Hall Of Famer Johnny Avello Returns To Home Turf As Saratoga Readies For Belmont Stakes

Written By Dave Bontempo on June 6, 2024
Image of DraftKings' Johnny Avello, who looks back on Saratoga Race Course as the 2024 Belmont Stakes approaches.

Welcome to another encore.

The Saratoga experience comes full circle for Johnny Avello, the Poughkeepsie native and now the Las Vegas-based director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings.

One would expect him to be trackside this week, representing the company as Saratoga Race Course unveils a special Thursday-through-Sunday race program. It’s a jam-packed celebration of stakes races awarding more than $10 million in purses, including $2 million for the heralded Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Saratoga hosts the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival while the Elmont track renovates and expands for the next two years.

Part of that package is Friday’s $500,000 Acorn Stakes, the filly equivalent of the Kentucky Oaks, presented by DK Horse, the popular DraftKings racing app whose growth underscores Avello’s presence this week. Avello will be in the winner’s circle as part of that awards ceremony.

But Avello is doing more than just his job this weekend. He returned to a place close to his heart.

The Avello-Saratoga connection as Belmont Stakes takes over

Avello looked around the Saratoga Springs home of his in-laws on Wednesday, savoring the lifelong roads leading him to one of racing’s most cherished communities.

“I have been coming up here since the early 1960’s,” he told PlayNY of the roughly two-hour journey there from Poughkeepsie.

“This has always been a special place for me, and it is for many racing fans. Who wouldn’t want to be here? During the summer you have great racing every day. You have the best jockey colony in the world. You have good-sized fields.

“And you’re in a town so well tied in to horse racing. In the stores here, they sell horse-racing items. Everybody in town embraces the game. Saratoga comes alive for the horse-racing season and this festival is a real bonus.”

Yes it is. Restaurants and hotels are jammed. There are concert activities planned for the middle of town. A buzz emanates from a community blessed with four extra days of its signature activity.

This is bonus time at a shrine developed for the Sport of Kings. The celebration seems fitting. Saratoga, opened in 1863, is considered the oldest major sporting venue of any kind in the country.

The growth of Avello and Saratoga Springs

The paths of Avello and Saratoga Race Course progressed on parallel planes. He was one of Las Vegas’ most prominent bookmakers in the era before mobile sports betting grew from the PASPA repeal.

DraftKings tapped into his background by hiring him in 2018, and he has certainly played a role in helping DraftKings Sportsbook NY become one of the go-to NY sports betting platforms.

Three years later, Avello was enshrined in the Sports Betting Hall of Fame.

Saratoga, meanwhile, grew into a destination. Restaurants sprang up throughout town. And then came the outdoor concert series, along with the proliferation of horse racing’s Hall of Fame, located right across the street from the track.

It will assemble the horse-racing world and induct another class on Aug. 2, a group that includes jockey Joel Rosario and the sport’s last Triple Crown winning horse, Justify. The Hall of Fame becomes increasingly sophisticated, offering a wealth of exhibits and replays from famous racing events.

The Saratoga spas also gained national acclaim. Saratoga has thus enticed tourists from as far south as the Big Apple and north to Montreal.

As such, it has nicely fit the role of horse-racing mecca.

Saratoga comes alive as horse racing season kicks off

There are just two American cities – Saratoga Springs and Lexington, Kentucky, site of the Keeneland meet – in which the towns become defined by horse racing. Each has a relatively short meet packed with exceptional, high-level racing. The events literally drive the economic engines in both cities.

In 2024, Saratoga will have a 40-day racing meet with 71 stakes races, running from July 11 through Labor Day on Sept. 2.

Short meet. High quality. Big NY horse betting numbers are expected.

Avello will spend a considerable amount of time this summer in Saratoga, pumping the company brand. But he could be doing anything here.

As a young man, he never knew in which form he would return to Saratoga. All he knew was that he’d come back.

Avello looks back at Saratoga

Avello reflects back in time, remembering the area “first as a vacation spot.” Three days of “constant racing,” he recalled. He remembers the wooden-grooved seats and how folks would fold their newspapers and insert them into the grooves to hold their seats.

“In those days, the seats would have wooden grooves,” Avello laughed. “You would take your newspaper, fold it up and stick it in the grooves. That’s how you would hold your seat.

“My dad used to love to go the races and so we would go to Yonkers, Roosevelt, Monticello, etc. But this was the nearest thoroughbred track. We would get a motel room. My Mom would cook food and we would bring it up.

“It turns out that many of my uncles played the races too. It was a form of entertainment for people and the town was nothing like it is now.”

Avello moved to Las Vegas in 1979 but would return to Saratoga every year, often by unique transportation – a boat and a cab.

Along with several friends, he’d take a boat from Poughkeepsie to Schuylerville and then a cab to the race track a few minutes away. People using this route travel by cabs throughout Saratoga and return to their boats for the journey home.

Along the way, there were countless track memories, which tend to blend in. A couple concern Saratoga’s unofficial nickname as the Graveyard of Favorites.

Big names have come through, and Avello remembers them all

During Avello’s time, that included Secretariat, racing’s all-time GOAT, losing to Onion in the 1973 Whitney Handicap. This happened just after he secured racing’s first Triple Crown in 25 years by demolishing the Belmont Stakes field by 31 lengths at Belmont Park.

It also spanned American Pharoah, racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, losing as the 1-5 favorite to Keen Ice in the 2015 Travers.

Does the Keen Ice name sound familiar? His offspring shocked the modern-day world in 2022, winning the Kentucky Derby at 80-1 betting odds. Yes, you remember Rich Strike. And his daddy also pulled off a stunning upset, at Saratoga.

For Avello, those stories all blended in with personal experience. As a youth, he’d be thrilled for hitting a $2 bet at 10-1. Or by seeing his father hit big, sometimes for about $5,000.

Avello back in Saratoga, ready for more memories

And then there were years of crazy weather in big races.

“This one year at the Travers, the rain was about to come down hard, you could see it,” Avello recalled. “A few minutes before the race, the track announcer said they were moving up the post time a few minutes because they wanted to get the race in.

“They ran it and right after these horses crossed the finish line, I never saw rain up here like this in my life. It not only wiped out the race after the Travers, but it caused power outages for a while.”

It’s big-race week now and the buzz picks up.

The stories come, the stories go. Over time, it hardly matters what the tales were, just that a person was there to live them.

When New York fans and bettors see Avello this summer at Saratoga, they will witness a testament to that theme. He has witnessed Saratoga as a boy, a young man and now a seasoned, Hall of Fame betting official.

Avello is back at Saratoga, where he has loved it – and lived it.

Photo by DraftKings
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Written by
Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo, a multiple national award-winning boxing commentator and writer, authors NFL betting columns for the Press of Atlantic City and IGaming Player, among others. He writes significantly about the emerging world of legal New Jersey sports betting.

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