09/16/2001 11:00PM

When gambling took a backseat in Vegas


Following last week's tragic events on the East Coast, Las Vegas stayed open . . . but it was anything but business as usual.

As news broke of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, casinos responded by turning their race and sports books into communications centers.

"All of our TVs were turned to news of the tragic events," said Cyrill Burger, race and sports book manager at the Las Vegas Hilton's SuperBook. "We had some TVs showing CNN, some on the networks and other showing the local coverage. They all had different news tickers and people were trying to get as much information as possible."

The scene was similar throughout the city as tourists, hotel workers and locals flocked to the huge screens in the sports books.

The race books returned to showing races as some tracks opened Wednesday and most tracks were running by Thursday (with the understandable exception of the New York-area circuits), but sports books remained devoted to the news as all major sporting events were canceled through the weekend.

Among the many canceled events in the casinos was an appearance by jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. at Bally's. It has been rescheduled for Friday from noon to 2 p.m.

On Tuesday, security measures went into place throughout the area. Nellis Air Force Base, located just north of Las Vegas, was put on high alert, particularly because the southern Nevada area is considered a high-profile target for many reasons.

The Stratosphere Tower, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, was closed Tuesday morning and hasn't seen many visitors since. U.S. Highway 93, the road that passes over Hoover Dam about an hour drive from the Strip, was closed Tuesday because it is a potential terrorist target. All vehicles on the road and in the parking garage were inspected for bombs. The highway opened Thursday to cars, but trucks and buses were still being diverted around the dam. In addition, the parking structure remained closed and vehicles were not allowed to stop.

Like all airports in the country, McCarran International closed Tuesday morning, stranding tens of thousands of tourists. The airlines and casinos made sure everyone had a place to stay, which was easier since no additional tourists were arriving.

That trend continued even after the airlines started flying again later in the week. Local tourism officials estimate that Las Vegas's hotel rooms were only 50 percent full this past weekend (at this time of year, occupancy rates of 90-95 percent are typical). Airlines have already announced they will be cutting the number of domestic flights because of the public's expected reaction to last week's hijackings.

Nevada has already felt the effects of an economic slowdown this year. Statewide win, compared to 2000 figures, dropped in three of the first seven months for which data is available. Visitation had held steady, but if the airlines reduce flights to Vegas - whether it's because people are afraid to fly, they don't think partying in Vegas is appropriate, or they think they need to save their money - this trend will also get worse.

No figures are available on gaming handle over the weekend, but sources said the tables were relatively quiet. Many hotels sent staff home early because of the lack of visitors. The sports books had virtually no handle with the exception of future wagers, and managers also sent workers home early and notified part-time workers who come in on the weekends that they wouldn't be needed.

Foot traffic was also down as all the city's football contests were canceled. Things started to change Saturday as the Stardust put up the city's first lines for this upcoming weekend's football games at 10:30 a.m., and the other books followed suit. It appeared that a lot of football bettors were busy handicapping last week because there wasn't any slowdown in the number of early line moves.

Baseball lines went up Sunday for Monday's schedule of six National League games (the Yankees-Blue Jays game was postponed). It was seen as a return to normalcy, or as normal as things could expect to get in light of last week's events.

The silver lining out of all this was the way the Las Vegas community came together, just as has happened from sea to shining sea. MGM-Mirage was the first casino to contribute $1 million to the relief efforts in New York and Washington and local fund-raisers collected at least an additional million with more coming in early this week.

By Wednesday morning, nearly all the marquees on the Strip had American flags and messages proclaiming "God Bless America" or "One Nation Under God."

And on Friday, the national day of prayer and remembrance, many hotels suspended play in their casinos at noon (others such as the MGM-Mirage chain did their memorial at 12:30 p.m.) for a minute of silence to remember those who lost their lives in Tuesday's attacks. That night, hotels up and down the Strip turned off their non-essential exterior lights to show their respect.

Las Vegas, which many people see as the all-American city - for better or worse - showed its true stars and stripes.