It’s almost poetic that Dan Chandler would pass away during Kentucky Derby week. The 70-year-old Las Vegas casino executive, who died last Tuesday of heart failure, was a native Kentuckian who never severed his roots to the Bluegrass State and its elite racing industry.
In fact, Chandler was so close to Kentucky horsemen that a Derby contender, Dan the Bluegrass Man, was named after him two years ago. Trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Mike Pegram, the horse was declared out of the Derby because of an injury just a few hours before the race was to be run.
Of course, Chandler had a purple pedigree of his own in Kentucky: his father was the venerable Albert "Happy" Chandler, twice governor of the state and U.S. Senator, as well as the baseball commissioner who oversaw Jackie Robinson’s crashing the color barrier in the late 1940s.
Dan Chandler graduated from the University of Kentucky, where he lettered in baseball and tennis, and played basketball for the legendary Adolph Rupp.
Chandler came to Las Vegas 30 years ago when Cliff Perlman (then CEO of Caesars Palace) offered him a casino job that would lure him away from his tennis concession at the Jockey Club in Miami.
He relished the chance to "go West," since he’d "busted out in Kentucky" and was looking for a new beginning. "I didn’t want to mow my daddy’s lawn or trim the hedges," Chandler said in an early interview. "When I came here, I took a look to see how long it would take for me to earn back the money I’d blown."
One of the first things he did in Las Vegas was to get to know the people who could help him, such as Benny Binion ("He became a great friend and helped me a lot") and Steve Wynn ("Steve was a self-made man who loved his maker!").
While working for Caesars, Chandler met a young executive working his way up the corporate ladder. The junior exec was Terry Lanni, who is now the president and CEO of MGM Mirage, the world’s largest gaming company.
"They broke the mold with Dan," Lanni told GamingToday last week. "He had a tremendous wit, intellect and he was well-read. You couldn’t ever leave Dan and not come away laughing, or at least feeling good."
Lanni added that Chandler "wasn’t structured," which was part of his charm, and ultimately a trait that made for a successful casino host.
"He was an amazing guy and a fine friend," Lanni said. "I just can’t imagine a Kentucky Derby without him."
Working as a casino host was a labor of love for Chandler. He didn’t really have a title, reported only to the president and no one reported to him. But Chandler wouldn’t have it any other way.
True to form, Chandler would stray from job descriptions such as "player development." Instead, he saw himself as a "harpoonist," whose task was to seek out and nail whales, as in high rollers.
He also liked to envision his work as a shepherd, whose assignment at hand was to carefully and painlessly direct the sheep into the fleecing pens, all the while keeping them happy and entertained, and more than willing to return no matter how much wool was shorn.
Although he started for Caesars Palace and worked for them off and on for decades, he also had tours with the Las Vegas Hilton and the Rio. Most recently, he worked for Millennium Management, which operates the Cannery and Rampart casinos in Las Vegas.
"Back then, you didn’t have hosts like you do today," Chandler said in a recent GT interview. "You had personalities. If a guy was coming to Vegas, he’d call you up and say when he was coming. We really didn’t have marketing departments. Now it’s a dogfight. You’ve got five guys from five different casinos all calling the same customer, trying to get him to come and stay at their property. The customer is looking for what kind of deal he can make, where it used to be all he wanted was a room and a place to gamble."
The evolving casino industry didn’t always bring welcome changes for Chandler, who often said he "missed the good old days," when "we all worked together. It used to be fun. One hand washed the other and we all looked out for each other."
Toward the end of his career, Chandler was more of a teacher than a recruiter of customers. "I’m not good at sliding into bases anymore, but I sure know how to get to home plate," he said. "Working with good guys like Bill Wortman and Bill Paulos (at Millennium Management) is a good way to end a successful career."