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Ex-dentist finds bookie biz fulfilling

Sep 7, 2004 4:13 AM

Vic Salerno has known them all — Dick the Pick, Crazy Kenny, The Midget, The Hunchback. He began meeting them in 1978, when Salerno left his dentistry practice in California to go to work for his father-in-law’s sports book, Leroy’s, in downtown Las Vegas.

The Runyonesque cast of characters who helped give Las Vegas its legendary flavor are still out there, Salerno says, "But we have so many more people that they are assimilated and they don’t stand out as much."

In his 26 years in the sports betting business, Salerno, 60, has seen a lot of changes in Las Vegas, and most of them he sees as blessings.

"Sometimes I think the good old days sucked compared to what we have now. I like the amenities we have now that we didn’t have in the old days," he says. "We have great entertainment, great restaurants. People are still coming; (and) whatever they’re looking for, they’re getting (in Las Vegas). We can handle huge groups, huge conventions. It’s so easy, so affordable, there’s no other place to go. I’ve got friends who can’t believe it and they just keep coming back."

They had better come back, he says. "I’ve invested a whole life (in Las Vegas) and I shudder to think of where I’d be" without it.

He is now the president and CEO of American Wagering, the parent company of Leroy’s and Computer Bookmaking Systems (CBS), the primary supplier of bet processing systems in Nevada.

"Las Vegas has been great to me," he says, and while it would be difficult to argue with that assessment, he certainly didn’t start at the top.

Indeed, when he went to work at Leroy’s for the father-in-law of his second wife — he’s now with wife number three — he did everything: write tickets, work the board and tickets. He was a world away from the practice of dentistry in California, which he felt he had to quit because a dentist’s work is too hands-on, too personal, too intimate.

"You get tired of it," he says. "It wore on me."

Once his father-in-law said he was opening a sports betting parlor in Las Vegas, it wasn’t hard for Salerno ask for a job and put California in his rear view mirror.

He recalls his mother, who was not taking well to the career switch, saying something like: "And what the hell are you going to be doing in Las Vegas?"

He had to tell her that he was leaving behind a practice that included a lot of airline pilots and stewardesses as patients and heading for Leroy’s, a place not exactly known for attracting the beautiful people.

Instead, there were people like Dick the Pick, who jumped on railroad cars to travel between Reno and Las Vegas, spending the summer up north and the winters in the southern part of the state. "He was a railroading guy," Salerno says.

Then there was Crazy Kenny, a gambler who once shot a television set with a gun when a game didn’t come out right for him. On another occasion, he put his head down and ran across a room, driving his head into the wall.

Then there was the Hunchback and the Midget. As Salerno tells it, the two of them were once at Santa Anita in California when they decided to start booking bets with the customers. After security threw them out of the track, they went to their motel room and came up with a plan to disguise themselves so they could get past security.

The Hunchback, who Salerno describes as a "wise guy with a disability that left him bent over," decided he could blend into the crowd with the help of eyeglasses. The Midget, meanwhile, thought he could fool security if he put on a cap. Neither "disguise" fooled security guards.

Today, Salerno offers no apologies for spending the last 26 years in the bookmaking business. "Bookmaking is probably the most honest thing in the world," he says. "When you came to me as a dentist, I might have been the worst dentist in the world (and you wouldn’t have known it). When you’re buying a steak, you don’t know what you’re getting. But when you come in and bet the Rams at minus 3 ½ points, you know exactly what you’re getting."

Salerno, a graduate of Marquette University in Milwaukee and the father of a son, 28, a daughter, 27, two grandsons and a granddaughter, sees good points and bad points in the recent trend toward hotel/casino mergers.

On the plus side, the mergers mean "more consistency for the players as far as the rules (go). The rules are going to be the same (at the different sports book when, for example) a game is official."

On the minus side, "there is a more standardized line. It’s like having 31 flavors (lines to choose from) vs. just vanilla. The bettor (after the mergers) can only choose vanilla."

Even with as many choices of lines as the bettors have now, the bettors and the bookies can still have wild swings in fortune. Salerno said June was one of his company’s best months ever while "August was the worst month we’ve ever had."

Win or lose, the bettors keep coming. Salerno says the best trend he’s witnessed in Las Vegas was "the boom in sports betting — doubling year after year after year." However, "now we’ve hit a plateau (after a period when) we were doing double-digit increases. Everybody knows about our population growth but there is no growth in the handle."

Salerno credits satellite and cable television for causing the boom and said GamingToday founder Chuck Di Rocco "was instrumental in bringing simulcasting" to Las Vegas.

He says the worst trend has been the kind regulation that has been put in place by the state on bets of more than $10,000, which have to be listed as a currency transaction. He also said the expansion of the off shore sports book trade has drawn away a lot of business.

But overall, things are going pretty well for Salerno. "In our industry, these are the good old days. It’s never been better. We thought they were great then, but I kind of like the days we’re in (now)."