Redskins and it was bet up to -4 1/2. The game was steamed to -5 1/2 at most books as of noon Monday.

The only total to take enough action to move it was the under in the Cardinals-Cowboys game, which opened at 38 and was bet down to 37 1/2. Last week, the Cowboys' total vs. the Jets was also the only total that moved and that was a winner, improving moves on NFL totals to 4-0 on the season.

Action brisk on baseball playoffs

The Stardust, as well as every other book in the world, also put up odds on the first round of the baseball playoffs, which were to begin with three series on Tuesday (Twins-Yankees, Marlins-Giants, and Cubs-Braves) and the fourth on Wednesday (Red Sox-A's).

Sports book directors all over Las Vegas are optimistic about a better-than-average handle on this year's playoffs with so many popular teams involved.

The Yankees, always popular at the windows, are -270 (risk $2.70 to win $1) to beat the Twins in their series. The Giants are -180 over the Marlins. The Red Sox are -150 despite not having home-field advantage over the A's. Having Pedro Martinez pitching twice in a five-game series can do that.

But the one everyone is talking about is the Cubs and Braves, who have been adopted by millions of fans from coast to coast because of their games on superstations WGN and TBS. Dominant pitching is also the reason given for making the Braves and Cubs a pick-em series (-110 each side) even though the Braves tied the Yankees for the best record in baseball at 101-61 while the Cubs squeaked into the postseason and have the worst record of any playoff team at 88-74.

"The Cubs are always going to get money because of their fans, but they also have the young pitching with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior," said Bob Scucci, Stardust race and sports book director. "With Wood pitching the opener and possibly another game, that levels the playing field with the Braves."

Most sports books' biggest liability in their World Series future books is on the Cubs and Twins. The Stardust had opened the Cubs at 50-1 and the Twins at 75-1. But Scucci said that didn't affect the prices he put up on the divisional series.

"We didn't shade our numbers," Scucci said. "We put them where we felt they should be. We book these as two separate bets."

The Stardust made the Yankees the 2-1 favorite to win it all, followed by the Red Sox (7-2), Braves (4-1), Giants (4-1), Cubs (5-1), A's (6-1), Twins (10-1), and Marlins (12-1).

Crowd bets big on Ultimate fights

In a city that hosts a lot of major boxing matches, the Ultimate Fighting Championship series held its "UFC 44: Undisputed" card with nine title bouts at the Mandalay Bay Events Center before a crowd of 12,000 last Friday.

This isn't your father's Friday Night Fights. The demographics were definitely skewed to the younger generation, with more tattoos, spiked hair, and piercings than you see at a typical boxing match.

But it was a 40-year-old, Randy Couture, who won the marquee match of the night with a unanimous decision in the 205-pound division over Tito Ortiz.

Mandalay Bay race and sports book supervisor Hugh Citron said that when a casino hosts an event like this, it feels obligated to book it, but this event exceeded expectations.

When he put the odds up earlier in the month, Citron made Ortiz a -185 favorite with Couture at +150. Money came in on Couture and the line moved all the way to pick-em, -115 either way. Citron said he nearly made Couture a slight favorite before late money came in on Ortiz, who closed at -200.

"The UFC has a lot of loyal fans and they put their money down," Citron said. "Seventy-five percent of the handle came in on the day of the fights, and we moved the line on Ortiz-Coutre 15 stimes.

"When it was over, we had four windows lined back to the poker room with people waiting to cash their tickets."