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The story behind futures betting at the Kentucky Derby

Henderson resident and Hall of Fame sports writer Jerry Izenberg has been on hand for 54 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. But with Saturday”s race having been postponed for only the second time in its 146-year history, to help fill that void, he shared one of his favorite stories about the Derby that began with a chance encounter with a shadowy character in the men’s room at Churchill Downs in the 1960s.

The man had an attache case handcuffed to his wrist and an accomplice, who may or may not have been an FBI agent trying to make an easy buck while on vacation.

There were subplots involving an illegal gambling parlor disguised as an animal hospital, Rita Hayworth, and an overmatched jockey and his horse, the details of which will not be told here. They would take a mile-and-a-half of space, and I’m limited to 6 furlongs.

The character in the men’s room was Tony Alessio, brother of John S. Alessio, who, when he died in 1998, was described by the New York Times as a California entrepreneur who began his working life shining shoes in San Diego and went on to amass millions as a banker, businessman, restaurateur and race-track operator.

The obit said John Alessio had lived a colorful and controversial life. He had made a fortune in Tijuana, Mexico, and gave a dancing girl named Margarita Carmen Cansino her start, before she changed her name to Rita Hayworth.

Part of the reason the Alessio brothers made a fortune in Tijuana was that they accepted wagers on the Kentucky Derby months before the call to the post. These odds were always changing and usually generous, though his Agua Caliente race track benefited handsomely when horses would drop out ahead of the Derby.

But when one with decent odds made it to Louisville and was looking good in workouts, it left the Alessio brothers exposed for a big hit.

That would explain Tony Alessio’s presence in the men’s room at Churchill Downs, and the briefcase full of cash. After a cursory cleansing of the hands (20 seconds weren’t required then), he would bet it all on the longest shot in the Derby, as a hedge.

While that may not explain how Las Vegas came to accept future bets on the Kentucky Derby, it more or less explains the concept.

Around the horn

— Thursday’s column about Michael Jordan signing a painting for Las Vegan Trent Othick during a golf outing at Las Vegas Country Club many years ago resulted in an email from former Nevada governor Bob Miller, who shared a Jordan story of his own.

The two had met during a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe, and when Miller hosted the National Governors Conference, he set up a round at Las Vegas Country Club with assorted colleagues and President Bill Clinton — who then asked him to invite the Chicago Bulls superstar. Jordan adjusted his schedule to meet the Chief Executive, and Miller recalls Jordan sinking a 25-foot eagle putt to seal his team’s victory.

Wrote the former governor: “Kids in the houses would come out to get his autograph, and I remember one such who did — only to be told by his mom to get the President’s, too.”

— Dannielle Diamant, the basketball-playing granddaughter of Jerry Tarkanian, was finishing up the pro season in Israel with her team Neve David Elitzur Ramla when the coronavirus hit and remains stuck overseas.

“The league got canceled but not before most of the flights were cut,” the former Northwestern star wrote in an email. “So just trying to use my time wisely and come out a better person than I was before.”

— While I am still brushing up on the rules, I am fairly certain that the Vlasic family is headed this way, what with our pickleball courts having opened during the virus pandemic.


NBC’s Peter King, on Roger Goodell, Bill Belichick and the virtual NFL draft that substituted for the real one scheduled for Las Vegas:

“It took a murderous virus to humanize the money machine that is the NFL, and to humanize a cold man who might have had his finest moment as commissioner, and to humanize the steely coach feeding treats to his miniature Husky. It was just what we needed—the one thing on the sports calendar that wasn’t canceled, presented with the humility these times demanded.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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