02/21/2008 12:00AM

Sports books rev up with Nascar action

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With only pro and college basketball and some hockey to bet, February once was the forsaken month on the sports betting calendar, coming between the Super Bowl and March Madness.

But nowadays the popularity of basketball wagering has grown (not so much for hockey) as have the number of games on the boards. Plus, more people are wagering on what were once just niche betting sports, such as auto racing and golf.

Last Sunday's Daytona 500 was a prime example. The number of ways to bet the race has increased over the years to meet the demand. Ryan Newman won the race at odds around town ranging from 22-1 to 30-1. Station Casinos had many props, including if the winner's car number would be odd or even (Newman drives the No. 12), whether the number would be 1-26 or 27-99, and if the margin of victory would be over or under .219 seconds (it went under at .092 seconds).

Chevrolet cars were expected to dominate the restrictor-plate race at the Daytona International Speedway and were a -300 favorite over the coupling of Ford, Dodge, or Toyota, which paid +270 when Newman's Dodge found victory lane. Horseplayers will love this: Stations had exacta wagering using the combinations of Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, and Toyota. Chevy-Chevy was the favorite at 8-5 and all exactas with Chevy on top were less than 10-1. With Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch pushing Newman to the win and finishing second himself, the Dodge-Dodge exacta returned 55-1.

Similar betting options are available this weekend for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway and next week when the Sprint Cup (formerly Nextel Cup and Winston Cup before that) circuit comes to Las Vegas for the running of the UAW-Dodge 400, aka Las Vegas 400, on Sunday, March 2.

* Also illustrating the popularity of Nascar and the betting on it, the Las Vegas Hilton held a Daytona 500 party in its showroom with a 25- by 49-foot HDTV screen, similar to the parties it holds for football games, and it will do the same again for the Vegas 400 with free admission, food and drink specials, and prize drawings.

* The Hilton is also getting back into the weekly horse handicapping contest business Saturday with the return of Super Saturdays. The entry fee is $30, with the Hilton adding $500 to the prize pool. The contest will be held every Saturday, except for March 22 and 29 during the NCAA tournament.

* In other handicapping contest news, the Orleans is hosting a $100 buy-in, one-day tournament Thursday, Feb. 28. Prizes will be paid through eighth place, with the top-five finishers earning berths to the Horseplayer World Series (a $1,000 value). The format will be win/place, with no mandatory races. There is a limit of two entries per person, with no partners. The Orleans is also gearing up for its next big tourney, the Handicapping Championship at the Orleans, on April 3-5 with an entry fee of $500 and an estimated first prize of $112,000. The top 50 earn world series berths. Call (888) 566-7223 for details.

* Another big betting event was the super middleweight bout between Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night. Pavlik, a 1-2 favorite, stayed undefeated at 33-0 and beat Taylor for the second time in a unanimous decision. The hits keep coming as this weekend's big fight is the heavyweight unification title bout between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov at Madison Square Garden in New York. Klitschko is about a -450 favorite with Ibragimov offered at between 3-1 and 7-2. The over/under is 9 1/2 rounds, so Klitschko is expected to win by knockout.

* Golf continues to see increased action, and this weekend is one of the best events outside of the majors. Most sports books take down odds at the start of the tournament each week and don't put up adjusted odds, but with this weekend's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, there are fresh matchups each day.

* The NBA trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. Eastern on Thursday with no changes expected at the top of future-book odds that Las Vegas Sports Consultants sends out to its clients. LVSC has the Mavericks (who did improve themselves with the addition of Jason Kidd this past week) and Celtics as the 5-2 co-favorites, followed by Suns and Spurs (both at 3-1), Lakers (7-2), Pistons (4-1), Hornets and Jazz (15-1), and Magic (18-1). The Cavaliers, who were 20-1 before the trade deadline, agreed to a three-team deal Thursday that would net them Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak.

* A column on the Vegas sports-betting beat this week would be remiss without a note about the passing of journalist Lynda Collins last Sunday at the age of 61. Many people knew her writing from her coverage of Las Vegas's high-end football contests for Internet websites such as theprescription.com, gambling911.com, phoenixsports.com, vegasinsider.com, procappers.com, and most recently ViewFromVegas.com. But what a lot of those same readers didn't know was that, under her maiden name of Lynda Morstadt, she was a pioneer as the Midwest's first female sportswriter for the Chicago's American newspaper in 1969. She had to fight prejudice as she was often denied press box and locker room access while trying to do her job, restrictions that female reporters don't face today. Through the years, she also wrote for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, The Associated Press bureau in Los Angeles, the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where she was given the sports-betting beat in the mid-1980s. That became her niche. While there are many women sportswriters today, none has dared cross into the even more man-dominated world of sports betting. Collins, whose final wish was to have her remains scattered at Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field) and Del Mar racetrack, will be missed.