09/23/2003 11:00PM

When races ran here

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When you think about horse racing in Las Vegas, you probably envision the city's race books, which are basically simulcast centers with bettors watching televised images of horses running at tracks elsewhere.

But that wasn't always the case.

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most widely anticipated day in local horse racing history. On Sept. 26, 1953, the Las Vegas Park Race Track held its grand opening after numerous delays. In fact, it had tried to conduct its first day of racing on Sept. 4, but the tote system failed.

Las Vegas Park Race Track was located where the Las Vegas Hilton and Las Vegas Country Club now sit, just east of the resorts at the north end of the Strip and within walking distance of the Sahara, Thunderbird, and Last Frontier. The plant was said to rival any in the country, with the grandstand, clubhouse, and turf club overlooking a circular paddock. In fact, it was called "Saratoga of the West" and the original dreams were that it would be among the premier winter meets in the nation.

Other reasons for the failed Sept. 4 pre-opening was that Del Mar didn't close until Sept. 10 and the weather was still too hot for racing in the desert. But by Sept. 26, Del Mar horses were shipping to Las Vegas and the weather had broken.

Some of the top Thoroughbreds of the day were stabled here, including Blue Reading, who had 14 stakes victories.

Opening day was a social if not economic success and had a Hollywood premiere-type feel. On hand were actors Cary Grant and Jimmy Durante, and singer Johnnie Ray. The parking lot, with 5,000 spaces, was overflowing with traffic backed up for miles around. Cars were left on the side of the roads, as racing fans walked to the grandstand to see the races and bet through a new tote system.

Clubhouse admission was $1, and the turnstiles accepted silver dollars. But it shouldn't surprise anyone that people were coming to the track with silver dollars. In 1995, Prairie Meadows was proclaimed as the first track in America to get slot machines, but Las Vegas Park beat it by more than 40 years. There were 165 one-armed bandits for the fans to play between the races.

Unfortunately, the track failed miserably. A story in the Las Vegas Playground magazine in 1962 claimed the operation lost $150,000 in its first six days of operation. During its existence, the Playground article said, there were problems with strikes, delays, scandals, and kited checks.

The article said: "A climax was reached with the sensational disclosures of embezzlement and fraud which result in criminal charges being lodged against track president Joe Smoot and several officers."

According to a 2000 book by Eugene Moehring, titled "Resort City in the Sun Belt," the casinos didn't support the track because they saw it as a threat to their profits. The track opened and closed in fits and starts over the ensuing years - sometimes racing only two days a week or suspending operations for a week or two at a time.

The track went bankrupt in the mid-1950's and was bought by Joe W. Brown, who sold some of the land to the city to build the Convention Center and the Las Vegas Country Club. In 1966, the rest of the land was sold to a young casino mogul named Kirk Kerkorian, who broke ground on The International, which when it opened in 1969 was the largest hotel in the world. Kerkorian sold The International to the Hilton Corporation in 1970, using the proceeds to build the original MGM Grand Hotel and parlay that into his current MGM Mirage empire, and the name was changed to the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971.

The street that runs behind the hotel is Joe W. Brown Drive, which gives bettors access the Hilton SuperBook. And even though the Las Vegas Race Track is long gone, you can still go to that location and watch horses while sitting near where they used to run nearly half a century ago.

Oak Tree spurs race book activity

With the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting opening Sunday, the Las Vegas handicapping contests that have been on hiatus during the Fairplex meet will resume.

Before any of those start up again, the Imperial Palace's "Super Saturday" contest - which has continued uninterrupted - has a carryover of $7,190. If 145 people put up the $10 entry fee (limit of three per customer), the winner could take home $8,840 if they reach the target score of 146 or more. Cash and other prizes are paid out to the top 25 finishers.

Another contest that has continued since Del Mar closed is the rotating "Win and Quinella Contest" at the Excalibur (Wednesdays), Monte Carlo (Thursdays), Circus Circus (Fridays), and Luxor (Mondays). With Oak Tree not running on Mondays, Luxor will be conducting its contest on the races from Turf Paradise.

* Southern California handicapper Bob Ike's daily selections will be available free at the Bally's and Paris race books starting Sunday. Ike will give full-card selections, including his three best bets (and betting strategies on how to use them) and pick three and pick four plays.

* The return of Oak Tree also brings the return of the Station Casinos handicapping seminar series. Ralph Siraco, Jerry Jacovitz, and yours truly will be at the Boulder Station at noon Oct. 2. The seminar fee is $2, but includes a $2 betting voucher and a free copy of Daily Racing Form. Other seminars will be Oct. 16 at Texas Station, Nov. 6 at Fiesta Rancho, Nov. 20 at Palace Station, and Dec. 11 at Green Valley Ranch.

* Siraco will also host a free seminar with Jon Lindo at the Suncoast on Oct. 8 at 11:30 a.m. A guaranteed $5,000 handicapping contest will be held on the first five Oak Tree races. The entry fee is $10.

Football contests update

In a battle of handicappers from the Jim Feist stable, Bob Donahue went 4-3 to defeat Dave Cokin (3-4) last weekend in the Stardust Invitational head-to-head, single-elimination tournament. Both lost their best bets. For the second week in a row, Dave Malinsky went 4-3 with a best bet winner to knock out defending champion "Papa" Joe Chevalier (3-4) in a rematch of their tie in the opening week. This Friday's matchup, in which each handicapper gives his seven selections at 9 p.m. in the Stardust sports book and on KDWN AM-720, will pit Kevin O'Neill against Lee Sterling.

* In the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, two players using the names "Miss Mocha" and "Soup Du Jour" went 5-0 to leapfrog a bunch of contestants and take over first place with records of 13-2. Of the record 346 participants in the contest who pick five NFL sides each week, two are tied for third with records of 12-2-1, two are at 12-3, and two are 11-3-1. Keith Ogata, who was 10-0 entering last weekend, went 1-4 to fall into an 11-way tie for ninth place at 11-4.

* A Station Casinos Gambler's Challenge contestant under the alias "Lvchipshots" went 4-1 to move into first place with a 12-3 record, half a game ahead of the trio of "Bman," "Barco Boys," and "Hammerin Hank" at 11-3-1.