05/26/2005 11:00PM

No substitute for real thing


For the longest time, Nevada was the only state in the union to offer legalized casino gambling. That exclusivity ended in 1978 when the first Atlantic City casino opened - the Resorts Casino.

Analysts predicted doom and gloom for Las Vegas because the prevailing opinion was that gamblers east of the Mississippi River would flock to New Jersey. In hindsight, that assessment was as accurate as explorers saying the world was flat.

What has happened is that Atlantic City, and the myriad casinos and riverboats that have come after it across the United States, have fueled more interest in Las Vegas, not less. Tourism here has never been stronger, and that growth shows no sign of abating.

A new telephone survey conducted by the Stockton-Zogby Poll is adding more credence to that sentiment. A random sample of 1,001 New Jersey residents were interviewed, and the answers were quite revealing.

Of the 525 people who said they frequented casinos, 57.1 percent said they preferred going to Las Vegas, 2,400 miles away. Only 27.1 percent said they liked Atlantic City, even though a dozen casinos are right in their own back yard. Coming in third at 5.5 percent was Connecticut, which has two fabulous Indian casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.

Also, 10 percent of recipients said they would rather go to New York or Pennsylvania when those states start offering casino-style gambling, than stay in New Jersey.

Atlantic City has always operated at a disadvantage to Las Vegas as far as gambling options.

Nevada offers sports wagering, which takes off especially during the football and basketball seasons. Each autumn weekend, Nevada sports books are packed on Saturday for college football and on Sunday for the National Football League.

And if you can't attend the Super Bowl, the second-best place to watch and wager on the game is right here.

Basketball betting on the NBA and college is strong, but it skyrockets during the NCAA tournament in March. I've talked to people who take vacations to Las Vegas to bet the first week of the tournament, when all 64 teams are playing.

Poker, the fastest-growing gambling option around, was not allowed in Atlantic City until June 1993. Enabling legislation allowed poker tables into "simulcasting space," the small rooms where horse race betting was already housed.

Precious casino space was reserved for profit-generating slot machines, so poker and simulcast horse racing were squeezed into one area. You'll never see that in Las Vegas, where both types of wagering receive first-class treatment.

So maybe the Stockton-Zogby Poll is showing that Las Vegas is like the product described in an old Coca-Cola commercial: "It's the real thing."

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