Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The More Vegas Changes…

LAS VEGAS--It was already very late when we checked into Room 1738 at the Orleans Tuesday of Derby week.

We began unpacking, interrupting ourselves to peer out at the lights on the Vegas Strip off in the distance noticing, immediately below, a huge parking lot, lit dimly by street lights sprinkled sporadically around its perimeter. An image became immediately, eerily familiar.

No, it wasn’t the same space in which a 64-year-old, whose name will not be advertised in this account, massacred 58 souls and left 851 injured by raining down hellfire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, but it did recall that horrific Sunday night last October.

Toni and I looked at each other and didn’t speak, but we knew what the other was thinking.

The next morning we went down to the Casino floor and it was daily double time: Time to check in with Dana Downs, who never fails to make our stay more enjoyable, and Deb Flaig, who never fails to provide caring service to Race and Sports Book bettors.

Their jobs these days are not easy. Since new management took over, publicly traded Boyd Gaming, amenities are not as they once were, even to the bottom line extent of dimmer lighting. Atmosphere and energy saving is one thing; price per share is another.

A small example of changing times: Depending on how often and how much you wager, betting clerks would issue complimentary drink passes. Last year, they were offered voluntarily; this year you needed to ask. And a second policy change re libations.

Drink passes entitles guests to complimentary “well drinks.” Last year, two or three such passes moved bettors up to the top-shelf liquors. That policy has been discontinued. We don’t know if that’s the case at other Boyd properties but it was at this one.

After visiting with our good friend, professional horseplayer Paul Cornman, at the Race Book, it was back upstairs to work on the Oaks card after having just picked up PPs and Thoro-Graph Sheets for Derby day. A solid 36 hours of handicapping labor lay ahead.

On that night’s late news, I saw an interview with a Vegas Massacre survivor, a young man either side of 35, who still appeared shell-shocked and traumatized as he recounted what it was like to experience that kind of demonic mayhem.

Post interview, the news anchors on the local CBS affiliate spoke of over 700 hours of bodycam footage that they recently acquired, broadcasting some of it and informing viewers that all the footage was available on the station’s website.

To this day, say the locals, details have been disseminated very slowly and are somewhat sketchy.

The following afternoon, Toni cruised the Strip and I continued working, ordering room service brunch so as not to waste any time in transit 17 floors to the Copper Chef, an extremely serviceable breakfast and lunch spot; the same victuals as room-service fare.

At about 2 p.m. there was a knock at the door just as I was trying to reach John Avello at the Wynn, the expert setter of future-book prices and horseplayer, to discuss the state of the game. I opened the door and saw two security guards, a male and female.

Since you can’t take New York out of the boy, I immediately asked: “Checking to see that the person on the other side of the door is still breathing?” He smiled.

“No sir. We saw that you had a do-not-disturb sign on the door for two consecutive days and we’re here to check your room.” “Nothing to see here,” I said, as I opened the door wide to expose two unmade beds and a room in various states of disarray.

“We’d like to come in and check the bathroom.”


‘We need to come in and look in the bathroom, sir.” I’m thinking there are no bodies in there, either.

“You can come in, but I’m not fully dressed so I’d like your partner to remain outside, OK?”

“Yes sir.” And with that the security guard entered, stuck his head inside the bathroom, turned on a dime and said. “Thank you for your patience, sir.”

“Sorry, but I have to ask. Why did you need to see the bathroom?”

“Well, there was that do-not-disturb sign for two days and we had an incident last year, and…” I interrupted him before he could finish.

“It’s fine, I understand completely, and thank you!” In the language of the day, it was ‘good lookin’ out’.

On a less somber note--in fact a very positive one--is the emergence of the Golden Knights. The unqualified success of this expansion team has turned Las Vegas into Hockeytown, USA.

The feeling, with the all the viewing parties, teeming sports bars, and ubiquitous tee-shirts and jerseys, is reminiscent of the New York Islanders back in the day. Times 10!

Even the Statue of Liberty outside the New York, New York casino hotel was festooned in Golden Knights apparel. A visitor got caught up in the fanaticism of it all.

Casinos don’t get rich from Race Book handle, although sports betting does remain an area of growth. Modern Las Vegas is an entertainment/tourist town, not the Mecca for gamblers it once was—even if the bettor next to me was a regular Derby week visitor.

As the Derby 144 horses were about to leave the paddock, more monitors focused in on Churchill Downs and suddenly the hushed quiet of simulcast race-calls disappeared, giving way to the audio ambience of Derby. Everywhere, people were standing.

At Churchill Downs and at racetracks across America, at simulcast venues and in living rooms throughout the country, came the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the only song in a half-century of press boxes where I’ve seen grown men sing as tears stream down their cheeks.

In that moment, it’s impossible to weep no more.

And so it all flashes by as NBC cameras survey the scene; all the wet and fast track Derbies of the past, beautiful women in hats, with crab cakes and the bright lights of Broadway still to come, ready for an explosion of amped three-year-olds about to break from the starting gate.

So wherever you were-or were not-watching in America, whatever the year, whatever the state of the country, or the world, in this one enduring magical moment, know that a race horse has the power to make time stand still.

Written by John Pricci

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