12/15/2008 7:52PM

Omaha via Vegas


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.