The AUS-X Open in Sydney, Australia, is coming this weekend, and with it one interesting side story: this is the only race we know of with set, legalized gambling. Want to make your weekend a little more interesting? Go here and place some money down on your favorite. Pulling for Jason Anderson? He has the best odds, so if you throw a dollar on him and he wins, you make two bucks. Justin Brayton? Three bucks. Dean Wilson? Four. (All lines listed are for Saturday.)
Who makes these odds? In gambling, such information is usually set to classified level, but we do have some insight into the process. Back in 1998, when the U.S. Open debuted at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, promoter Eric Peronnard convinced the casino to open up betting on the races. It made the weekend that much more fun. Eric Johnson, Racer X Illustrated’s managing editor at the time, was tabbed to be the expert on the sport, and the one who would assist the Vegas odds-makers.
“Eric [Peronnard] said he needed me to come to Vegas about three weeks before the race,” explained EJ to us this week. “He takes me to the sports book in the MGM. Everyone knows this place, but behind the counter that everyone sees, there’s this room behind it. I wouldn’t call it a secret room, but it’s definitely a room no one knows about. Eric sets me up with this guy in this room. It looked like the inside of a space ship! There must have been 200 little monitors showing every single sport in the world at the same time. And the thing that I really remember is that I saw the weirdest collection of people working there. I don’t want to say it the wrong way, but they were like geeks. Sports geeks. Sports savants!
“So we went through the rider roster,” continued EJ. “I didn’t really know how odds work, I didn’t know gambling that well. But I basically ranked the riders for them. I’d say this guy has a 80 percent shot at winning, or this guy is a C+ level guy. We got it pretty close and they said the week before they wanted me to refine it one more time. It was pretty exciting. And while I was there, some guy would run it with crazy gambling ideas. He’d interrupt us and be like ‘Someone out there wants to put some money on a football team only scoring three points in this game! Can we do it?’ It was just such a strange place with so many strange people.”
This sport is always trying to elbow its way to the big boy table in the world of professional sports, and while gambling is always a topic that engenders mixed emotions, it was still somewhat landmark to find the names of supercross stars on the big board of the MGM sports book for the first time.
“I remember walking past that sports book on the way to the race on Saturday night, around 5 p.m., and just seeing a good group of race fans gathered in there getting really excited,” says EJ. “There were probably 500 people in there. They did it in the ensuing years, but it was just so exciting the first year, to see the rider names on the big electronic board in the sports book. It was a really cool deal and really fun. In fact, I remember for the second year, they couldn’t wait for me to get back there, just because they were really excited about setting the odds again.”
The funny thing is, for the first U.S. Open in 1998, Jeremy McGrath was such a dominant figure that the sports book people joked with EJ that “We’re not even going to touch this McGrath guy.” He was set at 5-8 odds. But Vegas, gambling, and racing are anything but predictable. McGrath was the sure bet, but he suffered bad starts throughout the weekend and didn’t win the overall. The first U.S. Open went to Damon Huffman, who was set at 20 to 1 odds. Anyone who placed $100 on Huffman that weekend made $2,000. Eight other riders had been set with higher odds than Huffman.
Occasionally in racing, the long shot pulls through.