Win or lose, the old days were more fun!

Mar 5, 2002 10:40 AM

THIS TOWN WAS FULL OF GUYS. They thought they were mighty wise. And, some of them really were.

It was all about the way Las Vegas used to be. It helped make our town what it is today.

Of all the many characters that crossed my path across the board and across the years, one of the funniest was Don McKinney. Somewhere along the way he picked up the nickname The Duck. But, that’s a story for another day.

Don was at his prime during an era when gamblers congregated, bet their money and then told stories ”” very colorful ones ”” until their nag came in. He hung his hat daily in three different places, the Union Plaza (now Jackie Gaughan’s Plaza) downtown, the Rosebowl and Santa Anita. The latter two bet shops were on the Strip across the boulevard from the Frontier Hotel (now New Frontier).

Know-it-alls of the day tried to tell us that razing places like Rosebowl and Santa Anita was being done in the name of progress. We all knew better, but could do nothing about it.

The Duck, now 88, was the classiest character of the time. He was always nattily dressed and spoke with authority. But, down deep he was like all the rest of us broken down horseplayers.

He was in town last week with his ever-loving Fran. She’s a charming lady from Boston. Why she hung around with all us claimers is something I’ve yet to figure out. She was and still is a stakes winner; that’s for sure.

Over dinner the other night The Duck began telling stories. Damon Runyon could have probably written a whole book about him.

Says the Duck: “Do you remember the time we pulled a trick on Coco Torogian? You remember Coco, don’t you? He and Benny Abrams came here from Omaha.

“Benny used to spend most of his betting dollars downtown. He was in good standing with Jackie Gaughan and had an ongoing comp at the Union Plaza. He and Coco ­­always hung out together.

“Well, anytime Benny had a meal on the cuff, he would leave a tip at the table and immediately head back to the race book to get down to business. Usually he called back to Coco to sign the tab.

“Coco did as he was told, but it always made him nervous. After all, he wasn’t the big bettor, Benny was. He worried that if he signed all the time his bets might not justify the bill. And, he was always willing to share his worries with anyone who’d listen.

One day a bunch of us guys were sitting around in Johnny Quinn’s office at the Plaza race book. During the conversation, Coco’s name came up and I commented on how uneasy he was when he signed the check the other night. One thing led to another and an idea was born. We were going to send Coco a bill for all of the comps he had signed. We had Johnny Quinn get us some Plaza stationary and created a letter telling Coco he had gone over his comp limit by $1,250. He was asked to send a check.

“Every day after the letter was mailed we went over to Coco’s apartment to handicap horses and wait for the mailman. After a couple of days it showed up.

“Coco was nervous. ”˜Why are they sending me a letter?’ he asked.

“”˜It’s probably from Frank Scott,’ suggested Benny. “Remember, we sent over some of those nice Omaha steaks we got for him and his wife. Go ahead, open it.”

“Coco did just that. He turned red, started pacing up and down and sputtered, ”˜This is an outrage. What am I going to do? I told you guys I shouldn’t sign. They want $1,250. I don’t have that kind of money! What am I going to do?’

“Well, we had all we could do to keep from laughing. We suggested he go see Johnny Quinn, which he did.

“Johnny played it straight. He told Coco he would talk to Jackie Gaughan and try to find out what the problem was. Johnny said he was sure there was some sort of error.

“We let him stew for a couple of days and then Johnny told him that everything was straightened out and he didn’t owe the money.

“Coco was relieved.

“After that Benny and Coco still ate together and Benny still told Coco to sign. Coco did as he was told, but complained all the more loudly.

“The rest of us would often bring up the incident at the end of a losing day when we needed a good laugh.”

Those were the days.

If you like The Duck, hang on. Stories about The Cat and Moose will follow.