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Horse racing game survives test of time in Las Vegas casino

Updated August 26, 2019 - 10:31 pm

Once a year, Steve Stefanoff and Tammy Beggs make a trip to Las Vegas to see their favorite attraction. It’s not the Bellagio Fountains or a five-star restaurant on the Strip — it’s the Sigma Derby, a 10-player horse racing game first released in 1985.

Early Friday afternoon, inside the D Las Vegas’ second-floor casino in downtown Las Vegas, the couple sat side-by-side below the game’s twinkling lightbulbs. There was a loud “clunk” as the players dropped their quarters and placed their bets. Suddenly, the horses were off, with the table cheering on the plastic animals as they sprinted across the miniature track.

“Whoo!” Beggs, 47, yelled as the horses crossed the finish line. She high-fived Stefanoff and took a sip from her Bud Light.

The two drop between $300 to $500 on the game every year — Beggs said she likes the “old school” vibe from the game, while Stefanoff likes the social aspect.

“Last year, we met people from Australia, from Canada, from all over the world,” said Stefanoff, 52. “It was midnight, everybody had been drinking, we’re screaming and hollering at these plastic horses and having a great time. You wake up the next day, and besides the little hangover you’ve got, you’re going, ‘Wow, what a great time we had.’”

The game has attracted players of all ages to D Las Vegas, including the elusive millennial gambler. But according to those familiar with the machine, the days of Sigma Derby could be numbered.

Drawing in demographics

It seems counterintuitive for the game to draw in young crowds. It’s clunky. The horses look like toys you might find at the dollar store. And when compared with the sleeker, skill-based modern games, one word comes to mind: old.

And yet that was where Brock Watson chose to spend a good chunk of his first Las Vegas vacation. The 21-year-old said he focused most of his time on roulette and Sigma Derby while at the casinos.

“You can play without having to lose a whole lot of money, or you can hit one that’s 200-to-1 and have $50,” he said. “This one’s always full. It’s nice that everyone’s sitting around.”

It’s an unusual draw for the millennial generation, which is sought after by the casino industry. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, about 24 percent of Las Vegas visitors last year were 60 or older.

Derek Stevens, owner of the D Las Vegas, said it’s the casino’s most popular slot machine.

He wasn’t able to break down the player demographics — Sigma Derby was created before player tracking systems were standard — but Stevens estimated that a lot fall into the millennial age range.

“You can have people in their 80s playing with people in their 20s, and they’re all having a good time,” he said. “Late at night, it might be all 20-year-olds playing and hooting and hollering.”

Robert Piechowiak, who worked for Japan-based manufacturer Sigma Game Inc. for close to 13 years, said it’s the social aspect of the game that draws in the crowds.

“It’s the true first social game where you could sit alongside other people and participate in the same game, drink and gamble, and see the person across from you rooting for the same horses,” he said.

Florida native Johnny White, 44, said he always visits the derby game with friends when he’s in Las Vegas.

“You can sit down, relax, have a drink and kind of chill and still be entertained,” he said. You don’t make “a lot of money. It’s more (about) camaraderie with people, with strangers.”

Other companies have tried to re-create the game’s effects. A game called Fortune Cup from Konami Gaming Inc. was brought into D Las Vegas about a year ago, complete with digital screens and horses that run much smoother than its counterpart. But the newer version is played far less often than the Sigma game, Piechowiak said.

“The player just seems to love that mechanical design to the game, not all the hype of flashy graphics,” Piechowiak said. “The newer ones are just more complicated in the wagering. … (Sigma Derby) is a simple game.”

Gaming consultant Charlie Lombardo said the smoothness of the new derby games could be a drawback.

“When (horses) go from last to first of all a sudden, there’s a little more excitement to it,” he said of Sigma Derby. “The other one is too new, too clean. It feels funny.”

Obsession

At slot machine manufacturer Next Gaming’s warehouse, Piechowiak, the chief technology officer for product and game design, walked among rows of shiny-new skill-based games. Past these new machines, hidden in the corner under a layer of dust, sits a two-player Kentucky Derby game.

Piechowiak estimates it’s one of — if not the — last of its kind. He said the game inspired Sigma to create its own version, one that fits five times as many players and generates much more revenue.

He pointed underneath the track, where the wiring and mechanics of the machines are exposed.

“There is no computer whatsoever in here,” he said. “(I’m trying to get it up and going), it’s my personal hobby.”

Many others have a soft spot in their heart for derby games. The Sigma Derby Facebook group has more than 1,600 members and remains active despite a shrinking number of machines left: MGM Grand removed its last Sigma Derby last year, and D Las Vegas’ game is the last operational unit in a Las Vegas casino.

Even though the game doesn’t make the D Las Vegas much money, it has a special place in Stevens’ heart; it was the first machine he played in Las Vegas when he was 21.

“It’s a game where everybody can play together. Everybody’s rooting together,” he said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, a lot of fun.”

Close to the end

Lombardo said he wasn’t a fan of Sigma Derby when he worked as a slot executive at Strip casinos.

“You could never make any money on it,” he said. “People could play at a quarter a time, you watch those horses race around 30 seconds, then they place a quarter again. … You could sit there with a $10 bill for two, three, four hours.”

That is, unless the horses fell over — something Lombardo said happened occasionally.

“It was kind of funny,” he said. “Some of the bettors would complain, and you’d give a quarter back and a technician would look at it.”

In the 1990s, according to gaming consultant Charlie Lombardo, operators started phasing out the game when they realized they could make more money with slot machines, which took up less floor space. Shortly after, in the mid-2000s, Sigma went out of business.

Without the company manufacturing more games, finding the right parts to fix the machines became much more difficult. Stevens said it has been a struggle to keep the D Las Vegas’ Derby game working. Even with preventive maintenance, it breaks down about once a week.

“It’s an older machine, so sometimes people come down and you have to put up a sign saying the horses are a little tired today,” he said. “But our guys are always able to get them up and going.”

The company has bought older, broken Sigma Derby machines for parts, but Stevens said it’s only a matter of time before they run out of materials to keep it running.

“We’re trying our best,” he said. “But eventually, there’s going to come a time where there are no parts left and we just can’t make it run. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve kept it for so long.”

Stefanoff said he realizes the game won’t last forever. Until then, he and Beggs plan to continue returning to D Las Vegas every August, enjoying a nostalgic weekend full of new friends, an abundance of drinks and plastic ponies.

“It’s going to break down one day, just like I’m going to break down one day. Then it’ll all be over,” Stefanoff said. “But I won’t stop until it breaks down.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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