06/20/2002 11:00PM

Sports book characters inspire script

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LAS VEGAS - Anyone who has spent a day at the track knows that there are more than enough characters for a great sitcom or play.

Jerry L. Crawford thought the same thing the first time he entered the Stardust race and sports book.

"I thought I had walked into a Damon Runyon story," said Crawford, who should know his literary references as a professor emeritus in the theatre department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "I knew I had to write a play about sports bettors."

The result is "The Stardust Caper," a dark comedy that will be part of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which started Thursday and runs through Aug. 31 in Cedar City, Utah, a three-hour drive on I-15 from downtown Las Vegas.

No, it's not Shakespeare, though it's a shame the Bard isn't around to check out the comedy and tragedy that exists everyday in a sports book. "The Stardust Caper" is part of the plays-in-progress series at the festival, where Crawford has also worked the last 15 summers.

The plays-in-progress series - which tries to find the "Shakespeares of tomorrow" - uses professional actors reading their parts from scripts, and is free to the public. Plays are presented at 10:15 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays in August at the campus cinema on Main Street. "The Stardust Caper" will be staged Aug. 1-2 as the first in the series, and then again on Tuesday, Aug. 27, during the closing week of the festival.

"The Stardust Caper" stars Freddy, an aging sports bettor in his early 70's, who bets a friend $5,000 that he will die of natural causes in the Stardust sports book. Other bettors get in on the action - the pool quickly grows to $50,000 - and try to figure out if they're being scammed.

"Most of the characters are based on real people I've met in the sports book," Crawford said, "though I've certainly taken literary license."

The Stardust is as much of a character as any of the actors as it is portrayed as a family home, as well as a church for its faithful congregation.

And sometimes life imitates art. On Wednesday, Crawford's last day in Las Vegas before heading to the festival, an 89-year-old horseplayer died in the Stardust race and sports book shortly after 9 a.m.

* Another intriguing drama involving the Stardust concluded Tuesday when Anthony Cuccia was found guilty of first-degree murder for the February 2000 shooting of fellow sports bettor Philip Greenspan. Cuccia, a self-proclaimed mobster, claimed he did it in self-defense because he believed Greenspan was part of a plot to kill him.

Cuccia said the Drug Enforcement Administration wrongly suggested he was a government witness in an early-1980's drug case and that a hit was ordered by members of the Gambino crime family. Cuccia said he was on the run ever since, avoiding three previous attempts on his life. The jury deliberated about half an hour before coming back with a guilty verdict. Sentencing is July 23 for the 60-year-old Cuccia.

World Cup

Germany ended the United States' unlikely World Cup run Friday morning with a 1-0 victory. Brazil, the favorite to win it all after the early exits by France, Argentina, and Italy, also advanced with a 2-1 win over England. Germany awaits the Spain-South Korea winner for its early Tuesday semifinal match while Brazil has the easier draw, facing the Senegal-Turkey winner in the other semifinal on Wednesday morning.

Williams sisters top Wimbledon

Wimbledon starts Monday with the Williams sisters expected to continue their dominance. Las Vegas Sports Consultants has Venus Williams as the 6-5 favorite to win the women's bracket, with Serena Williams as the 8-5 second choice. Martina Hingis scratched from the tournament, leaving Jennifer Capriati (4-1) as the only other serious contender, with Justine Henin (12-1), Kim Clijsters (15-1) and Jelena Dokic (22-1) given outside chances.

On the men's side, Lleyton Hewitt is a lukewarm 4-1 favorite, followed by Andre Agassi (5-1), Pete Sampras (5-1), Roger Federer (8-1), Tim Henman

(12-1), and Marat Safin (12-1).

* The Cox Pavilion, located next to the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus, plays host to several international basketball teams in the World Pro Basketball Challenge on Monday through Friday. The tournament begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Taiwan United vs. Team Europe, followed by Magic Johnson All-Stars vs. OSG Phoenix at 8 p.m. Tuesday's games are London Leopards vs. Vasco de Game at 5:30 p.m. and the Harlem Globetrotters vs. ABA Select (coached by former UNLV Rebel Sidney Green) at 8 p.m. The rest of the days, the losers bracket games will be played at 5:30 p.m. and the winners' bracket matchups at 8 p.m., with the championship game on Saturday night.

Horseplayers help pay the bills

Parimutuel wagering is a wonderful thing. The house actually can cheer for you to win money, since it has already taken its cut. And when bettors win, they tend to bet that money right back and the house wins more money.

In the last fiscal year ended April 30, Nevada race books made $81.1 million from horseplayers, representing a 17 percent hold, according to figures released by the Gaming Control Board.

Forty percent of the overall handle in the state's 147 sports books comes from football bettors, but the books held just 4.5 percent of football wagers last year for a $38.2 million profit.

Parlay cards, as is always the case, had the highest hold at 32 percent, generating profits of $19.2 million. Bettors dropped the least on baseball, losing 3.66 percent for total losses of $17.9 million. Sports books held 5.6 percent and profited $30.6 million.