05/27/2004 12:00AM

Vegas tide has turned, Roxy says


Michael "Roxy" Roxborough is often credited with bringing sports betting out of the dark ages and into the technology age. He founded the world's top oddsmaking firm, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, in 1982, running it out of his kitchen and logging all the point spreads and results by hand.

"When I started, a loose-leaf notebook, a pencil, and two colored pens were all the equipment we had," he said Wednesday in the back of the Las Vegas Hilton's SuperBook. "I remember buying my first fax machine in 1983. The problem was, very few sports books had fax machines, so I had to send to the corporate offices, and the sports books would get it the next day in the interoffice mail."

That quickly changed. Sports books were able to share information more easily, and LVSC grew to provide odds for more than 90 percent of the books in Nevada. In 1995, LVSC combined with DBC Sports, a data broadcasting company, to link all the sports books by computer so they could see real-time line moves at other properties.

Around that time, the offshore sports-book industry was starting to evolve. Unfortunately, state regulators were leery about the legality of Internet wagering and prohibited land-based casino companies from getting involved, even though the feeling has always been that customers would much rather send their money to a well-known, brand-name casino instead of an offshore outfit whose ultimate owners were often unknown.

"We used to be on the cutting edge in race and sports betting," Roxborough said. "This was the place to be. You could bet the most tracks here and get the best deals [with rebates], but the regulators have taken a lot of that away. Now there's a lot of paperwork and reporting regulations.

"The irony is that sports betting is exploding all over the world, and the only place it has plateaued is in Nevada. There seems to be this myth that the only place that can regulate sports betting is Nevada, and that's just not true.

"If we had gotten involved [offshore], sports betting in Las Vegas would be as big as ever," Roxborough said. "Sadly, sports books here now are mostly used as event centers for the big events. They're more a marketing tool, and because the major hotels know they can make more money by just putting in slots, they don't put the pressure on the state to loosen regulations."

Many people credit Roxborough, who sold LVSC in 1999, with getting out when the getting was good, but Roxy said it was just a case of good timing.

"It wasn't any great vision that led me to sell the company," he said. "Just like when I started, and I just had a few clients. I didn't know every casino was going to add a sports book and allow my business to grow the way it did."

But grow it did, and from 1982 to 1999 he was virtually the face of sports betting in America. His reputation grew to the point where in 1999 he was No. 2 on the Las Vegas Review Journal's list of the most influential sports figures of the 20th century, as well as one of GQ magazine's "50 Most Important People in Sports" and one of Daily Racing Form's "10 Most Influential People in Gaming."

He appeared on "Nightline," CNN's "Crossfire," "The McLaughlin Group," "48 Hours" with Dan Rather, and many more TV and radio programs, including the nightly news on all three major networks.

"All of the fluff pieces were about the Super Bowl," Roxborough said. "The other times were almost all scandal-related: Pete Rose, Arizona State basketball, Art Schlichter.

"The biggest pain in the butt was dealing with the press. They would come in with their cameras and disrupt our whole day, and sometimes it would end up on the cutting-room floor or just be a short sound bite.

"They would always say, 'Well, it's good publicity,' and I would say we didn't have a product to sell. But obviously I did it because it was good for the industry."

So, does he miss being a celebrity and having his opinion sought out?

"Not really," he said. "But it is ironic that now I have the time and no one wants to talk to me."

These days, Roxborough, 53, lives nine months of the year in Thailand and travels a lot of the time, spending each spring in Las Vegas for the Triple Crown races and to meet up with old friends. He doesn't follow every sport like he used to, instead concentrating on cricket, soccer, and Formula 1 racing as a consultant for some bookmaking operations in England.

But his passion - as it has always been since he studied the ponies more than his, well, studies, at American University in Washington, D.C. - remains horse racing. As he describes it, "The only other steady work I do these days" is formulating the Kentucky Derby odds for kentuckyderby.com and following the Triple Crown races, dabbling in head-to-head matchup bets.

"I start making Derby odds the day after the Breeders' Cup and feel I have a good feel for the horses from watching all the prep races," he said.

Roxborough said he agrees with the odds being offered on Smarty Jones in the Belmont, which is 2-5, or roughly a 70 percent chance that he wins.

"Usually for the Belmont you have a horse waiting in the wings, like an Empire Maker and Dynever last year or Touch Gold a few years ago, to thwart a Triple Crown," he said. "But these horses he's already clobbered. The only wild card is The Cliff's Edge if he's 100 percent fit. The only other way he loses is if he wakes up that day and just doesn't want to run. Horses sometimes throw in clinkers that we never understand."