08/30/2006 12:00AM

Wild card's where all of the action is


LAS VEGAS - On Friday, the calendar turns to September, which usually signals the start of baseball's stretch run to the playoffs.

However, the divisional races this year appear to be anti-climactic. Heading into Wednesday's action, the Mets held a 15 1/2-game lead in the NL East, the Yankees and A's held 7 1/2-game leads in the AL East and West, the Tigers held a five-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central, and the Cardinals and Dodgers held three-game leads in the NL Central and West.

The most suspense is likely to come in the battle for the wild-card slots, and Imperial Palace race and sports book manager Mike Fay has odds available on those races.

In the American League, the White Sox are the even-money favorite to grab the wild card, with the Twins at 8-5 and the Tigers at 5-1. Of course, in this bet, it literally comes down to which team gets the wild card, so the Tigers would need to fade down the stretch to win this bet. Conversely, if you bet a team like the White Sox and they make a great run and steal the division title, you lose your bet.

In the National League, the Reds are the 11-5 favorite to win the wild card, with the Padres and Phillies at 4-1, the Cardinals at 5-1, and the Dodgers at 6-1.

* As for the odds to win the World Series, the Yankees, after tough sledding earlier in the year, are now the 5-2 favorites to win it all, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants. The Tigers and Mets are the co-second choices at 3-1, the White Sox are 6-1, and the Cardinals and Dodgers are 8-1.

* To illustrate how much the Tigers have overachieved this season, entering Wednesday they were 82-49 with 31 games to play. Before the season, the Tigers' consensus over/under season win total around Vegas was 77 1/2, which they blew past two weeks ago. Also, if you had started the year betting on each of Detroit's games, you would be up more than 25 units, or $2,500 for a $100 bettor. No other team is ahead 20 units.

Salisbury stakes claim at Caesars

ESPN football analyst Sean Salisbury will be making weekly appearances in the Caesars Palace sports book this season. He was there last Saturday for a free seminar, and the weekly program moves to 4-6 p.m. Fridays starting this weekend and running through the rest of the season.

"We're thrilled to offer this to our guests," said Caesars director of race and sports Chuck Esposito, who will co-host the event. "Sean will break down each week's games, and there will be a Q&A session for people to ask about future bets, fantasy players, and picks of the week, and to get his autograph."

Esposito said there will also be special guests during the season, but said he preferred to keep those surprises under wraps.

Football contest addition

Just when you think you have a comprehensive list of all the football handicapping contests in Las Vegas (see the Daily Racing Form issue of Aug. 19), another one pops up at the last minute.

The Rampart in Summerlin is introducing a totally different format for its free pro football contest. While my aforementioned list broke down the contests into season-long events in which players had to be involved all 17 weeks and weekly contests that anyone could enter at any time, the Rampart is somewhere in between. It's a monthly contest in which players pick Sunday and Monday games (no point spreads), and the person with the most winners that month gets the $5,000 prize, which will be split evenly if there is a tie.

"We did that since it's a free contest, because even if you split it with three or four other people, it's still nice to win an extra grand," said race and sports book director Eric St. Clair. "We just wanted an easy contest to get people to come in and see what we offer."

With the first week slated for Sept. 10-11, that will make the first monthly contest just three weeks long. October will be five weeks, November four, and December five.

The weekly deadline to submit picks is 9 p.m. Fridays at the Rampart.

Excalibur book on the move

The Excalibur, the medieval-themed resort on Las Vegas Boulevard, is relocating its race and sports book, with the new digs expected to debut Wednesday, Sept. 6.

The new area will be smaller, but with the same emphasis on horseplayers. There will be five 60-inch screens and five 50-inch plasmas on the race side - "It's pretty much a video wall," said race and sports book manager Eddie Malinowski - and 25 seats with individual TV's, plus more seating in the sports area.

Because of the relocation, the Excalibur's weekly horse handicapping contest will not be held next Wednesday. It will resume the following Wednesday on the races at Fairplex (minus any non-Thoroughbred races) and continue through the rest of the year.

Three vie for Nextel Cup favoritism

Sometimes a favorite is clear-cut; other times, as with this Sunday's Sony HD 400 at California Speedway, the oddsmaker lets the public decide.

Station Casinos opened Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kasey Kahne as the co-favorites at 7-1. Greg Biffle is 8-1 and Jeff Gordon is 10-1.

Nine different drivers have won the last nine races at California Speedway, though Kenseth won the race earlier this year and Rousch Racing drivers have four of those nine wins, so Kenseth should emerge as the favorite.