10/01/2009 5:08PM

Lean Times in Vegas


If the recession is supposed to be over, word has yet to reach Las Vegas, where I spent most of the last week. Hotel occupancy is hovering  around 50 percent, and the casinoes are ghost towns on weeknights. Deals abound: As I was sitting on the runway at JFK last Saturday, a guy two seats over used his cellphone to book a room that night at The Palms for just $60.

Redrock09 I stayed at the Red Rock, site of the National Handicapping Championship and of this past Tuesday's NTRA Marketing Summit. Business wasn't too bad, but only because this off-the-Strip resort in suburban Summerlin relies as much on locals as tourists. Even so, I've never seen a casino as deserted as it was on Monday night, when all the bars were empty at midnight and there was roughly one patron for every 50 slot machines. Thank goodness poker players never quit, or sleep: There was always a no-limit hold'em game going in the poker room, regardless of the hour.

Playing poker in a place with a disproportionately high locals-to-tourists ratio is not an optimal situation, since it's usually more profitable to play against inebriated conventioneers and college students than the retirees who are happy to sit for four hours and play only the four best hands they're dealt during that time. Fortunately, there were just enough jackass players to make it a slightly profitable week, like the guy who pushed all-in on a bluff with a queen and a six the one time in four days I was dealt pocket aces.

Badbeatpoker (I had my share of bad beats too but I don't tell bad-beat stories because they are the least interesting stories in the world and having to listen to them is the leading reason that poker players are among the most boring people on earth. At least bad-beat horseplayer stories have the potential for genuine drama and genuine injustice, like losing a bet because the rider misjudges the finish line or a horse jumps the infield hedge or an alligator crawls onto the track. But every single bad-beat poker story is essentially the same: I had the best hand going in and lost. It happens. Even when you're an 80/20 favorite, you lose 20 percent of the time. Big deal. Get over it. Nobody cares.)

The NTRA Summit had the same scaled-back and recessionary feeling as Vegas itself. Several tracks decided to save some travel expenses and cancelled their marketing directors' trips, and the formal part of the proceedings were compressed into a single day, but the event remains one of the better things the NTRA does. It's an opportunity for marketing directors to swap notes on their successes and failures over the past year and, increasingly in recent years, a chance for them to hear ideas from various invited constituencies. Last year, some bloggers were invited and this year it was members of the NTRA's Players Panel, who have some interesting ideas about how to continue growing the NHC, which will again offer over $1 million in prize money this January.

W2G There remains some hope on the legislative front for some kind of reform of the absurd IRS withholding and reporting requirements. Two bills circulating through Congress would raise the threshholds, and NTRA lobbyists have found a couple of sympathetic ears at the IRS itself, so there could be changes from within that would not require Congressional action. It's a lengthy process but still might happen more quickly than waiting for Congress to pay attention to anything beyond the all-consuming health-care debate these days.

--Belmont finally finished drawing the "Super Saturday" card this afternoon, and while the five Grade 1 races have some legitimate star power, the fields have a lean and hungry look: Just five in the Beldame and Vosburgh and seven in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The Flower Bowl and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic have 8 and 9 entrants, respectively, on paper, but will go with fields at least one shorter than that because Christophe Clement has entered two horses in each with Ramon Dominguez named on both, meaning one must be scratched. (Update: Apparently the same-jockey rule does not apply in stakes so while Clement is expected to scratch one in each race, he is not required to. Reupdate: Now I'm told it does apply.) Also, Presious Passion will be scratched from the Hirsch if the course comes up soft.

The all-G1 pick-four Saturday, with a $500k guarantee, will run on races 7-10: the Vosburgh, Flower Bowl, Turf Classic and Gold Cup.