Before hotel/casinos were granted race/sportsbook licenses the Las Vegas betting scene was much different. To say the joints were Spartan is putting a nice spin on them. Giant TV’s and electronic odds boards weren’t even thought of yet. No comps (most had nothing to comp anyway). All were named after thoroughbred tracks.
It’s 1968 and I’m in awe of these betting “palaces.” We’ll tour them starting with Bill Darks Del Mar in North Las Vegas. Bill is credited with making the first total. It was around 2.5 with Sandy Koufax on the mound. Bill would take his phones off the hook when he had a game balanced, annoying anyone trying to get in. Crazy Louie, his sports boardman, was the best, an artist using a kind of 3D-like cursive.
Heading into downtown Las Vegas the Hollywood is next. It’s on First Street as are all the downtown stand-alone book joints. The Hollywood is run by Bill Balelo, who is Harry Gordon’s son-in-law. Harry also owned The Derby and Churchill Downs, our last stop.
Staying on the same side of the street, we cross Fremont and head into Leroy’s, which used to be The Saratoga, opened by the legendary Jackie Gaughan along with Mel Exber. Leroy Merrilat took over the location and renamed it Leroy’s. He later sold out to Vic Salerno.
Vic, a Marquette Dental School graduate, had a dental practice in affluent West Los Angeles, but bookmaking was more appealing to him. Vic took over the grimy storefront book known for its outlandish assortment of “customers” from Merrilat.
Leroy’s was a rarity in that it had a bar. Not many barfly’s in this crowd had a full set of teeth. Another amenity was the combination cashier/chili dog stand. When I visited Vic, our main entertainment was watching panhandlers primp themselves in the blackout, one-way window in Vic’s office. I wish we had made a video
Vic expanded that single stand-alone race and sportsbook into 70-plus Leroy’s branches throughout Nevada. They were in turn bought out by William Hill, which expanded to over 100 locations.
Next up First Street was The Paddock. Fat Jerry Dellman was once involved but Jerry later met his demise in the parking garage of his condo.
Across First Street was The Derby with its racebook out front and sportsbook in a back room. It was the best sportsbook downtown with Johnny Quinn and Billy Clark residing.
Up the Strip all the stand alone books were on the west side. We find the Rose Bowl, which was opened by Al Mangarelli who was later nixed by the Gaming Commission. I remember Lefty Rosenthal behind the Rose Bowl sports counter in his early days in Las Vegas. Later it was owned by Gary Austin, who got in over his head and couldn’t pay off. Gary claimed he was robbed then stiffed most ticket holders, except for the guys who would put a knot on his head. He later became successful in the Costa Rica offshore sports betting bonanza.
Next is the Santa Anita, made famous by Sammy Cohen. After Sammy was gone the new owners also stiffed their players. They outdid Austin in the creep department by taking bets right up till closing time knowing they were going to close that night and stiff everybody.
Last is Churchill Downs, my favorite book along with the Stardust. I have to make them an entry, different times and venues. Harry Gordon’s Churchill Downs was at the end of a strip mall next to the Aladdin where a gaudy replica of the Eiffel Tower now stands. Harry Gordon owned Churchill every day of its existence. He brought in Bob Martin to take over the sports side in 1967. Martin’s odds were the Bible around the nation.
The sportsbook had big, heavy chalkboards. Everything was written by hand with visitor on top, home team on the bottom. The old JK Sports Schedule was the source for games and times. Next to the teams were the betting number, game time, odds, pitchers in baseball. Odds changes were erased and updated with fresh odds. The boardman noted when an inning started so bettors could tell how long a team was at bat.
The longer they were out (at bat), the greater the chance of a big inning. Pitching changes and home runs were noted. You could look at a game and tell the current score, how long a team was at bat, the current pitcher, home runs in that inning, more information than the giant digital boards in today’s sportsbooks. Every touchdown and field goal was marked till a quarter ended, then the full quarter score was put in. Churchill was “high tech” with a Western Union ticker and a UPI teletype. One wall-mounted 27-inch TV was next to the reader board.
Churchill’s racebook was larger with eight writer windows but needing only one cashier. It had the old wallboards for each race and a sound system to bring in recreations of races. Recreations were supposed to be accurate with spotters at the track relaying race information to Nevada to be re-created in the racebooks. Trouble was the guys who recreated the races in LV were degenerate horseplayers themselves. They put their own bias into the calls. You could almost tell what horse they had by their re-creations. The most famous was Joe Deluca. Joe worked for Ken Swanson who had the race ticker concession throughout Nevada. Swanson News made the daily wallboards, announced post times, scratches, jockey changes, track prices, track conditions, the all-important mutuals and recreated the calls.
When Joe began the call players looked at the wallboards with the names of the horses and rooted as if they were actually watching their horse at the track. Joe already knew the winner, but kept everyone excited till the finish, when he gave his famous “juussst galloping” as they crossed the finish line.
Scotty Schettler began his Las Vegas journey in 1968. By the time he quit the race and sports book business he had booked over $1.5 billion for different employers. He says he knows where most of the cans are buried. His book, is available on amazon.com. Contact Scotty at [email protected].