Remembering when Hazel Park Raceway had LV bookmakers ‘steamed’ By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports November 18, 2020 at 8:00 pm America was busy celebrating its bicentennial in the summer of 1976, but the racebook bosses of Las Vegas weren’t in a mood for fireworks. For some strange reason, they were getting killed with oddly confident bets on races at a track located in a Detroit suburb called Hazel Park Raceway. It was no secret Hazel Park was operated under the influence of Detroit mob boss Anthony Zerilli, whose many connections to the Las Vegas casino industry of that generation had included part ownership of the Frontier. He was also suspected of holding points in the Desert Inn, where his old friend Moe Dalitz had held sway, and the Silver Slipper. You might say Hazel Park had been a family operation for Zerilli. His father, Joe Zerilli, and partner Black Bill Tocco were in on Hazel Park from the day it opened its gates in 1949. Law enforcement scrutiny and time rearranged the management structure of the place for the next 25 years, but in 1976 the younger Zerilli, with partner Black Jack Tocco, were said to still influence the operation. Hazel Park wasn’t the biggest track in the country, but it was a beauty. It had no business upsetting the stomachs of the savvy racebook operators in Las Vegas. But the hits kept coming until the decision was made to temporarily stop taking action on the races. It was later revealed jockeys riding in races with few horses running were being paid off. The schemer behind the scenes was a clever and persuasive Boston mob associate named Tony Ciullo, who worked under the aegis of Howie Winter, one of the biggest mobsters in the country at the time. As head of the Winter Hill Gang, Winter had action in all the rackets and was willing to kill to protect it. The Hazel Park fix was the beginning of the end for Winter, who was eventually replaced by the better-known James “Whitey” Bulger. A loan trainer works out a horse at the Hazel Park Raceway before it was closed and demolished For my money, Ciullo is the more intriguing character. He was considered the most prolific race fixer of his era. After he was arrested, he eventually became a cooperating witness against Winter and others. Zerilli had his own legal misery to deal with. As one of the hidden owners of the Frontier, he was convicted in 1971 of benefiting from a $6 million skim of the casino. Although Zerilli and Tocco officially sold the track, they were long suspected of influencing it. It was reported that Winter paid a piece of Ciullo’s fixing profits to the Detroit boss. As our friends at gangsterreport.com put it, Zerilli and Tocco attempted to keep up appearances at Hazel Park. “If Tony Z or Jack Tocco caught people booking bets at the track, they’d call them in for a meeting and heads would roll,” one Hazel Park sharp guy recalls. “I saw a number of guys go into Tony Z’s office and come out looking roughed up, just ashen with fear. They never had to be asked twice to stop.” Zerilli never recovered his footing in Las Vegas after the Frontier bust. After the family’s substantial influence at the Aladdin through James Tamer and others fell apart, they faded from the Strip. Howie Winter, the Irish gangster who knew plenty of casino men in Las Vegas in his day and surely enjoyed his share of gambling junkets, went to his reward recently at the remarkable age of 91. Winter’s obituary notes: “Howie loved his wife, politics, his service in the Marine Corps, and a good argument.” The cause of death was a heart attack, which for a guy in his business is beating the odds, indeed. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.