02/06/2004 12:00AM

Another landmark bites dust

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January has been an unkind month for two Las Vegas casino landmarks. First, Binion's Horseshoe downtown was closed Jan. 9. Now the Castaways, formerly the Showboat, was closed Jan. 29.

The two casinos are among the oldest in Las Vegas. Binion's opened in 1952, and the Showboat in 1954.

In a town where newer is considered better, the age of the two casinos did not earn respect.

The Castaways was closed after its biggest creditor, Vestin Mortgage, foreclosed on the property to collect its note, which exceeded $22 million. The closure put more than 800 people out of work.

Just four days later, on Feb. 2, the Showboat's 23-acre property, located at the intersection of Fremont St. and Boulder Highway, was auctioned off. Vestin made the lone bid, $20.7 million, leading to speculation that it will sell off the property for development.

Industry experts pointed to two reasons for the demise of the Castaways. The first reason was the high cost to operate due to expensive union contracts. Most local operators, such as Station Casinos, Boyd Gaming, and Arizona Charlie's, do not have Culinary Union contracts.

The second reason was the Castaways was on an isolated location on the east side of town. When newer casinos like Boulder Station, Sam's Town, and Arizona Charlie's were built to the south on Boulder Highway, local customers migrated there.

Others point out that when the property changed its name from the Showboat to Castaways in the spring of 2001, the casino lost its identity. Harrah's, which briefly owned the Showboat in Las Vegas, attached the brand name to its Atlantic City casino, and it continues to do well.

The name Castaways was chosen because it used to be a well-known Las Vegas Strip casino owned by Howard Hughes. The old Castaways was located where the Mirage and Treasure Island now stand.

Many out-of-town visitors used to flock to the old Showboat because of two sports they saw on television, bowling and boxing.

In 1959, the Professional Bowlers Association was formed in a meeting at the Showboat. The first PBA tour consisted of three events, in Albany, N.Y., Paramus, N.J., and Dayton, Ohio. In 1962, the Showboat Invitational was started, and the PBA has returned to Las Vegas ever since.

For years, the Showboat Invitational was a televised event on ABC Sports. When the bowling center was expanded to 106 lanes, lanes 51 and 52 became the "TV lanes" and the ones most visitors wanted to bowl on.

The Showboat also had a large pavilion that used to host some of the biggest names in boxing, like Alexis Arguello, Bobby Chacon, and Wilfred Benitez. It was a fight card venue where local boxers and up-and-coming talent could gain experience and notoriety. Eventually, the pavilion was converted into a 1,200-seat bingo parlor.

Times change, but it is sad to witness the demise of historic places like Binion's Horseshoe and the old Showboat. They both represented the way Las Vegas used to be.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Radio Show.