06/25/2006 11:00PM

Tougher race for Yanks stirs interest

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A look at the baseball standings shows that the Braves, sitting in last place in the NL East, will probably not make the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

The next-longest streak in the big leagues belongs to the Yankees, who have made the playoffs every year since 1995.

Last year during Kentucky Derby Week, when the George Steinbrenner-owned Bellamy Road was the prerace favorite and the Yankees were struggling at 11-19, Palms sports book director Rich Baccellieri put up a "Will the Yankees make the playoffs?" prop. Baccellieri said the prop received great two-way action. So when Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui broke his left wrist on May 11 this year, and with Gary Sheffield also nursing a wrist injury at the time, the Palms resurrected the prop again.

The prop opened at -180 (risk $1.80 for every $1 you want to profit) on the "yes" and +160 (win $1.60 for every $1 wagered) on the "no." Baccellieri said he was immediately flooded with money on the yes.

"The first bettors told us that they were believers and that the price was too low, and they bet it through the roof," Baccellieri said Monday morning. "For two weeks, we took mostly bets on the 'yes' and went as high as -250/+220 before people took back the +220 on the 'no.' Since then, we've been taking more on the 'no,' and this morning we're at -165 on the 'yes' and +145 on the 'no.' Now, we have a lot of believers that they are not going to make the playoffs."

Baccellieri said this is typical of the public's fascination with the Yankees.

"This prop has been great, because it creates interest for both Yankee lovers and Yankee haters," he said. "People love to cheer and bet on or against them, as they create strong emotions no matter what side of the fence you're on."

The Yankees have won the AL East the past eight years, but even if they had failed, they had the wild card to fall back on. That might not be the case this year. While the defending champion White Sox are performing as strongly as expected, it's the Tigers who are on top of the AL Central with a major league-best 51-25 record and no sign of slowing down.

Through Sunday's games, the Yankees were 2 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and 6 games behind the White Sox in the wild-card race.

Sports book notes

On Saturday night, at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace, heavyweight contender Calvin Brock stayed undefeated with a unanimous decision over previously unbeaten Timur Ibragimov, but it's doubtful that the lackluster victory will earn Brock a title fight. The bout was marred by a lack of action. Ibragimov retreated most of the night, and Brock, a -400 favorite and certain that he was ahead on the scorecards, didn't go out of his way to engage Ibragimov and risk getting knocked out.

On the undercard, Carlos Quintana pulled a +250 (the equivalent of 5-2 odds) upset over Joel Julio, winning by a unanimous decision to move up the welterweight ranks. He improved his record to 23-0 with 18 knockouts.

* Jeff Gordon reclaimed his title as the "King of the Road Courses" on Sunday, when he won the Dodge/Save Mart 350 Nextel Cup race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Gordon, the 4-1 second choice at Station Casinos, won for the fifth time at Sonoma. Tony Stewart, who had won the last three road-course races and was the 3-1 favorite, was in contention until losing a cylinder late in the race.

* In the week after the U.S. Open, most of the top PGA players avoided the Booz Allen Classic in Potomac, Md. Rain halted play Sunday, and the final round was pushed back to Monday, when it was resumed but then stopped again with Ben Curtis leading by seven strokes. As deadline approached Monday afternoon, play was still suspended, but a victory by Curtis would be his first since he upset the 2003 British Open. Curtis was so much of a longshot that year that no Las Vegas sports book had individual odds on him to win, instead having him in the "field" at3-1. Despite being a champion of a major, he will actually pay better for this far less prestigious tournament, in which he was the longest shot on the board at 125-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Carryovers at Coast Casinos

The Coast Casinos (The Orleans, Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Suncoast, and South Coast) draw nice crowds on Wednesdays and Thursdays because of their weekly handicapping contests on the first five races at the Southern California racetrack that is running at the time.

Handicappers go for daily prizes, plus try to go 5 for 5 to take down the progressive jackpot that grows every week that no one sweeps the five races.

With the Fourth of July falling on a Tuesday this year, it has wreaked havoc on the racing calendar, and there is no racing at Hollywood Park this Wednesday or next Wednesday. So, the weekly $5 buy-in Wednesday contest won't be held either week. That means the 5-for-5 bonus will carry over until July 12, the next-to-last week of the Hollywood meet. Since the Gold Coast Summer Classic tournament takes place the following week and Coast doesn't do the weekly contests when it hosts a major tourney, that means there's a mandatory payout of the Wednesday bonus on that date.

Heading into July 12, the carryover will be $23,580, and with all the entry fees that day being added to the pot, it should grow to $30,000.

The weekly $10 buy-in Thursday contests will continue uninterrupted until a mandatory payout on July 13 if no one goes 5 for 5 before then. This Thursday, the carryover is $18,490.