If, as expected, Richard Burton wins an Academy Award tonight for Best Actor several gentlemen at the Union Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas are going to take a bath. The gentlemen are handling the only legal wagering on the oscars.

"Burton's 1 to 2, as short as any price on the board," Johnny. Quinn moaned. "Shirley MacLaine is 1 to 2, too, for Best Actress, but there's an important difference; Burton opened at 6 to 5, MacLaine opened at 4 to 5. That means we took in much more money on Burton."

Two hundred dollars is the most that can be bet at one time on the movie stars. The Union Plaza handled more than $2,500 on Burton alone, even though the oddsmaker kept cutting the price on him every time anybody made a big bet.

"What you have to do, in order to make money on these things, is to beat the big pushes," Quinn said. "If we can beat Burton, we're going to win. But I don't know. This is the third year we've handled action on the Awards, and we've lost a little money each time. Maybe the movie crowd is too sharp for us. We get a big play out of Los Angeles. They play the sentiment, like the old man who won two years ago. George Burns burned us. Now it's Burton. He's been nominated eight times and he's an eight-time loser. Everybody bet him. I think some of the guys who play our sports or racing book here bet Burton because they thought 'Equus' was about race horses."

Do not shed too many tears for Quinn and the Union Plaza. The publicity the hotel receives on this gimmick attration "is worth $250,000, at least," Quinn acknowledges. And while the manager of the gambling parlor may not be as well acquainted with Mikhail Baryshnikov as he is with Roger Staubach as a betting object, he is not giving anything away with his Oscars odds.

Quinn's opening and closing quotations on the picture people:

Those odds are absurdly short (small returns on your investment) in several categories, particularly in the Best Actress grouping, where the competition is viewed as being the keenest. Quinn, the house man, apolgizes for none of his figures. He even sent out a release listing Bob Martin as the oddsmaker, and while Martin wields a sharp pencil for the UP in establishing point spreads on National Football League game, he never goes to the movies.

"I don't," Martin admitted, responding to his movie credit, "but I read a lot." It turned out Quinn has three other odds makers who set the prices which the Union Plaza posts on March 1.

No matter. Action is action, and while tonight's television show is not about to generate as much gambling interest as Monday Night Football, a couple of bucks will by exchanged by the viewing audience.

My advice would be for the betters to go with the favorites. BUt who known about "Best Achievement in Live Action Short Films" or if there really was a better song than "Nobody Does It Better"? Such expertise is rare. Except I have a friend who is superbly qualified. The only time he has seen the sun the last seven years has been at the race track.

The friend routinely sleeps until noon, spends much of his off-track afternoons reading the sports pages, Daily Racing Form and Variety, then goes to the Capital Center or the theater at night. He is knowledgeable about betting and the bijoms.

"The line on the Actor group is terrible," he said. "It wouldn't touch anyone who's od-on, in my category.

"Woody Allen has no shot with the actors. He's not going to attend, which moves him way up in my book. Burtons probably the best bet since Elizabeth Taylor, but I'm taking Dreyfuss. He has 'Close Encounters' and 'Goodbye Girl' going for him, two films, not just one, and that always helps a nominee. If 'Goodbye Girl' doesn't get recognition in this category it won't get anything, and I think that Academy members will want it to get at least one major award."

He cited two trends in Oscar balloting. There is the bandwagon year, when one outstanding film such as "Godfather" so dominates the voting that it carries many minor awards along with it. Then there are the years when several good films prove difficult to separate, voters are careful to spread the awards around. This year falls into the second category.

"Keaton is my bet for the Actress," he declared. "There will be a lot of splitting of 'Turning Point' votes between Bancroft and MacLaine. I'd vote for MacLaine. She deserves it. But, at the prices, the bet is Keaton . She's like Dreyfuss in that she was two (Looking for Mr. Goodbar.)" 'Star Wars', will be the best film. "It made the money and saved the studio," he observed. "Box office is an important consideration, which is what gives Travolta a chance, against Burton and Dreyfuss. 'Saturday Night Fever' is hot. I bet 'Star Wars' at 5 to 2 but I'd have taken 'Close Encounters' at the same price if it had been nominated. Light and sound, that's what movies are all about.

His supporting role picks are Guinness and Redgrave.

"The name Redgrave alone should make Vanessa no more than 2 to 1," he remarked. "She's a tremendous overlay, at 3 to 1. But I would vote for Tuesday Weld. Hers was a magnificent performance.

"Supporting actor, as a rule, goes to someone who has a lot of friends, has been around a long time, and gets a surprise role. This would apply to Robards and to Guinness this year. I have to go with Guinness because Robards will lose some of the 'Julia' votes to Schell."

"It's a shame your friend didn't bet with me," Quinn said. "He'd have helped us balance our books." It was necessary to bet at the Union Plaza by last Tuesday, when the wagering closed.

"All the ballots have to be in by the 28th," Quinn noted. "The next day, they reopened. We close before they open because, well, who knows, it's like horse races. If post time is 2 o'clock, we close at 2 even if the race doesn't actually get off until 2:05.

"With the Academy Awards everything is supposed to be secret. Nothing is supposed to get out. Who know? Somebody is looking at those envelopes, as of the 29th. People talk. There could always be a leak."

Which means Las Vegas doesn't completely trust Price-Waterhouse.

It's a tough world, anytime serious money is being wagered. But tonight, is the form holds, the sentimentality factor is going to make some hard men cry unless, of course, the Burton bubble bursts.