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October 25, 2014

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Upon Further Review:

A sad saga: horse racing in Las Vegas

Dream of first-rate track here hit snag after snag and died, but not before captivating Sun founder and countless others

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Las Vegas Sun file photo

For a time, Las Vegas Park, shown in the early 1960s, looked as if it might be one of the nation’s top tracks. But it stumbled out of the gate, suffering from bankruptcy, corruption and poor attendance.

How the 480 acres of Las Vegas Park were divvied up after the last race

  • Joe W. Brown: The Horseshoe owner struck oil in Louisiana in 1946, and raced horses in New Orleans and at Santa Anita in California. He bought the 480 acres of Las Vegas Park out of bankruptcy for $2.65 million. Joe W. Brown Drive now snakes through the property, from Desert Inn to Sahara.
  • Moe Dalitz: The owner of the Desert Inn formed a group that bought the southwestern section of the park to build a convention center.
  • Kirk Kerkorian: He purchased the rest of the western section and built the International Hotel, now the Hilton.
  • Marvin Kratter: Kratter demolished Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field with a wrecking ball painted white to look like a baseball and built the complex now called the Jackie Robinson Apartments. He bought the rest of the Las Vegas Park land and developed a golf course. It’s the Las Vegas Country Club.

Las Vegas Park might have become one of the premier Kentucky Derby prep races. Maybe Big Brown or Z Fortune would have raced here in a Las Vegas Handicap or Silver State Stakes in recent months.

The story of thoroughbred racing in Las Vegas is riddled with embezzling and forgery, a special master and a bankruptcy referee, federal judges, poor attendance and a broken tote board.

Joseph M. Smoot, a New York promoter who had made and lost several fortunes, had big dreams for a racetrack in Las Vegas that would have no rival.

It was a dusty-rose mirage.

Into the sunset

Smoot had two-tone shoes, a cane and a straw hat atop his white hair. The fast-talking promoter from New York had charm, persuasive powers and a stunning redheaded wife half his age.

But in 1946, he didn’t have a ride from Brooklyn to Nevada. His lawyer’s partner, Hank Greenspun, had a red Buick convertible and a keen streak of adventure. The pair went west.

As soon as they arrived in Las Vegas, they separated. Greenspun sent for his wife, Barbara, became interested in journalism and started the Las Vegas Sun in 1950.

Smoot grew secretive. Greenspun called him a “lamster” in his 1966 biography, “Where I Stand: The Record of a Reckless Man.” Smoot became involved in “elaborate promotional maneuvers.”

“Old Joe knew a track wouldn’t have a chance,” Greenspun wrote about the daily drama that engulfed Las Vegas Park, at Paradise and Desert Inn, “and he said so when he came here in 1946.”

Smoot played roles in building Hialeah and Gulfstream parks in Florida, and Santa Anita Park in California. But he left, or had been booted, before each opened.

The Sun printed a five-paragraph apology from Smoot when Las Vegas Park did not open on time. There had been other delays, and Smoot’s tactics and associations provided Greenspun with regular fodder.

Even Ponzi wouldn’t give Smoot a loan, Greenspun wrote. Maybe he will sell the house and cars he purchased with the promotional stock and put the proceeds back into the track — where they should have gone in the first place.

His whole gang of sharpies worked together in a gigantic plot to “mulct” the innocent people of Las Vegas out of their hard-earned dough.

Smoot and two associates were charged with felony embezzlement. Two others were slapped with felony forgery charges.

Sen. Pat McCarran, who posed for promotional pictures with Smoot before a half-built grandstand, was accused of taking $8,000 from Smoot in a room at the Thunderbird.

A-bombs and cheap gas

Las Vegas Park high jinks competed with atomic-bomb tests, water-shortage worries and population-growth concerns for space on the front page.

Gas was 21.9 cents a gallon. A deluxe filet mignon dinner at the Golden Nugget went for $4.50. A new yellow Plymouth cost $2,395. Lena Horne played the El Rancho Vegas.

Her famous “Stormy Weather” should have been the theme of Las Vegas Park.

In federal court, Smoot couldn’t produce receipts or canceled checks when questioned about $500,000 in missing money.

“You ever try to pay a politician with a check?” he said, making courtroom spectators howl.

Smoot survived an ouster attempt by a band of angry stockholders, 8,000 of whom had invested more than $2 million in the venture, at a meeting at an Elks Lodge. But Judge Roger Foley removed Smoot and appointed a trustee to run the track.

Smoot pleaded not guilty to a grand jury embezzlement indictment.

“The law had to wait until he was 70 to catch up to him,” Greenspun wrote.

A new board of directors took over and vowed to finish the track, and top stables such as Calumet Farm shipped horses to Las Vegas.

The clubhouse and grandstand were painted pink to emulate the Hipodromo Rosado in Argentina. Almost $1.9 million, the richest prize amount ever offered by a first-year track, would be awarded over the 67-day meet.

It would culminate in the $100,000-added Las Vegas Futurity on Dec. 20. Even Greenspun became a booster.

“It has become reality beyond our greatest expectations,” he wrote on Sept. 4, 1953, when the $4.5 million park finally opened.

Problems out of the gate

Before the first race, the Australian-made tote board on the infield went down. And machines inside the $50 and $500 betting windows broke, so high rollers were forced to make many small wagers at the commoners’ windows.

Lines were long. Tempers were short. A disappointing and shallow-pocketed crowd of 8,200 saw Lefty James, with star jockey Tony DeSpirito on top, win the $10,000 Mirage Handicap.

After three days of poor attendance and the continued malfunctioning of the tote board, racing was suspended for two weeks so an American model could be installed.

On Oct. 10, 4,000 patrons bet a total of $100,000. Without a doubt, veteran turf writer Pete Bonamy wrote, it was one of the poorest showings by a racing crowd ever recorded.

The Las Vegas Jockey Club ended its ill-fated racing venture Oct. 19. Las Vegas Park played host to 13 thoroughbred racing days. Lefty James, bred locally by J. Kell Houssels, won three times in the short, unhappy life of the track.

The president of the club said the venture lost money every day. It couldn’t lure enough visitors out of the casinos or locals out of their homes.

The park reopened in 1954 for a 48-meet schedule of quarter horse racing, but that lasted only seven weeks because of poor attendance.

In its final days as a track, it played host to automobile and motorcycle races. In the latter, a rider died when he slid off course in a cloud of dirt and was impaled on a wooden guardrail.

Penniless but buried with honors

On Feb. 14, 1955, the Nevada Board of Regents approved a Nevada Southern campus — which became UNLV — on a choice chunk of land a couple of miles south of the track that had been donated by Howard and Estelle Wilbourn.

That night, on a bed in a free room at the Grand Hotel, 71-year-old Joe Smoot died of natural causes. He spent his final years as a shill in downtown casinos. He was still under indictment.

A veteran of the Spanish-American War, he was cremated in Las Vegas and his remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

“Three years ago, the whole town was eating out of his hand,” a friend said. “Now, he will go out in style as he probably would have wished.”

'Where I Stand' Excerpts

The following are excerpts from Hank Greenspun’s autobiography, Where I Stand, about Greenspun’s first trip to Las Vegas with racetrack promoter Joe Smoot.

Pages 64-65

. . . That long-awaited piece of paper [Greenspun's Army discharge paper] left me, like so many other veterans, feeling oddly displaced, restless and dissatisfied with the unchallenging round of post-war life. I took a crack at legal practice, forming into partnership with my old friend, Benjamin Ribman. After less than a year, I reached the same old conclusion: I was still a lawyer who was very much bored with the law. Then, in the fall of 1946, a chance discussion with one of Ben Ribman's clients altered the whole course of my life and my family's future.

White-haired but brash as a boy, fast-talking Joe Smoot was a racetrack promoter who had already made and lost several fortunes. Now at a low ebb of his turbulent career, he was still possessed of smooth charm and amazing persuasive powers, especially when he spoke of a newly envisioned project: building a Las Vegas racetrack out of his well-worn but miracle-working shoestring. If I threw in my own shoestring, he suggested, I could get in on some really big action.

Intrigued by this proposition, I agreed to drive with Smoot to Las Vegas, paying for gas and other expenses out of my own pocket. Barbara, who was now pregnant again -- we had started our second New Year right -- would take our infant daughter to my sister Alice's house in Little Neck, Long Island, there to await the results of the Smoot-Greenspun expedition. If things looked promising, we agreed, she would soon follow me westward.

Barbara nodded dubiously, as though expecting to drive a Conestoga wagon full of Irish linen and dishes over the wild Indian-scourged praries. Then Smoot and I climbed into the red Buick convertible -- still in fine shape after sitting out the war in my parents’ garage -- and drove off into the sunset, headed for adventures high and low. . . .

Pages 68-69

. . . It was September, 1946, when Smoot, the red Buick, and I pulled into town. And, although we knew it only vaguely, we were riding over the thin edge between the past and future. Las Vegas was still a small town with more dirt roads than sidewalks, replete with swinging-door saloons, blanketed Indians, bearded prospectors and burros. Yet, on a bare stretch of U.S. Highway 91, a six-million-dollar concrete-and-steel fantasy was even now rising. The man behind the incomplete building, a smirking, quick-tempered hoodlum named Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel, liked to call it "the fabulous Flamingo."

I had driven in vile weather, nursing the Buick through snow, gales, and temperatures well below freezing all the way from the smoky soot-laden East. Here I seemed to be entering a perfect paradise of majestic mountains, infinite skies, and balmy air that looked and felt like warm, breathable crystal.

I guess it was love at first sight, something akin to the feeling that hit me when I first looked at Barbara. I reacted in the typical fashion with a sudden, instinctive decision. Checking in at the Last Frontier Hotel, I went for a swim in the pool, emerged, phoned Barbara and announced jubilantly, "Pack everything, baby, and come on out! We won't be going back."

During the next couple of weeks, as I took a good look at my new home town, I liked it more and more. Las Vegas' people struck me as a richly assorted crew of the freewheeling spirits gathered from the entire country's more prosaic nooks and corners. In fact, the whole town reminded me in the oddest way of Leblang's: it was a nesting-place and sanctuary for "lamisters" who came, like Damon Runyon versions of the Pilgrim Fathers, looking for elbowroom and broadly tolerant freedom.

One of those lamisters, a certain Joe Smoot, was now involving himself in elaborate promotional maneuvers, growing more and more secretive in the process. That left me with little to do until I ran into Ralph Pearl, an old buddy from law school, since turned journalist. He was between jobs, and he had a reporter friend, James L. Fallon, equally talented and equally unemployed. The two of them had an idea. . . .

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