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Chris Jones

New Owners to Keep Binion's Spirit

10 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Over the past 15-plus years, Jerry Waters has enjoyed a front-row seat to Las Vegas history while gambling almost daily at Binion's Horseshoe.

And when he returns sometime today, the 76-year-old retiree will witness another chapter in the saga of downtown's venerable gambling hall: the end of the Horseshoe era.

But don't expect Waters to get too excited about the changes -- at least not yet.

"I guess I'll have to wait and see what happens," Waters said Wednesday afternoon between hands of 25-cent video poker. "I've found a good place here. And I'm hoping it stays that way."

Ready or not, what's arguably Fremont Street's best-known gambling icon was scheduled to change hands early this morning.

Las Vegas-based gaming giant Harrah's Entertainment had operated the 54-year-old property since it reopened April 1. But Harrah's management contract expired, and as of 12:01 a.m., the property -- renamed Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel -- will be controlled by owner MTR Gaming Group, a Chester, W.Va.-based company that also owns and operates the Speedway Casino in North Las Vegas.

Roger Szepelak, MTR vice president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday that MTR hopes to revive Binion's glory days as epitomized by its longtime owner, the late Benny Binion.

"It's extremely exciting to watch this property rejuvenate and get back to where it was," Szepelak said. "With everything that's going on in downtown Las Vegas, the timing is perfect for us to get back to that point."

MTR's initial upgrades will focus primarily on Binion's casino, though other changes are in store. At the request of longtime customers, a once-popular hamburger grill will reopen near Binion's table games. In addition, Szepelak said, MTR will "spruce up" Binion's signature steakhouse, whose stunning views and gourmet menu were once considered key elements to one of the city's finest restaurants.

"I still think it's one of the best-kept secrets in town," Szepelak.

MTR plans to replace the old Horseshoe chips and table covers this morning, and over the next 30 days will gradually remove most traces of the Horseshoe name to rebrand the property.

Its approximately 1,000 employees will receive new name badges this week, with new uniforms to follow over the next three to four months.

Exterior signage will also be changed over the next two to three months, Szepelak said, though MTR hopes to maintain the property's familiar atmosphere.

"We're trying to stay with the old, retro-1950s feel of an old-style gambling hall," Szepelak said. "We want to return to when this was one of the premier properties in town, a must-see for tourists and locals."

That goal seems improbable given today's multibillion-dollar Strip megaresorts, but maintaining some consistency is important to players like Waters, a Binion's regular since 1988 who said he was once carried away by paramedics after passing out on the casino floor due to heat exhaustion.

"When Benny had it, you got the best breaks on everything," Waters said. "His daughter (former owner Becky Binion Behnen) tightened things up a bit, but this place's slot club still gives you the best deals."

Waters said the property's recent struggles have chased away many longtime regulars, a shift he hopes he'll never see again.

"God willing, and all that stuff," Waters said.

Harrah's crews will temporarily return to Binion's July 14-15 to stage the final three tables of this year's World Series of Poker. The popular gambling tournament has been synonymous with the downtown property since the Series' inception 35 years ago, but Harrah's assumed control of the event when it bought Binion's Horseshoe early last year.

Despite later selling the property to MTR, Harrah's maintained the rights to the World Series and will stage the bulk of this year's event at the Rio beginning June 2. At the request of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, Harrah's will keep this year's finals downtown to coincide with the city's centennial celebration.

Szepelak said MTR will stage its own poker events at Binion's, though it has yet to complete those plans. The company has met with several leading poker organizations that could partner with MTR in upcoming tournaments, he added,

Shortly after Binion's financial troubles caused regulators to close the property in January 2004, Harrah's agreed to buy Binion's Horseshoe and its holdings from Binion Behnen for a reported $50 million.

The following month, Harrah's agreed to sell the hotel-casino to MTR Gaming for a reported $20 million.

The latter agreement also allowed Harrah's to keep the Horseshoe brand, while MTR maintained rights to the Binion's name in Clark County.

Harrah's has rights to the Binion's name in other parts of the country thanks to its 2004 purchase of Horseshoe Gaming Holding Corp. from former owner Jack Binion. That deal was worth $1.45 billion.