12/15/2008 6:52PM

Omaha via Vegas

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When I agreed a few months ago to do a seminar this past weekend at Horsemen's Park in Omaha, I didn't bother looking at a map before deciding that a long as I was going as far as Omaha I might as well swing by Las Vegas as well. That's what I was doing for the last week instead of blogging, and now it's time to get caught up. Settle back, smoke 'em if you got 'em, and I'll tell you all about it.

Computerhell The plan was to blog as I travelled, and I thought I had resolved my most recent computer problems just in the nick of time. The local PC geek with a basement workshop found a replacement for my fried laptop video card on eBay, won the auction, and received the part the night before my trip began last Tuesday. That seemed to fix the problem and off to Vegas I went last Tuesday morning. I arrived at The Mirage, played the first of three marathon poker sessions, and sat down to start writing about how dead Vegas seemed amid the current economic meltdown. I powered up the laptop, the screen went psychedelic and filled with chartreuse boxes, and finally went blank. So much for blogging.

Volcano11 Anyway, Vegas truly was dead. Revenues have been down 15 to 25 percent at the casinos since summertime, and from the sea of empty seats you'd think the declines are going to be even uglier this month. Even at the shank of the evening, only six or seven of the 20 tables in the Mirage poker room had games going. The upside to this is that rooms have never been cheaper, with some casinos selling beds for as little as $14 a night and deep discounts available on cushier digs: Two-bedroom suites at the Mirage, overseeing the new $25 million artificial volcano that's rigged to erupt on the hour, have a usual rack rate of $550 but were going for $160 a night.

My poker's gotten a little rusty since playing online became illegal for Americans almost two years ago, but it came back pretty quickly and it was pretty easy pickings thanks to two species of fish. First, it was National Rodeo Finals week, and all cowboys seem to think they're born poker players. They're not. Second, there's a new breed of Aspiring Poker Pros, guys in their 20's whose knowledge of the game clearly stems from watching televised poker. You can spot them in a second by their moves and gear -- sunglasses, iPods, slick chip-shuffling skills, nonstop commentary on the game, and playing about 80 percent of the hands they're dealt in Hold 'Em games where you should instead be throwing away your hands at that rate.

Pokerdogs3 I have to think that they've been fooled into thinking that's how you're supposed to play by the televised tournaments, not realizing that these broadcasts are heavily edited to exclude the vast majority of hands where the table folds after one person bets. A true, real-time telecast would be unwatchably slow and boring, and the edited versions show only the actually rare contested, multi-player pots. Whenever one of these aggressive players turned up in a game, playing almost every hand, the rest of te table quietly and conspiratorially went into best-ball mode, and it was the best of the other nine hands against the Aspiring Pro until he eventually and inevitably busted out. It almost felt like stealing.

I usually play the nightly tournaments at The Mirage, which in past years had drawn 50 or 60 entrants at a $150 buy-in, but last week they couldn't even get three tables of players to sign up , so I stuck to the $2-$5 no-limit and $10-$20 limit games.

On Friday morning I left Vegas for Omaha (which turns out to be 1300 miles east) and my first look at Horsemen's Park, a unique and bittersweet point of interest on the American racing scene. The sweet part is that it is a really superior and fan-friendly simulcast facility with as strong an emphasis on fan-education as I've seen anywhere in the country. The bitter is that Horsmen's, which offers only four days a year of live racing on a five-eighths mile track built a decade ago, is all that is left of Omaha racing, once a national powerhouse in the heyday of Ak-Sar-Ben, which closed in 1995.

Aksarben1 As recently as 1975, Ak-Sar-Ben was expanding its grandstand to increase its seating capacity to over 20,000 to accomodate busloads of weekend visitors from Des Moines and Kansas City. Ak-Sar-Ben perenially ranked among the nation's top 10 tracks in average daily attendance, but over the next 20 years the crowds steadily declined. New tracks such as the Woodlands and Prairie Meadows killed the out-of-state business, and then the addition of dog racing and then racinos in neighboring Iowa began drawing the locals away. The track closed for good in 1995, leaving Nebraska racing with a second-tier circuit of Fonner Park, Lincoln and Columbus.


Horsemens1 Much of that racing is supported by the year-round simulcasting at Horsemen's, which is operated by the Nebraska H.B.P.A. to serve Omaha horseplayers and generate purse money for the remaining live circuit. The four days of live racing each summer allow it to simulcast year-round. Horsemen's attracts 600 to 1,000 people on weekends and handles around $400,000 on such days. Saturday mornings also draw 50 to 200 people to attend the "Pick More Winners" program,a classroom-style seminar program led by local racing enthusiasts Mike Kratville and Johnny Ray Gomez. I was there for the monthly guest-lecturer program, following recent guests including Jerry Bailey, Andy Beyer, Steve Davidowitz and Jim Quinn.

Horsemen's Park goes the extra step for its customers but is handcuffed by anti-gambling provisions in the Nebraska state constitution that prohibit offtrack and telephone betting, and by an ultra-conservative population outside of Omaha that rejected the most recent attempt to allow racinos by nearly a 2-1 ratio. The state forbids rebates and rewards programs as well.

Omaha horseplayers are like horseplayers anywhere, passionate about the game and full of the same questions and concerns I hear from Rockingham to Emerald: They're baffled by synthetic surfaces and the need for them, angry about the industry's inability to modify punitive IRS regulations, mystified why tracks can't merge pools more quickly and halt betting when the first horse goes into the gate.

Most of all, though, even though it's been 13 years, they don't understand why their beloved Ak-Sar-Ben is no more.


--On the gambling front, it was a slow and low-handle week for me. When you keep poker hours in Las Vegas, you tend to miss the morning window for playing Aqueduct. On Saturday at Horsemen's, we focussed on the late pick-4 at Aqueduct and the all-Grand Slam pick-4 at Calder. The Aqueduct one started beautifully with Run for The Lark winning at 19-1, at least double his fair odds, but I couldn't have used 65-1 Golden Caesar in the next leg without hitting the all button, so that was the end of that. The Calder results were more manageable, but unfortunately I wasn't a fan of Finallymadeit in the Hooper.

I was in the air during Aqueduct's Sunday festivities, when no one picked six for the second straight day and a single 5/6 cojnso was worth over $35k. So there's a $150k double-carryover awaiting us Dec. 26 when racing resumes after 11 holiday dark days in New York.

Wayne80 More than 1 year ago
Steve, I was out there for rodeo week a few years back, in the thralls of a booming economy, and it was dead as a door nail except for the cowboys. They were giving away the rooms. Conceirge informed me that is is traditionally the slowest week of the year right before the holidays, which is why they brought the rodeo in to begin with. A fond memory of that particular trip was a sudden roar that went up in the mostly vacant casino. All the cowboys were running around screaming YE HAH and high fiving each other. Thought some big country music star must of walked in. When I looked at the TV I realized it was because the US had captured Sadaam Hussein. The adrenalin rushed through my veins in a patriotic frenzy. Amazing moment, too bad it was too short lived. RAW - NYRA does NOT close on Jewish Holidays and Veterans Day. The are forbidden by and antiquated law to open on Palm and Easter Sundays, and decided a few years back to give their employees a break around the Holidays but are open every other Holiday unless it falls on a usually dark day. They even used to open specifically on Election Day, but no more. You may have time on your hands but most folks are up to their eyeballs in holiday shopping and parties, and short of cash, so NYRA, finding their business was way off during this period, decided to give it a break. Most horsemen hate it since they all still need to train in the morning and have no earnings to show for it, but at least for this particular year it appears the right move considering the weather.
Nick Briglia More than 1 year ago
Fatal Bullet, Kentucky Bear... Yeah, Santa Anita is definitely safer for horses. No doubt about it....
rawlawltd More than 1 year ago
bochalls: It is now impossible to have a set of NYRA pars. Before this year I never saw a 10,000 claimer NW2L!!! Junior is very creative. c says: Neither did I; Merry Whatever You Celebrate & a Winning New Year!!
bochalls More than 1 year ago
All I want for Christmas/ Hanukah/ Kwanza is a set of NYRA pars! Santa, you can even leave out pars for Finger Lakes...just need BEL,SAR,AQU and inner. Forgive me, my life is way busier than I thought and the hours needed to do the research just aren't available to me....Happy Holidays fellow blogger minions!!!
C More than 1 year ago
rawlawltd, I didn't mean to come down hard on you, nor do I wish to get into a big religious/political dicussion either. My point was that all track employees are entitled to their (contiguous) vacation time, and most of them observe the end-of-year holidays, so it makes sense to me. Of course, not every track does this, but I don't think it would be a bad thing if they did.
mark c More than 1 year ago
I know how we can revive the racing game in New York. Have NYRA card more 6 furlong turf sprints and NY bred maiden races! ( major sarcasm here)
micclay More than 1 year ago
CA's Robert Shapiro == Ready, Fire, Aim. Out of Control. The Breeders' Cup has lost its way and is adding to the downward spiral in racing. To wit; 7 to 14 races, females all on one day, new races with no significant lead up races - 2 year turf. Two years at Santa Anita and the fake track. And now, cancel all stake subsidies. No, wait a minute - reinstate the program; we never checked with the breeders who are canceling their nominations and financial support. Talk about a program out of control. Went to the Breeders' Cup every year from 1988 - 2006. Bought and then sold my Mommoth ticket in a revolt on the BC. Went to LA this year as we had already booked a cruise. When I saw the prices for crappy seats I had to buy for two days, I played from the hotel room on my laptop and bet next to nothing as the track could not be handicapped. And the downward spiral becomes faster and the slope deeper!!!
Blue Horseshoe More than 1 year ago
C, Solid post!!!
jim More than 1 year ago
Steve, Big A needs some type of winter racing series based around the triple crown from now until the super bowl. Something like a starter allowance series with one race in Dec, Jan, Feb...Maybe a handicapping contest...Big A patrons vs...Monmounth Park Patrons. These people that work in the marketing department need to be more creative. There is opportunity in the winter months to capture market share with less competition.
rawlawltd More than 1 year ago
c says: Your response is strictly a distinction without a difference. At a casino, is the blackjack dealer in the entertainment business & the cocktail waitress in the service business? Also, I didn't say NYRA should be open ON Christmas, but the Christmas holidays. I also don't expect a Jewish person to play on Yom Kippur, but others might like to. I also would like NYRA to shut down for the winter. But if they're open, that's where I play. If you don't want to, don't.