03/08/2007 12:00AM

Reflecting on Stardust memories


I used to tell people who hadn't been to Las Vegas in a few years that they wouldn't believe the changes. Now the changes come in a matter of months.

I have a poster in my home office from the turn of the century that is increasingly getting out of date. It's pre-Palms, pre-Wynn, pre-Hooters, and doesn't have all the high-rise condominiums that are popping up.

What brought on this fit of nostalgia was the news that the Stardust will be imploded in the early morning hours this Tuesday. Since 9/11, casino implosions have been done at night with limited media fanfare, but the Stardust's demise should still bring out a big crowd to say good-bye to one of the iconic hotels in Vegas. Heck, the movie "Casino" was based on the Stardust.

My Stardust memories are of a more recent vintage as I spent countless hours there getting the opening lines, which were considered the industry standard for years, and listening to the "Stardust Line" radio shows, especially the Stardust Invitational handicapping tournament. I finally knew I had made it in this town when, as a contestant in the 2001 Stardust Invitational, my name appeared in lights on the marquee outside of the sports book on the Las Vegas Strip (unfortunately, I went 2-for-5 and lost to Bert Osborne, who went on to win the title that year). Another happy memory that ended in a losing bet was a Kentucky Derby seminar I gave in 2004 at the Stardust in which I gave out Lion Heart, who was bet down to 5-1 and led every step of the first mile. Of course, the Derby is 1 1/4 miles and Lion Heart was beaten by Smarty Jones.

My most recent memory of the Stardust was on the final "Stardust Line" show last June when host John Kelly closed the show with a quote from one of my columns: "The Stardust Line pretty much created the genre of sports-betting radio here in Vegas, and while there are lots of new shows around to carry the torch, they'll be hard-pressed to shine as bright or as long." I felt humbled and honored.

While recalling all these things, I was atop the Palms' new Fantasy Suites Tower this past Monday night, looking at the panoramic view of the Strip and thinking about all the other changes that have just happened or are on the horizon.

Right down Flamingo Road, where it meets the Strip, is the Barbary Coast. It had one of the foremost race and sports books in its day, and one of the best meals I have ever eaten was at the Barbary's restaurant Michael's, which has now been relocated to Michael Gaughan's South Point Casino on the far south end of the Strip.

The Barbary Coast name is no more. Harrah's now owns the property after a land swap with Boyd Gaming (the parent company of Coast Casinos), which traded it for a parcel of land that will be added onto its $4 billion Echelon Place development that will include casinos, hotels, shopping, and entertainment venues on the former Stardust site that is expected to open in 2010.

Anyway, Boyd retained the rights to the "Coast" brand so Harrah's last week renamed it Bill's Gambling Hall and Saloon. It doesn't have the panache of how Strip hotels are usually named (Mirage, Bellagio, etc.), but it's expected to be short-lived anyway. Harrah's has long been rumored to be developing a plan for the Disneyland of casinos on its own mini-Strip on the east side of the street, including its namesake hotel, the Imperial Palace, Bill's, Bally's, and Paris, and Caesars Palace across the Strip. The Imperial Palace (where I first met my wife, since I'm reminiscing) and Bill's are expected to be razed in the process.

But there are more changes going on. The biggest project, even bigger than Echelon Place, is MGM Mirage's $7 billion Project City Center between Bellagio and Monte Carlo. There isn't as much history in that area, unless you took Butterbean's advice and tried the buffet at the Boardwalk or watched Robby Kneivel jump between the towers at the Jockey Club, but there are more changes for those who remember old Vegas.

Just this past Tuesday, again in the early-morning hours, the old Desert Inn parking garage was imploded to make way for Wynn's $2 billion expansion called Encore.

The Tropicana, often the speculation of implosion, is undergoing a $2obillion renovation.

The Sahara has a new owner in SBE Entertainment Group, which is headed by Hollywood nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, who says he wants to return the Sahara to its hip heyday.

Speaking of Hollywood, the Aladdin is being rethemed as the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino by next month.

Even downtown, the El Cortez is having a $20 million facelift to fit in with the burgeoning nightlife scene around Fremont East.

All this is being done, of course, so more memories (and money) can be made.