05/06/2004 12:00AM

Too humble to admit he had won


Dan Chandler: "I've had a wonderful life. Who was the guy in that movie?"

Reporter: "Uh, do you mean the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life' with Jimmy Stewart? The character he played was George Bailey."

Chandler: "Yeah, that's me. His life didn't go as planned, a lot of people would call him a failure, but he had a lot of friends and really had a wonderful life."

That was part of an interview I had with Dan Chandler about two months ago. It seemed out of place at the time (and, frankly, still does), considering I was calling to see if there was any chance that Danthebluegrassman, the horse named after him, might be running this year on Derby Day. But as was often the case when talking with Chandler, he took over the conversation.

Danthebluegrassman didn't make it to Derby Day, and neither did his namesake, as Chandler died last Tuesday at his home in Versailles, Ky., of congestive heart failure. He was 70 years old, but he packed several lifetimes into those 70 years.

He was born Joseph Daniel Chandler on Oct. 17, 1933, the youngest of five children. His father was Albert "Happy" Chandler, best known as the baseball commissioner who, in 1947, overruled 15 major league owners and supported the Dodgers' Branch Rickey in signing Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier.

Happy Chandler was also a two-time governor of Kentucky and a U.S. senator. As such, the Chandlers were the first family of the Commonwealth. Dan Chandler rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, and watched up close as his father awarded the Derby trophy in the Churchill Downs winner's circle in the late 1930's.

Dan Chandler was a star athlete and played basketball for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, which went undefeated and won the national title in 1954. Chandler told me one time: "I warmed the bench, but I was perfect from the free-throw line - you can look it up." I did, and he was, going 3 for 3 during the 1953-54 season while averaging one point a game in the seven games he played.

But after graduating from college, the youngest son found it hard to live up to the lofty expectations of being Happy Chandler's son. He lost every political race he entered, and failed in business and investments.

"I am my father, without the accomplishments," the younger Chandler often said.

But Chandler was often guilty of selling himself short. In 1973, he found his niche and was a huge success as a casino host in Nevada for the better part of the past 30 years. Most of that time was spent at Caesars Palace, but he also had stints at Caesars Tahoe, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Rio, and most recently with the Millennium Management Group that runs the Rampart and Cannery.

Happy Chandler got his nickname because he was said to always be smiling, but the moniker fit his son as well. Dan Chandler was the consummate host. His list of contacts of the rich and famous got him started, but it was his outgoing and fun-loving personality that endeared him to customers at both ends of the spectrum.

He showed that common touch whenever I spoke to him. He had a story for every situation, usually involving someone famous, and enough tangents to make my head spin as his great stories would remind him of other great stories. But he also took time to ask about my family. We would discuss sports, politics, and, yes, even death. He liked to call it "checking out" or "closing the lid."

I only met him twice in person and we talked on phone another half-dozen times, yet he always greeted me with his trademark "My man!" as if we were best of pals. He had that way of making you feel like you were the VIP. Webster's should do a revision and put his picture next to the definition of "people person."

Chandler often talked about the good old days and bemoaned the increasingly corporate structure of the casino business. "I might not touch all the bases, but I know how to get to home plate," he said.

His renegade ways led him to be fired six times from Caesars Palace, but he kept coming back because he was the best at bringing in the big players, or "whales" as they're called in the casino business. He once told me, "If I was Captain Ahab, 'Moby Dick' would have been a short story."

Of his firings by Caesars Palace, Chandler said, "I've been fired more times than Billy Martin," making another baseball analogy befitting the son of a former commissioner.

Terry Lanni, the president and CEO of MGM Mirage and Chandler's former boss at Caesars, said that might be true, but there was a difference.

"We butted heads over business matters, but that never affected our friendship," said Lanni. "When he was made, they broke the mold."

Lanni should be familiar to horseplayers as the co-owner, along with partner Bernie Schiappa, of 1999 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Silic and multiple stakes winner Ladies Din. He is certainly no wallflower, as the top executive at the largest gaming company in the world, a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, and a frequent corporate speaker. But he still deferred to Chandler when out in public.

"I can't remember anyplace we went where someone didn't know Dan," Lanni said. "It didn't matter if we were in New York, L.A., Las Vegas, anywhere.

"Not too long ago, we were having dinner at the exclusive Bel Air Country Club, and there was a procession of people that came up to say hi to Dan. When we were finally alone, I asked him, 'How long have you been a member?' He said, 'I've never been a member here.' But he was the most popular guy there."

Even for those who didn't know Chandler, if you know the story of 2002 Derby contender Dantheblue-grassman, you know at least a little about him. Chandler had been horse owner Mike Pegram's casino host at Caesars Tahoe, and they became fast friends. Pegram named the horse after his buddy and had Bob Baffert do the training. Pegram and Baffert had teamed up to win the 1998 Derby and Preakness with Real Quiet and were hoping to repeat the feat in 2002 with Danthebluegrassman, who won the Golden Gate Derby that January before having his stock drop in the spring.

Danthebluegrassman made the entry box for the Derby - and Chandler put the Pegram silks on No. 15 at the post-position draw televised by ESPN - but the horse was scratched the morning of the Derby.

Chandler was disappointed but took it in stride.

"So close but yet so far, that's the story of my life," he said at the time. "I played basketball at Kentucky, but warmed the bench when we won the title. I never got to the winner's circle in politics. And now my horse couldn't get to the gate. But it was a fun run."

Rest in peace, my man.