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Sportsbooks Survive Golden Knights Sweat, But Pay Big on Justify

While hockey fans throughout Las Vegas were lamenting their Golden Knights’ loss to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup final, sportsbook operators in Sin City celebrated.

Playing in their first year as an NHL expansion franchise, the hometown Golden Knights entered the season as massive underdogs to take the Stanley Cup. Most local books offered 300 to 1 odds in the preseason, and when that number failed to garner public attention, many wrote 500 to 1 tickets to bring bettors to the window.

Fast forward to late May, and after a historically successful debut season, the Golden Knights made an unprecedented trip to the Stanley Cup final – where only the hard luck Capitals stood between them and a sportsbook-crushing victory.

In an interview with ESPN, Nick Bogdanovich – who serves as director of trading for Las Vegas’ leading sportsbook operator William Hill U.S. – discussed his bet shop’s liability on the quintessential Cinderella story:

“This was our biggest liability on an event that had a realistic chance of winning since William Hill U.S. was formed [in 2012].

The estimates I heard around town of $5 [million] or $6 million sounded about right.”

His counterpart at the Westgate Superbook, sportsbook director Jay Kornegay, told the Los Angeles Times before the Stanley Cup final began that his book wrote 13 tickets at 500 to 1 odds, along with countless more at 300 to 1.

Of course, the Capitals ended their franchise’s 41-year Stanley Cup drought with a dominant series win over Vegas in five games, thus averting a potential payout crisis.

But when asked about the situation after the series was over, most bookmakers in the city explained that Washington’s win simply balanced the ledger. The Caps fell down 2-0 in their first-round series, and with a history of postseason futility dogging the team, their odds climbed to 28 to 1.

As Kornegay told the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently, an influx of Capitals wagering ensured bookmakers were in a no-win scenario:

“We had to reduce the liability on the Knights at the expense of the other remaining teams, including the Capitals.

We were basically in a lose-lose situation. We lost a little less on them than we would’ve with the Knights.”

Boyd Gaming sportsbook director Bob Scucci echoed those sentiments when speaking to the Review-Journal:

“We did OK, not great, because if you’re going to lose a ton on the Golden Knights, it makes sense at the beginning of the series to try to take a lot of Capitals money.

In that respect, we reduced liability on the Knights but increased liability on the Capitals. We hedged every series, and we did the same thing on the Capitals.

But we didn’t do as great as we would have if they played someone else other than the Golden Knights.”

But even as the Golden Knight’s improbable underdog story came to a close, Vegas bookmakers were forced to reckon with a favorite for the ages.

Justify easily won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes to set up a potential Triple Crown run at the Belmont Stakes.

At essentially even money heading into the big race, Justify attracted legions of recreational bettors to the books, as the public jumped on board the Triple Crown bandwagon.

In a wire-to-wire win, Justify was never challenged at the Belmont, securing trainer Bob Baffert’s second Triple Crown in four years.

And for Johnny Avello, executive director of Wynn Las Vegas’ race and sportsbook, the performance cost his operation a cool $150,000 on a single ticket.

As told by reporter Bill Krackomberger in Gaming Today, an informed bettor showed up at the Wynn in February – back when Justify had yet break his maiden race – and bet the thoroughbred at 300 to 1 odds.

Here’s how Avello described the unique situation:

“I got a call from a guy I know, a very respected horseman. He says to me, ‘Johnny, I got a horse I want to bet in the future book.’

I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you 250-1.’ He says, ‘Come on, Johnny.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you 300-1.’

Now he’s sitting 300-1 on Justify at a big number.”

While that ticket was certainly one of the largest cashed after Justify’s win, Vegas sportsbooks undoubtedly wrote thousands more at even money during the runup to Belmont.