01/08/2008 1:25PM

Mardi Gras Chiens

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Mardigras
The logo for the Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming Center, formerly known as Hollywood Dog Track, is a pair of green and gold masks meant to summon the festivity of the annual carnival in New Orleans. They could also stand for the two gambling operations that are housed at the same address but might as well be on different planets.

Say what you will about the transformation of Gulfstream Park two miles away from a classical racetrack to a crazy-quilt racino, at least the racing is still the dominant theme and the featured attraction. When I went to Hollywood/Mardi Gras Sunday night, the biggest challenge was finding the racing. I entered through the ground floor, which has been transformed into a self-contained slots casino, and knew there was a dog track somewhere only because one row of slot machines backed up onto a glass window showing the tiny paddock where the greyhounds were having their tattoos and muzzles checked by handlers in Hawaiian shirts:

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Not one patron was looking at them, though. The machines were set up so that the players' backs were turned towards the dogs, their eyes fixed on the Reels o'Dublin, Treasures of Troy and Super Hot Jackpot machines.

I could dimly see the old racetrack apron through a row of smoked-glass doors lining the entire east end of the building, but every door to get to it appeared locked and alarmed. A security guard looked surprised when I asked him how to get to the racetrack and reluctantly pointed me to the one unsecured door leading to it.

On the other side, there was the beloved Hollywood of yesteryear, with the stands reopened and perhaps 100 people scattered through them. To bet, you had to climb about 50 stairs to the second floor, where there was a bustling simulcast area with perhaps another 100 customers and walls of monitors showing everything from greyhounds in Arizona to trotters in Delaware and thoroughbreds in Australia.

One level down, the floors between the slots were freshly carpeted, a variety of bars and food courts lined the walls, and cover bands played in lounges. In the racing area, a single ancient short-order grill accomodated the horse, dog and poker players, the latter limited to $5 bets.

But you know who was having more fun? The upstairs crew, by daylight. Downstairs, rows of retirees appeared plugged into their machines as if they were life-support devices, sitting in silence as the clanging machines gobbled their credits. On the parimutuel and poker planet, there was cheering and arguing and groups of buddies comparing notes and questioning the parentage of jockeys and greyhounds. And the fresh-off-the-grill $5.95 Patty Melt Basket was a lot tastier than the $18 hamburger at my hotel.

Sunday is mandatory-payout night at Mardi Gras each week for the tri-super on the 9th and 11th races -- for each winning ticket you buy on the 9th race tri, you get one exchange ticket to try to hit the 11th race super. The carryover was $2,679 and I took a $48 shot, emerging with a $97.50 payoff and one of the 37 live exchange tickets, giving me one cold punch. I did have the $4.20 winner on top in the very chalky 11th (where the straight in-race super paid only $120.20), but I missed underneath and there were two winners with the right numbers at $2654 each.

Total handle for the 15-race Mardi Gras card was $202,159, compared to $7.9 million that afternoon on Gulfstream.