The Academy Awards (search) may officially start on the red carpet, but the race for the green is already in full swing as many fans place bets on potential winners.

Like racehorses rounding the final lap, nominees are cheered to nose out the competition and bring bettors the spoils of wealth and the glory of victory. Whether it's a few people sitting around a television, an office pool participant, or a solo gambler watching his online picks, adrenaline rushes with every envelope opened.

"Pride is at stake," said Erika Gimbel, 33, of Chicago, who said she's determined to take home the money her friends pool each year. "It hurts to watch someone [else] take the pot and go home."

In Las Vegas, bookies give odds on Oscar contenders just like big sporting events. The hypothetical Oscar odds are for entertainment purposes only, though. Nevada law forbids wagering on events in which the outcome is known.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" has been picked by three Las Vegas oddsmakers as the favorite to win best picture honors.

The Stardust gave the film 6-5 odds to win the Oscar. It was followed by "Mystic River" (2-1), "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (6-1), "Lost in Translation" (8-1) and "Seabiscuit" (35-1).

In the acting categories, most bookmakers say the smart money is on Charlize Theron (search) winning the best actress Oscar for her performance in "Monster." But the best actor category is seen as being very close.

"That's a true horse race," John Avello, director of race and sports operations for Bally's (search) and Paris Las Vegas (search), told The Associated Press.

Sean Penn is the odds-on favorite for "Mystic River," tailed closely by Bill Murray for "Lost in Translation."

Though actual Oscar betting isn't allowed in Vegas, it is permissible in cyberspace. Offshore companies are taking bets for Oscars alongside boxing matches and hockey games.

BetWWTS.com, an Antigua-based firm that primarily takes sports bets, said the Academy Awards garner about 1,500 bettors each year, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Bookmakers' odds aren't necessarily scientific, but a statistician in New Jersey devised a formula to predict who will take home a statuette.

For fun, Jay Bennett looked back on 65 years of nominees and winners in the best actor and actress category, and did data analysis to figure out which factors help determine the likely victors. The prevailing factors were: whether the movie a nominee stars in is up for best picture, whether the actor has won the Oscar before, and how close in age the nominee is to 43.

"We came up with a fairly simple formula that does moderately well considering how little information you need," said Bennett. 

According to the formula, Penn is a shoo-in this year.

"He has a perfect score," said Bennett, a member of the American Statistical Association (search). "In 2003 he was 43, 'Mystic River' is nominated for best picture and he has never won the award before."

Though she's not considered a front-runner, "21 Grams" star Naomi Watts will get the best actress award, according to the formula.

Still, Bennett is standing by his calculations.

"If you were blindly choosing, you'd only have a one-out-of-five chance. Just using these three factors raises your odds to 50-50," he said.

This system may be of interest to wager-makers like Gimbel, who said that putting her money on movies turns her into a more discerning viewer.

"I really don't have any desire to see 'Cold Mountain' but because two people are nominated in it for big awards I'll see it to see their performances," she said. "I recently saw 'The House of Sand and Fog' and found myself carefully judging the individual performances."

While Oscar parties have been held for ages, the atmosphere at some has changed.

"We still look at the dresses, but the competition makes us all watch it a lot more intensely, like when you watch a football game that you've bet on versus just watching it for fun," said Gimbel. "You care a ton about the small, animated feature, and watch every single category. Who is going to win best sound? Normally I wouldn't care."

Josh Epstein, a movie fan in New York City, said he's noticed a shift in Oscar parties as well.

"Last year we realized people were intensely watching and tracking their picks, to the point where it resembled more of a silent auction than a party," he said in an e-mail interview. 

Despite employing Vegas picks, scientific formulas and movie critic-like mentality, Epstein said betting on Hollywood's highest honor is still a gamble in the end.

"My girlfriend and I make a mad dash to see as many of the movies as we can in the days leading up to the Oscars," he said. "However, in the past, people have walked away with the pot having seen none of the movies. ... You just never know."