Updated on 09/17/2011 10:59AM

Helping hand extended to horseplayers


The Stratosphere Tower hotel-casino is an unusual property.

Everyone in town knows where it is. At 1,149 feet, the Stratosphere is the country's tallest free-standing observation tower (twice as tall as Seattle's Space Needle) and the tallest building west of the Mississippi. You can't be outdoors anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley without being able to turn around and see it.

But just because everyone knows where it is doesn't mean everyone wants to go there, mainly because it's not in the best part of town, surrounded by pawn shops, rent-by-the-hour motels, etc.

The majority of its clientele are frugal-minded tourists, looking for cheaper hotel rooms than they can find farther south on the Strip. Since opening in 1996, the casino has tried to market itself more to locals. Those efforts were hampered since there was no race book and the sports book was operated by Leroy's, a chain of small bet shops.

In August 1999, that changed when the Stratosphere opened a full-service race and sports book in its current location on the south end of the property, a short walk from valet parking and at the bottom of the escalator from the parking garage. Nick Bogdanovich, who made a name for himself at Binion's Horseshoe for taking on the city's professional bettors, was hired to book to the wiseguys. Bogdanovich also started a free football contest to attract locals. His successors, Rico Ruggeroli and Sid Diamond, also launched horse handicapping contests that were met with moderate success before being discontinued. The three directors lasted a combined two years at the Stratosphere.

Robert Jaynes is now the man in charge, and he is closing in on his second year at the helm. He also oversees the sister properties at Arizona Charlie's East (on Boulder Highway) and West (on Decatur Boulevard). And while he has tried to make the sports betting menu distinct enough to attract more business, he is really going all out to launch a plan to try and get local horseplayers to frequent the Stratosphere: the Very Important Horse Players (VIHP) program.

But first a little background . . .

Around the same time that the Stratosphere was opening in 1996, Jay Kessler was selling his music publishing and artist management company in Los Angeles. He moved his wife and two kids to Las Vegas and tried being a professional horse player.

He won't say exactly how much money he had, only to say it was a "sizable bankroll." He played every day, while also performing on the side and still managing some acts.

"You know the sayings how all horseplayers die broke, and a bad day at the track is better than a good day anywhere else?" Kessler asked. "I truly believed that. I made every mistake in the book, but I was in action. I started out really well, but then my bankroll started dwindling slowly but surely. I finally got to a point where I said, 'I can't do this anymore. I have a wife and kids.'

"I said, 'I have got to beat this because I don't want to go broke and I want to do it until I die.' "

Kessler decided to step back from his everyday gambling. He wanted to learn the race and sports book business, so he took a job, under Jaynes, as a ticket writer at Arizona Charlie's West in 2001. Kessler said he immediately learned a lot, not only about other gamblers but about himself.

"When you're behind the counter, you get a clear view of how gamblers are," Kessler said. "You can tell which guys are just betting to be in action and which ones are seriously trying to win money. The recreational bettors make the same mistakes over and over, it's almost like they assume they're going to lose and are just doing it for entertainment."

Kessler said the experience led him to track his own plays and analyze what he was doing right and wrong in his own betting. When he started eliminating mistakes, he saw his profits soar.

Back to the present . . .

This past spring, Kessler approached Jaynes about an idea of being a race book host/in-house handicapper and developing the VIHP program.

"Gamblers are what makes this business go," Kessler said. "VIHP is all about helping players get the credit they deserve. I sign them up for [a rewards program], give them free Daily Racing Forms, track their play, help them get comps, and handle the IRS forms for large payoffs.

"Robert really thinks outside the box, and he's big on customer service. We have a very friendly book. If a player asks me about a race, I'll crack open the Form and break down a race with them. We want to help them succeed."

For the past two months, Kessler has released two or three picks a day on a sheet he calls "Jays Playz." Of the 107 horses he has given out, 36 have won (34 percent) and a $2 win and place bet on each has resulted in $426 in wagers (the first day it was listed as just a $2 place bet) and payoffs of $529.10 for a profit of $103.10, a 24 percent return on investment.

Kessler will also host monthly handicapping seminars on Saturday mornings, starting on Sept. 13. He also has plans for a twin exacta promotion (similar to twin Q's offered around town, but with a greater chance of bigger carryovers with an exacta format) and a free handicapping contest to be announced soon.

"We're hoping people come in and see everything our book has to offer," Kessler said. "I know I'm not a household name, but I'm hoping I can help people learn from my mistakes and make the transition from degenerate loser to a successful equestrian investor.

"This is a tough racket. You're going against everything that can happen in a race, while also trying to overcome - on average - an 18 percent takeout. Horseplayers are a strange group, and I'm one of them. I love them and I want to help them."

And help the Stratosphere in the process.