03/08/2004 12:00AM

Call him father of simulcasting

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You either loved Chuck Di Rocco or hated him - well, a lot of people did both - but it was impossible to ignore him or his impact on the gaming industry in Las Vegas and beyond.

Di Rocco, founder and publisher of GamingToday newspaper and a pioneer in horse race simulcasting, died early Saturday of pneumonia at age 69. He first became ill last August at Del Mar, a favorite vacation destination of his over the years in which he rarely took time off from his myriad business ventures.

He was born Charles F. Di Rocco on Feb. 25, 1935, in Philadelphia. Most people called him Chuck, though they also called him a lot of other things, many of which were not complimentary.

During my days as managing editor of GamingToday, from 1998 to 2000, Di Rocco was talking to a client on speakerphone who felt that he wasn't getting a fair deal. The client finally said, "You're a [expletive deleted]." Di Rocco replied, "I've been called worse by better" and hung up.

Donald Trump has been quoted - among others - as saying "it's not personal, it's business," and Di Rocco was the same way, whether he was negotiating a salary, selling ad space, purchasing supplies, or during his days as a high-rolling blackjack player. And long before Trump's television show "The Apprentice," Di Rocco went through just about every gaming writer in the industry.

I'm proud to say I never heard the words "you're fired." I resigned from GamingToday in July 2000. I think I earned Di Rocco's respect when I told him I knew I was worth more than he was offering, because if he felt I was only worth that much then he would have offered less. He gave me a barely perceptible smile . . . but still wouldn't budge.

Another saying of Di Rocco's was "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." That was obviously a remnant from his days of learning the ways of the world - and gambling - on the streets of Philadelphia. He scratched and clawed and was proud that he went from being a depression-era child to a self-made millionaire.

According to Ray Poirier, a longtime friend and executive editor of GamingToday, Di Rocco attended several colleges but was most proud of attending Penn State University. No one seems to know if he actually received a degree, but that doesn't matter since he had already graduated from the school of hard knocks.

Di Rocco bounced around the country in the 1960's and 1970's as a racetrack publicist for Latonia (now Turfway Park) and Arapahoe, among others. He moved to Las Vegas and saw a void in the market for a sports betting newspaper and in 1976 founded Sports Form, which later expanded to include all aspects of the casino industry and was renamed GamingToday in 1993.

Di Rocco was a "good ole days" kind of guy, but he also took advantage of opportunities with new technology to expand his businesses. Back in the day, the only races to be simulcast live in Nevada casinos (or at other North American racetracks, for that matter) were the Kentucky Derby and very few other major stakes. When casinos booked bets, they would get the results over the wire and then make up race re-creations. Picture the scenes from the movie "The Sting."

But in the summer of 1980, Di Rocco brokered a deal to import the first full-program simulcast signal from Arlington Park in Chicago to the Union Plaza in downtown Las Vegas.

"It blew people's minds at the time," Poirier said. "This was a totally new concept, and it took three years to get everything sorted out with the state. They had to approve the transmission of the signal and all financial dealings. They finally settled on 3 percent of the handle - which remained the industry standard until recently - and Chuck went into the dissemination business.

"He was a visionary and had such an impact not only here in Nevada but nationwide. That really ushered in the era of simulcasting that we know today. But it wasn't easy. Even by 1990 or 1991 we were at the Symposium on Racing at the University of Arizona and Chuck was on a panel. He told the racetracks operators that they had to expand their menu, and he got booed out of the room. They were resistant to change. But without simulcasting, racing would be nowhere today. It was his most lasting legacy."

Poirier said Di Rocco got out of the dissemination business in 1991, because for years the casinos thought he was charging too much for the signal, and it caused bad blood, especially with friends such as the Gaughan family, who had supported him since his arrival in town.

But Di Rocco had other businesses, too. If you looked at the wallboards in a race book over the years or played parlay cards in the sports books, you were using products of his Dirson Enterprises Inc. With electronic boards moving into many race books, the wallboard business isn't what it once was, but the parlay cards are still going strong. Poirier said Dirson remains the largest parlay card producer in Las Vegas and chuckles when asked how Di Rocco got into that end of the business.

"Chuck would never admit he couldn't do something," Poirier said. "He was printing the paper, and even though people didn't know where he was printing it, people assumed he could print anything. One day he was in one of the books and the guy was complaining that he needed parlay cards and asked Chuck if he could print them. Chuck didn't have any equipment for that type of printing but he said, 'Sure.' He then started knocking on doors until he found someone to do it at the right price. The customer was happy and word spread and Chuck's business grew."

Among Di Rocco's projects was publishing the in-flight magazine for National Airlines when it launched in 1999, even though he had no experience with glossy magazines.

But no matter how much money the other businesses made, his baby was GamingToday. He loved being an insider in the industry and sharing the information with his readers. He rubbed elbows with all the movers and shakers in town. His favorite Las Vegas icon was Frank Sinatra. He met him on several occasions and even received an personalized autographed portrait from Ole Blue Eyes. He also became friends with Paul Anka, who wrote the song "My Way," which ended up serving as Sinatra's signature tune. For GamingToday's 25th anniversary in 2001, Anka wrote a new version with lyrics reflecting the weekly newspaper.

Di Rocco is survived by his wife and longtime business partner, the former Eileen Hutchinson; his son, Edward, from his previous marriage to the late Patricia Ryan; and two sisters.

A viewing is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Palm Mortuary at 7600 S. Eastern in Las Vegas. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Husband of Mary Church at 7260 W. Sahara Blvd., followed by burial at Palm Mortuary.