09/10/2004 12:00AM

Definitely not in Kansas any more


As one of many Las Vegas promotions based on the Del Mar season, Station Casinos provided lucky local horseplayers with a day at the races there.

Station awarded the trips through weekly drawings each Friday evening over a six-week run. The 36 winners, along with a companion of choice, joined invited guests and Station race book managers on a full plane to San Diego.

While the live experience at beautiful Del Mar is always welcome for horseplayers, the culture shock of betting horses in the real world renewed an appreciation of Las Vegas race books for most of those who took the trip.

The trip included all transportation to and from Las Vegas with complimentary buffet and drinks in a VIP suite at the track. In the Vegas vernacular, it was a full comp day.

Although the Las Vegas invitees were ready for Del Mar, Del Mar may not have been ready for them.

Upon arriving in San Diego, the group scrapped a tour of the city in favor of heading right to the track. Hey, Del Mar was simulcasting Saratoga, and a chance at making the Spa pick six trumped any sites of the seaside city. So, the bus cruised nonstop to Del Mar. The first sign of the times appeared as we drove into the track parking lot. Valet parking, $20. What? Las Vegas horseplayers need only toke a buck or two for the same service. The admission gate served another dose of reality, charging the Las Vegas players for something they get free at the race book. Dictionary-thick racing programs produced an appreciation for the easier-to-handle track sheets that are also free at the books.

In the suite, eager players cut a hasty path to the betting window in the nick of time to play the Spa pick six, only to discover that the tellers were not yet open for business. That contrasts to the action on racing in Las Vegas, which starts at breakfast and ends only when the bankroll does.

After lunch the live racing began. With the horses only lengths away from the trackside suite, most of the Las Vegas players were watching the individual tableside television sets. And, asking just after the horses crossed the finish line, "Was that the 5 horse or the 9?" Some habits are hard to break.

A signature drink served in a pink shaker glass became the popular thirst quencher of the day. As the day wore on, empty shakers strung out on the table like landing-strip lights at the airport. Mac scored big with multiple tickets on a $600-plus pick three and toked the bartender a C-note. While the Las Vegas players were drinking for free, each pink libation would cost $10.75 anywhere else on the track - a sobering fact of ontrack economics. And, not one scantily clad waitress came by with the offer of "cocktails."

By evening's end, some 600 miles and 15 hours later, the Las Vegas players returned to their horseplayers' heaven, leaving the real racing world behind.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.