12/06/2002 1:00AM

Three to remember


LAS VEGAS - There's an old saying that bad things come in threes. That's just what happened in the last week of November, when three Las Vegans who made their mark in the gaming or racing industries died.

On Nov. 26, horse owner Verne H. Winchell died at his Las Vegas home after suffering a heart attack. He was 87. On the same day, casino owner Ralph Engelstad died of cancer at his Las Vegas home. He was 72. On Nov. 30, longtime bookmaker Julius "Sonny" Reizner died here from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 81.

For Winchell, Las Vegas was his final home. Born in Boomington, Ill., Winchell and his family moved to California when he was 9. He started the Winchell's donut chain in 1948 with a shop near Santa Anita Park. In 1968, he merged his 400-shop chain with Denny's restaurants. He retired as chairman of the company in 1984, when he sold his interests for more than $600 million. But, racing would be with him throughout his life.

Winchell's first top horse was Donut King, in the early 1960's, and he campaigned more than 40 stakes winners. In an interview last year at a local race book, Winchell reflected on the state of racing and talked about his homebred filly Fleet Renee, who won last year's Ashland and Mother Goose. Winchell enjoyed going to the race book to grab a burger and watch his horses run.

Engelstad was one of the few remaining independent casino owners, having owned the Imperial Palace. Born in Thief River Falls, Minn., Engelstad began to earn his fortune in the Las Vegas construction business in the 1960's. In 1971 he purchased the Flamingo Capri on the Strip and turned that property into the Imperial Palace hotel casino in 1979.

The IP has 2,700 rooms and is home to Englestad's multimillion-dollar antique auto collection. Along with the Sahara Hotel owner Bill Bennett, Englestad provided financing for the creation of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They sold the state-of-the-art auto racing facility in 1998. Both the auto collection and the speedway remain popular attractions in Las Vegas.

The publicity-shy Englestad will certainly be remembered for his philanthropy. In 1998, he gave $100 million to his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, for a hockey arena. Englestad played goalie for UND in the 1950's.

In addition to the Las Vegas property, Englestad also owned the 1,100-room Imperial Palace in Biloxi, Miss.

Sonny Reizner was a pioneer in the Nevada sports book industry. Born in Taunton, Mass., Reizner will be remembered for innovations that brought the sports betting industry into the mainstream.

In 1970, Reizner moved to Las Vegas and quickly landed a job with another pioneer, Bob Martin, at the old Churchill Downs book. After stops at the Fremont and Stardust, Reizner joined Bill Friedman at the Castaways in 1977. From the small corner of the Castaways casino, Reizner reshaped the sports betting terrain. His book hosted the first NFL point-spread contest. He created the first Super Bowl and Monday Night Football parlay cards, and became known for offering unusual proposition bets.

His "who shot J.R." proposition bet - based on the television show "Dallas" - received so much publicity that regulators later banned such non-gaming offerings.

After the Castaways was razed to make way for The Mirage, Reizner moved to the Rio. Before retiring, he also worked at the Frontier and Desert Inn in the late 1990's.

The loss of Winchell, Engelstad, and Reizner will be felt throughout Las Vegas.

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