Derby a bettor’s playday |

Derby a bettor’s playday

Rick Chandler

Around the nation it is known as Derby Day, or the Run For the Roses. But at the Stateline casinos, the Kentucky Derby represents a certain form of nostalgia.

“The younger generation has grown up with video games,” said Walt Matson, the Sports Book Supervisor at Caesars Tahoe. “Kids today like quick, fast and exciting. But with a horse race, you have to wait. It takes 20 minutes for the horses to get up to the gate between races. That’s a long time to hang around for younger people these days.”

Today’s casino gambler has become accustomed to video slot machines, lightning-fast blackjack dealers and electronic Keno. Even the cocktail waitresses seem to be speedier than they used to be, fetching screwdrivers in less time than it takes to split a pair of sixes.

More and more in recent years, casino horse race wagering has been left out of that mix. Visit a sports book on any given Saturday afternoon, and the crowd will be sparse – with an average age of about 60.

But that all changes on Derby Day. It was standing-room only at Caesar’s on Saturday, two full hours before post time at Churchill Downs. The casino crowd was a mixture of young and old, seasoned veterans and newcomers.

In short, spring is officially here for the sports books. On Derby Day, expectations bloom.

“You see more young people in here for the Kentucky Derby than on any other day, at least for horse racing,” said Roy Bradley of Carson City. “Younger people don’t bet on the races like they used to. But this is different.”

Bradley has been a horse racing fan for 40 years, and has made his annual pilgrimage to Caesars for the Kentucky Derby for the past eight.

“I like the atmosphere for the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “It’s an event I don’t want to miss. The good thing about the Derby is that there are no favorites, and that’s the reason a lot of people bet, I think. Any horse can win. When I bet races at Golden Gate Fields, it’s easy to pick the winners. The Kentucky Derby is a challenge.”

Bradley proved his theory a moment later, as the big screen showed his horse racing across the finish line first at GGF.

“See?” he said, displaying his winning ticket.

On most days, Bradley could have yelled “Drinks are on me!” after such a win. But not Saturday – he would have gone broke.

“This is the largest crowd I’ve seen here,” said Matson, surveying the scene from the front door of his office. “It’s great to see. This is what this sport needs.”

Next door at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, the atmosphere was no less festive. You know it’s a big event when even the bet-takers are nervous.

“I really want Cat Thief to win,” said Dana Lucas, who has been operating the betting counter at Harrah’s for four years. “I just hope the horse is not as nervous as I am.”

Alas, Cat Thief finished third – although Lucas did not actually indicate if she had any place action in play.

“On Derby Day everyone is an expert,” said Steve Schorr, the Race and Sports Book Manager at Harrah’s. “All the horses have a chance, and that’s what brings many of the people out.

“For example, Stephen Got Even is the favorite now, but on the morning line he was 12-1.”

The most common wager on Derby Day?

“The straight-up win bet,” Schorr said. “Some people like to get fancy, looking to make the big kill with trifectas or Quinella Boxes. But the straight bet to win, place or show is still the most popular.

“Even if you don’t know a thing about horse racing, you’ll have a good time at the Kentucky Derby.”

Harrah’s Derby party included employees in tuxedos, free souvenir giveaways, mint juleps and roses for the ladies.

“These kind of events tend to bring out the kids,” Schorr said. “It’s like the Super Bowl.”

But the employees get caught up in it, too. Frank King, who works at the Harrah’s sports book, wagered $100 on the Derby in February – at Caesars.

“He bet on Stephen Got Even, and got 100-1 odds,” Schorr said. “So that’s a potential $10,000 winner he’s watching, and it’s the favorite right now.”

Did King stick it to Caesars? Nope. Stephen Got Even finished in the middle of the pack.

And what about Bradley? A quick check of his seat after the race found him gone, and you can bet he wasn’t off playing video poker.

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