03/20/2003 1:00AM

War doesn't temper Madness


Earlier this week, there was some concern about how the impending war in Iraq would affect the NCAA tournament and the March Madness crowds in Las Vegas.

Even though the U.S. launched its attack Wednesday night and the television networks concentrated their coverage on the war (and the games were moved to ESPN and ESPN2), sports book operators were breathing a sigh of relief Thursday morning as their fears appeared unfounded.

"Once the games started, it was business as usual," said Robert Walker, director of race and sports for the MGM-Mirage properties. "Sports is escapism, and while everyone has the war in the back of their mind, we went about our daily lives."

During the early games, Walker said he and his staff were watching the war coverage of the first extended attack on Baghdad more than the basketball.

"It's probably a good time to take advantage of us and bet halftimes, because we're not watching the games as much as we usually do," he said, adding that he was planning to put war coverage on the TV's in the book as events warranted.

Sports fans visiting Las Vegas have long been told that you have to arrive hours ahead of a major event to make sure you get a seat, and this year wasn't any different, as sports books were standing-room only all over town. Walker said people were saving their seats at 5 a.m.

Up the Strip at the Stardust, a full house was gathered to watch the early games. At 9:20 a.m., people cheered the opening tipoff of the day's action between Marquette-Holy Cross while other bettors stood three-deep at the 11 open windows trying to get down on the other early games.

"This place is packed as much as any year in the past," said Bob Scucci, the Stardust's director of race and sports book operations. "It's too early to tell if the handle will be impacted, but so far so good."

Dogs show bite in early action

Underdog bettors were also saying "so far so good" after the three early games concluded Thursday. Dogs covered in all three games and won two of them outright.

Marquette had opened as a 13-point favorite over Holy Cross and was bet down to 10 around town. Marquette never got clear of the number and barely held on for a 72-68 non-covering victory.

California beat North Carolina St. 76-74 in overtime as a 1 1/2-point underdog; the game and pointspread decision was in doubt throughout. At the end of overtime, NC State could have tied the game and forced a second overtime, but opted for a 3-pointer that clanged off the iron as time expired.

Gonzaga, the No. 9 seed, outlasted No. 8 Cincinnati 74-69 as a 1-point dog. Gonzaga led by as many as 12 points before Cincinnati made a late rally to pull within three points and even had a chance to tie the game, but Tony Bobbitt's 3-pointer was blocked by Tony Skinner.

Stevens draws a crowd

Gary Stevens: Hall of Fame jockey. Actor. Author. He can also add marquee attraction and public speaker to his resume.

Stevens was at the Gold Coast on Wednesday morning to meet fans and sign copies of his new book, "The Perfect Ride." The room was packed, with horseplayers lined up 30- to 40-people deep to buy his book and have it signed, all for the bargain-basement price of $10.

The promotion went so well that Stevens sold out of the 100 books he brought with him, as well as 30 that were intended to be raffled off (winners received an IOU).

Bob Gregorka, director of race book operations for the Coast Casinos, apologized to the crowd and said everyone who wanted a book for $10 also would be given an IOU, and that Stevens would sign them at his home in California and ship them to Las Vegas.

"In all my years of doing promotions like this, if you buy 100 books, you usually end up eating 95 of them," Gregorka said. "This was a testament to how much the fans like Gary Stevens."

After Stevens met all of the patient fans who waited in line, he did a question-and-answer session with Ralph Siraco, a local radio host and turf editor of the Las Vegas Sun. When Siraco asked about Stevens's childhood and how he came to ride his first racehorse at age 14, Stevens said, "I don't want to say too much - I want people to read the book."

Part of the festivities included a trailer of the movie "Seabiscuit," in which Stevens plays legendary jockey George Woolf. Stevens said he was a little surprised that he got the Woolf role considering the first impression he made for the film's director, Gary Ross. Stevens said Chris McCarron introduced him to Ross on Santa Anita Handicap Day last year. Stevens had seven mounts and thought all had a chance to win - "though that never happens," he said with a laugh. McCarron was helping Ross scout shooting locations, but Stevens said he was preoccupied with his duties and pretty much ignored them.

Stevens said he was stewing after not having a single winner when Ross came back into the jocks' room and asked if he wanted to be in the movie. Stevens recalled, "I told him, 'Pal, you don't have enough money and I don't have enough time.' "

Regardless (or maybe because of his feisty behavior), Stevens was offered the role.

But that doesn't mean Stevens gives Ross preferential treatment. Last Sunday, he rode Buddy Gil to victory over Atswhatimtalknbout - who is partly owned by Ross, "Seabiscuit" producer Frank Marshall, and Hollywood director-producer Steven Spielberg - in the San Felipe Stakes. Stevens said he committed to riding Buddy Gil in the Santa Anita Derby but didn't know who he would ride in the Wood Memorial.

Stevens, who said he is fielding several offers for other acting projects, is staying close to home. He was scheduled to fly to the Middle East next Monday for the Dubai World Cup, but canceled "for obvious reasons."