Johnny Avello, the “wizard of odds” for the Wynn Las Vegas, has been assessing the 2016 Kentucky Derby contenders daily for 14 months. As the Executive Director of Race and Sports Operations, Avello sets odds on a wide variety of events, from the Kentucky Derby to football, baseball and basketball match-ups and contests as diverse as the Miss America pageant, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the Grammys, Oscars and Dancing with the Stars. However, Avello’s first love and his gateway into the industry was horse racing.
“The Kentucky Derby is the best betting race in the world. You have a 20-horse field, and you will never see that in other horse races in America. It has a large pool which allows players to bet a show bet and actually get a good return. And we’ve seen superfectas come back at a couple hundred grand.”
Avello says the 2016 Kentucky Derby is a unique race. Each year, he opens the Kentucky Derby future book in the second week of September. But this year he started with 318 Thoroughbreds, which is more horses than he has ever included.
“I’ve had as few as 75,” Avello said.
To set 2016 apart further, 12 horses he added to the first future book in September 2015 are hoping to head to the gate on Saturday: Brody’s Cause, Creator, Exaggerator, Fellowship, Gun Runner, Mo Tom, Mohaymen, Mor Spirit, Nyquist, Outwork, Suddenbreakingnews and Tom’s Ready.
“That is crazy. That is absolutely insane,” Avello said. “That is not the way the future book ever used to work. You’d be lucky to find three or five.”
Avello believes the points system that grants entrance into the race is a factor in this shift.
“There’s a road map for these horses. The road map now is more conservative than it used to be. You know what it takes to get there,” he said.
The 2015 Kentucky Derby and 2016 running of the race do have one factor in common: both American Pharoah and Nyquist opened as the favorite in the first derby pool at 35-1. And like Pharoah last year, Nyquist is on top heading into the race.
“Nyquist is the best horse on paper and performance-wise. He has absolutely done nothing wrong,” Avello said, citing the horse’s perfect record, which includes four Grade 1 races and two Grade 2s. “He keeps running good race after good race. He deserves to be the favorite. I see the race as one favorite and everybody else.”
“After Nyquist, there’s a little bit of separation, and it’s opened up. There are eight to 10 horses in the middle range that all have an opportunity to win this race. Is it Exaggerator? Is it Mohaymen?” Avello said. “It’s hard to structure your tickets when you have that many contenders. But that also means we will see good payouts.”
Avello begins watching the crop in April of their 2-year-old season, but the action intensifies in August, which is a big month for 2-year-olds at Saratoga and Del Mar.
“I keep an eye on them. It’s a daily watch. I look at each track each day and circle races that are 3-year-old claimers. If any of my horses are in those races, they are out. I circle all the 3-year-old maiden special weights. I am still looking for 3-year olds to delete or add for the next eight months. And then it’s an adjustment process to watch who wins to lower or raise odds depending on the races.”
Of course, it’s a big process to narrow the field from 318 to 20 contestants.
“When we start getting close to March and April, I take horses out. I don’t want horses in my future book that have no chance to run. I want to make sure that when people are betting into my future book the horses are still in contention of running. ”
Avello was the first person to put up a match-up bet in a Vegas casino in 1989 when he offered a wager between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence. Since then, these bets have been widely copied.
This year, he has 16 match-ups up right now and bets that include “Will any horse win the Triple Crown?” Bettors can also put their money on an individual horse to win the Triple Crown.
In addition to the Kentucky Derby books, the Wynn also has future books open for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Classic.
Avello is looking forward to a busy Kentucky Derby Saturday at the Wynn.
“We will have a full house on Saturday and probably close to that on Friday for the Kentucky Oaks.”
And Avello loves every minute.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I still enjoy doing this every day,” he said. “In 30 years, I have never looked at my watch. I have never looked at the time to see when I am going home.”