Off to the races

by patrick everson

When people think of horse racing in the United States, what inevitably jumps to mind is the Kentucky Derby, along with its peers, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Those three races are an annual rite of spring, with jockeys and horses pursuing the Triple Crown, one of the most elusive and heralded trophies in all of sport.

But for the past 32 years, an annual ritual of fall has been on the rise, an event that easily holds its own against the energy and excitement of the Triple Crown races: the Breeders’ Cup. The event features a series of championship races in several divisions, all with at least $1 million purses. It’s capped by the prestigious $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, which pits the best horses at the 1 1/4-mile distance in a race that often determines Horse of the Year honors.

The 2016 Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4-5 is doubly good for Las Vegas horse racing fans, who can settle in at any of dozens of great race and sports books around town, or make the reasonably short trek to this year’s host track at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.

For either of those Breeders’ Cup experiences, arguably no one in this city knows more than Johnny Avello and Richard Eng. Avello, the executive director of the race and sports book at Wynn Las Vegas, has been a horse racing fan since he was knee-high to a pony.

“It’s a game I thoroughly enjoy because I’ve been around it my whole life,” said Avello, born and raised in New York. “My first time at the track was when I was 5 years old, at Saratoga.”

Eng has carved out a 37-year career in horse racing, with the first half spent working at race tracks in publicity and marketing, and the second as a journalist and handicapper. Since moving to Las Vegas in 1998, he’s had a weekly horse racing column in the Las Vegas Review- Journal. Before the Breeders’ Cup came along, he’d always felt there was a hole in the horse racing schedule.

“I think the thing that really struck me is, I’d been to all the Triple Crown races, and those historically had been the three biggest days in horse racing – and the Belmont was only big if a horse had a shot at the Triple Crown,” Eng said. “But there was no ultimate day, no championship day.”

In 1982, thoroughbred owner and breeder John Gaines proposed the idea to create just that, packing a series of high-stakes races into one day. Two years later, the first Breeders’ Cup was run at Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, California. And Eng was there.

“It was just a huge a crowd,” he said. “The excitement and electricity reminded me of the Kentucky Derby, except there were seven championship races. It was an absolute home run right from the very start. If you were there, you knew this was gonna be something special every year.”

So special, in fact, that in 2008 the Breeders’ Cup added races and expanded to two days. That’s made it even bigger in Las Vegas race books. As much as Avello would love to dart out of town to see it live, he and his staff have their hands full with a crowded house of horse racing fans.

“It’s definitely one of the bigger events, so I’ve gotta be here to accommodate the masses,” he said. “On a Friday-Saturday, it’s a big deal. We’re packed. I actually have to open a party room for Saturday.”

And you don’t have to be a die-hard horse race bettor to have a good time at the race book, or to make a nice little chunk of change on your wagers.

“You’ll find horses at 25/1 or 35/1, and these are really good horses,” Avello said. “The reason for those odds is because they’re going against the best there is — they’re good, but others are better. I like the Breeders’ Cup because it’s two days of value, and the betting pools are big. No matter what type of bettor you are, you’ll get fair prices.”

Simply put, with all the thoroughbreds of championship caliber, there really isn’t a dark horse in these races, per se. But they can’t all be favorites, either, which can make for some great payouts on a winning bet.

“Gamblers love the Breeders’ Cup because there’s usually a very healthy share of long shots,” Eng said. “When you beat favorites, you’ll win some money. If you get lucky a few times, you can make a nice score.”

That holds true whether you’re trackside for the Breeders’ Cup or reveling in the event at a race book. Much as Eng thoroughly has enjoyed his dozen or so Breeders’ Cup trips, he understands why Vegas is equally, if not more, alluring.

“People who know Vegas well know this is a big- event town, whether sports, conventions, shows, you name it,” he said. “Once the Breeders’ Cup started, it created another big event for Las Vegas. Every race book rolls out the red carpet for race bettors. Vegas is always looking for a reason to put on a party, and this was another big reason.”

Putting on such a party will be Avello’s job come the beginning of November, and he’ll be ready.

“I think it’s more comfortable in the sports book,” he said. “Walk in, get a seat — you can even bet from your seat with the mobile app. I think it’s a great experience to do in the book itself.”

You may even walk out with more money than you came in with.

“The beauty of horse racing is the cliché, ‘You can bet a little to win a lot.’ That defines horse racing,” Eng said.