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October 24, 2014

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Triple Crown Letdown? Vegas bettors not sold on California Chrome in Belmont

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Matt Slocum / AP

California Chrome, ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, wins the 139th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course on May 17, 2014, in Baltimore.

California Chrome Wins Kentucky Derby

Victor Espinoza rides California Chrome to a victory during the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 3, 2014, in Louisville, Ky. Launch slideshow »

Belmont Park's morning line

  • 1. Medal Count 20-to-1
  • 2. California Chrome 3-to-5
  • 3. Matterhorn 30-to-1
  • 4. Commanding Curve 15-to-1
  • 5. Ride On Curlin 12-to-1
  • 6. Matuszak 30-to-1
  • 7. Samraat 20-to-1
  • 8. Commissioner 20-to-1
  • 9. Wicked Strong 6-to-1
  • 10. General A Rod 20-to-1
  • 11. Tonalist 8-to-1

In Las Vegas, pessimism prevailed after the Preakness Stakes.

While horseracing enthusiasts across the nation stirred with the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, many in the gambling capital of the world stayed skeptical. They banked on the 36-year drought of a horse claiming the sport’s biggest prize continuing.

Wynn Las Vegas, the unofficial headquarters for horse betting in town, posted a proposition wager asking if California Chrome would pull off the feat shortly after the colt added a Preakness triumph to his Kentucky Derby victory. The “yes” was a favorite at minus-150 (risking $1.50 to win $1) with the “no” coming back at plus-130 (risking $1 to win $1.30).

Those odds lasted all of a few days before a flood of big bets against California Chrome rushed in.

“Now we’ve got it even,” said Johnny Avello, executive director of the Wynn’s race and sports book. “There were a lot of reasons to bet the no, and it was the sharp guys doing it. The most sophisticated players were betting the no.”

Much to the benefit of casinos, the fate of the 2014 Triple Crown comes down to the 3:52 Saturday afternoon post time of the Belmont Stakes. The shot at history shifts what would be an ordinary day in the books to a spectacular one, with wall-to-wall crowds expected across the valley.

The unexpected part of watching the New York-run two-and-a-half minute, mile-and-a-half race in a casino will be the amount of people rooting against California Chrome. Like Wynn, Station Casinos also posted a bet on the colt winning the Belmont immediately after the Preakness.

The line opened minus-110 on both sides before the “no” moved to a small minus-120 favorite.

“There are other quality horses in this race,” said Chuck Esposito, Sunset Station race and sports book director. “The more money bet on California Chrome, the more value you can find on the other horses. You look at Wicked Strong who a lot of people like, Commanding Curve who came in second in the Derby and all the hype on Ride On Curlin’.”

The recent opposition to California Chrome doesn’t mean sports books stand to profit if he wins the Triple Crown. To the contrary, the damage was already done on that front.

Las Vegas will swallow a modest loss on horse racing future bets if California Chrome comes through. Like it does every year, Wynn took significant action on bettors gambling on a Triple Crown winner at plus-650 (risking $1 to win $6.50) for six months before the Kentucky Derby.

Wynn offered California Chrome specifically at 14-to-1 odds to win the Triple Crown shortly before the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve got a lot of money on him,” said Avello, who already had to pay out 300-to-1 bets after the Derby. “Even though it’s a loser for the house, I’m still rooting for him just as a fan of the game. I want to see him to do it.”

Avello coincidentally arrived in Las Vegas to start a career in the gaming industry in 1979, the year after Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown.

He can recite all 12 near-miss horses since that won both the Derby and the Preakness but were denied in the Belmont. Avello can recount vivid details of Real Quiet getting caught down the stretch in 1998, Funny Cide looking inferior in 2003 and Big Brown pulling up in 2006.

But the one thing he can’t remember at all is Affirmed winning. Not many horseracing types in town, at least on the house’s side, have any memory.

“I can tell you this much: I wasn’t old enough to be in a book,” cracked Esposito. “But I do know from my years in the industry, I never thought it would be 36 years. I never thought it would take this long with all the special, spectacular horses we saw in the past.”

A substantial group of bettors hope the wait drags on longer. Don’t count bookmakers among them.

They fall more in with the subset that believes a Triple Crown winner is overdue.

“We’ve done everything in our power to promote the sport, maintaining beautiful race books,” Esposito said. “I hope California Chrome does his part to re-energize horseracing and bring it back to the forefront.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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