Updated on 09/16/2011 6:43AM

Travels with my cabbie


LAS VEGAS - Conventional wisdom says that gambling is a recession-proof business. Wall Street seems to agree these days, as gaming stocks are one of the market's strongest sectors in the current economic downturn. Perhaps their prices are right, but you sure wouldn't know it after spending a little time here in the capital of American gambling.

Las Vegas is hurting. The airport, hotel lobbies, and casino floors look half-empty. You don't have to wait for a seat at the breakfast buffets or the poker tables, and conventioneers are a rare sight. City and casino officials are vague and cagey about the level of declines, but cab drivers, card dealers, and cocktail waitresses will tell you that business is down anywhere from 20 to 40 percent during the week and 10 to 20 percent on weekends.

A highly unscientific observation: It seems that the falloff is almost entirely because of absent Easterners and foreigners. The locals are out in full force and Californians still drive here for the weekend, but plenty of other Americans have yet to regain their enthusiasm for air travel. Perhaps the conventional wisdom should be revised to state that gambling is recession-proof as long as you don't have to get on a plane to do it.

There is a little bit of good news in all this for Thoroughbred racing. Perhaps the only casino areas that look exactly the same as they did before Sept. 11 are the race books, whose customers are mostly locals rather than visitors. Similarly, individual tracks around the country are showing much smaller declines than destination resorts and casinos. Perhaps some of the people who used to hop a plane to Vegas for the weekend are staying home and getting their action at the local horse park or simulcast theater.

If Vegas can tell us something about the national economic mood, so can one of its adopted sons who was first introduced to readers of this space two years ago: Harold the Cabbie, who shall henceforth be known by his real name, Howard the Cabbie. When I first wrote about him, I changed his name to Harold to protect his identity but it turned out he desired no such protection and was slightly put out about the whole thing. So it's back to Howard.

Two winters ago a flight back to New York from Vegas was diverted to land in Baltimore, and in the ensuing confusion Howard, who was on the same flight, recognized me from picking me up at Kennedy Airport in 1993 and talking horses all the way home. We rented a car instead of waiting for a flight the next morning, and he set a new North American track record by driving from Baltimore to Long Island in what felt like two hours. At the time it seemed like an incredible coincidence that we had hooked up off a single chance encounter seven years earlier.

Incredible became unbelievable this past Wednesday night when I walked out of the Las Vegas airport and was directed to taxi stand number 18 and the guy who got out to open the trunk of the cab was - yes, I have witnesses - the very same Howard. Being a horseplayer first and a cabbie second, Howard's first priority was calculating the odds on all this.

"I figure it was 10,000-1 that I drove you in '93 and then ran into you in Baltimore," he began, "and I make it 1,500-1 that I got you as a fare tonight, since that's how many cabs there are in Las Vegas. So what's the parlay, a million-and-a-half to one? It's easier to win the Triple Crown."

A 1,500-1 shot ago, Howard moved to Las Vegas and was quietly becoming a tycoon day-trading technology stocks while neglecting his horseplaying. Like quite a few other Americans, his bubble burst over the last two years.

"The market became a slaughterhouse, a burial ground," he said almost wistfully. "I got out alive but a lot of guys didn't. I'm still trading but it's not like it used to be. I'm more excited about that race Sunday at Santa Anita with Men's Exclusive and Squirtle Squirt. By the way, I'm still the king of the Kentucky Derby. I haven't missed since the last time I saw you."

That would suggest he nailed Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos. So who's it going to be this year?

"Siphonic, easy," Howard said. "And I won't even have to bet. Right before he won that race in December, the Hollywood Futurity, I got 20-1 on him in the future book."

Las Vegas is down but racing is flat, and Howard's more interested in the Palos Verdes Handicap than the price of Intel. Perhaps there's hope for the game after all.