01/16/2004 1:00AM

Where the real players gambled


One of the great stories in Las Vegas history came to an abrupt end on the evening of Jan. 9, when U.S. marshals, accompanied by Nevada Gaming agents and Las Vegas police, seized an estimated $1 million in cash from the casino cage at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas and shut the casino down. The marshals were authorized by court order to collect up to $2 million to satisfy debts to the casino's union workers' pension and health funds.

As the lights went out at Binion's Horseshoe, a rich and colorful 50-year past darkened as well.

While gaming giant Harrah's Entertainment completes a fire-sale deal to buy Binion's, many are fondly remembering their visits to the property, which was most famous as home of the World Series of Poker.

From the Damon Runyon characters who came to life at the tables and slots there, to the casino's legendary founder, Benny Binion, the Horseshoe was much more than just an aging casino in Glitter Gulch. It was a bettor's sanctuary that produced some of the greatest gambling stories ever told. Fortunes were won and lost there on the roll of a dice or the turn of a card. Real players knew the Horseshoe was the place to go downtown. It took the biggest bets and offered the highest odds. The rich and famous sat elbow to elbow with busted-out players looking for a new bankroll. That was Binion's.

Although I am a Las Vegas resident, I haven't been to the Horseshoe for years. Maybe that was part of its problem. Many Las Vegans who frequented the Horseshoe over the years have migrated to their neighborhood gaming locales. And most who visit never leave the megaresorts on the Strip.

Still, almost anyone who lived or visited here before the town turned corporate has a Horseshoe moment.

I remember my first visit to the Horseshoe, so many years ago that there was no such thing as simulcasting in Las Vegas. A colorful colleague of mine, who worked with me at the city's major horse race results disseminator, took me to his joint of preference - the Horseshoe, of course. This friend, Joey DeLuca, recreated the race calls, which were broadcast to race books and allowed bettors to follow the action. The World Series of Poker was going on, and Joey introduced me to a famous poker player who bet the races. The poker player took a short break from a side game and chatted horses with us for a minute. I remember looking at the stack of gaming chips piled up in front of his spot and said to myself, "He has more money in chips than the cost of my house, my neighbor's house, and practically the whole neighborhood."

The poker player flipped my host two black chips and returned to the game. Joey then gave me one of the chips and said that his friend just handed out chips to everyone he liked. Wow, I thought, what a place.

The next day, Joey invites me and my wife to dine at the famous Horseshoe steakhouse. It was one of the best steak dinners of my life. Joey tells me that "Benny" raises the beef on his Montana ranch exclusively for the restaurant. He then proceeds to settle the bill with a comp. "What's a comp, I asked?" He told me, and I thought, wow, what a place. My first comp.

To cap off a memorable evening, I joined my host for a little craps action. To my right were swells tossing out handfuls of black chips. To my left, squares guarding dwindling stacks of reds.

Wow, I thought again, what a place.

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