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Vegas race books buck trend

Jay Trotter gambles, drinks, smokes and uses what best can be described as colorful language. The lead character in the movie “Let It Ride,” played by Richard Dreyfuss, is neurotic, and he’s a loser.

Until he has that one unconscious win streak that all gamblers dream about.

That win streak would suit Las Vegas race books just fine.

Las Vegas race books are more profitable when their everyday players win, not constantly lose. That’s partly why casinos are spending millions of dollars on improvements in the name of entertaining horseplayers and helping them do better.

Parimutuel wagering in the United States has dropped three of the past four years. But Las Vegas race books have bucked that trend.

Handle growth has been modest since 2002, enough so that 17 casino operators in the past 30 months have upgraded their race books.

“We’re showing a lot of confidence in the racing industry,” said Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports for Station Casinos.

Station Casinos has led the way with futuristic new race books at Red Rock, Green Valley Ranch and Santa Fe Station. Later this year, Aliante Station will host a similar venue.

However, Station is not alone. Boyd Gaming just spent $20 million to build a state-of-the-art race book at Sam’s Town. And according to Bob Scucci, race and sports book manager for Boyd Gaming, the Gold Coast, Orleans and Suncoast race books have undergone major remodeling.

Horseplayers in the modern race book enjoy personal TV monitors at their seats, giant flat-screen plasma TVs, an individual player terminal where they can deposit money and bet from their station and a host of other services.

Las Vegas race books average $1.5 million in handle every day.

“If you want to compete with the Joneses,” said Jay Kornegay, executive director of race and sports for the Las Vegas Hilton Superbook, “you need to offer the same environment.”

Kornegay has the daunting task of filling the Superbook, which at 30,000 square feet remains the largest race and sports book in Las Vegas.

HISTORY

Horse-race wagering became legal in Nevada in 1931.

Las Vegas race books were stand-alone properties away from casinos until 1975. The first race book to open inside a casino was at the Union Plaza downtown.

For nearly 60 years, casino ticket writers would write out wagers on three-play sheets with one copy going to the player, one held in house for grading later to see if the bet won or not, and the third copy going to the Gaming Control Board for inventory.

Race book managers had the right to refuse or alter the odds on a wager if it created too much exposure for the casino.

The industry matured quite a bit in the next 50 years.

In parimutuel wagering, the house has no financial interest other than accepting the bets and paying out the winners. Their profit, or hold, comes from the takeout, which runs between 15 percent to 20 percent.

In parimutuel wagering, the casino is in a unique gaming position of wanting all of its horseplayers to win. That’s because winning players will re-bet or churn their bankroll back into upcoming races. Casinos genuinely root for horseplayers to do well.

For example, if a horseplayer makes a $20 win bet, the casino take or hold is around 15 percent, or $3. If the bet loses, the casino can’t make any more profit on that $20 because it’s gone. If the horseplayer wins, most likely he’ll bet again, maybe another $20 win bet, and the casino will profit another $3.

Theoretically, if a horseplayer continues to bet, win and bet again, the casino would make a profit into infinity as long as the horseplayer keeps winning and reinvesting.

The first parimutuel wager placed in Nevada was in 1990. The parimutuel industry grew quickly, peaking in 1998 with a handle of $619 million. Then two things occurred to halt the momentum. First was a blackout of the races from Southern California, and second was the end of rebates paid to horseplayers.

Total handle slipped to $472 million in 2002 but has been rebounding at a slow, steady pace.

COMPETITION

According to Daily Racing Form records, 32 race books were in Las Vegas in 1993. Some of the names of defunct casinos bring back memories: Aladdin, Desert Inn, Frontier, Sands, Showboat and Stardust.

Most Las Vegas race action happened downtown and on the Strip.

Today, Las Vegas has 54 race books, with at least two more on the way, Cannery East and Aliante Station. Most local horseplayers do their betting in the suburbs.

Competition is intense. Race books that don’t try to improve could be left behind.

“We’re in a local’s market; we needed to stay competitive,” said Carol Boyd, Sam’s Town race and sports director.

Said Scucci: “As more and more race books open up, every one takes a little market share away from every other place.”

Local horseplayers usually are more demanding than their out-of-town counterparts. Locals can and do make choices where to spend their gambling dollars depending on many customer-service options.

“Your service levels better be high,” Kornegay said. “With the choices players have, they’ll go elsewhere. You must give the customer a high comfort setting to play in.”

One race book that seems to have recaptured the past is the Golden Nugget.

“Our downtown base of horseplayers is unbelievable,” said Tony Miller, race and sports book director at the Golden Nugget. He says his new race and sports book already is too small for the repeat business he has been getting.

MARKETING

Las Vegas race books are in a better position to attract newcomers to horse racing than the racetracks themselves.

Racetrack attendance is stagnant. More and more hard-core horseplayers are betting through convenience, be it from home or a betting parlor close to where they live.

Nearly 40 million tourists visit Las Vegas every year, and most don’t know which end of a horse is which.

The challenge, says John Avello, director of race and sports for Wynn Las Vegas, is peaking the interest of new players.

Avello has been working with the Nevada Parimutuel Association on bringing in new racetrack signals, such as Woodbine in Canada and Australian racing, plus getting parimutuel wagering back on greyhound dog racing.

Sam’s Town has taken the most proactive player education stance in Las Vegas. For years, it has been the only race book in town with horse handicappers, Gordon Jones and Patrick McQuiggan, on its payroll. Sam’s Town sponsors the pair on the “Track Talk” radio show at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

“They do free seminars, hang their picks daily on our board. We are willing to talk horses with just about anybody,” Boyd said.

Manteris believes the rush of live action should be enough to attract new blood.

“I look at a race and sports book as an ‘excitement center’ of the property,” he said. “You can feel it sometimes if you walk by when two horses are dueling down the stretch.”

Handicapping tournaments, such as this weekend at The Orleans (Horseplayer World Series) and at Red Rock (National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship), are recruiting plenty of new fans.

TECHNOLOGY

Technological improvements have come slowly because the Nevada Gaming Control Board is steadfast in trying to protect the integrity of gaming.

But plans are in the works to bring parimutuel wagering into the 21st century.

Hand-held betting devices might not be too far away.

Wynn Las Vegas has taken ”baby steps” to offer out-of-state horseplayers the ability to set up a Las Vegas-based phone wagering account.

The Orleans race book video presentation will upgrade dramatically in the “next six to eight months,” Scucci said.

By federal law, all video signals must be upgraded to digital and high definition by February 2009.

A video wall is part of the next phase of improvements planned for The Orleans.

Scucci believes HDTV will help attract newcomers because it’s “tailor made for horse racing. The 16-by-9 ratio for TV screens fits the picture of a horse race perfectly. You can see the entire field in a panoramic view versus the old 4-by-3 ratio TVs.”

PROFITABILITY

Casinos are scientific when it comes to return on investment. Accountants carefully measure the profitability of floor space by the square foot. The king of gambling profits, far and away, is the slot machine.

“There was a period of time when space allocated to race books around town was shrinking,” Manteris said. “A state-of-the-art race and sports book is a draw to the property. It gives our guests what they want. The crowds will come to the facility and use many of our other services.”

Brad Bryant, race and sports book director for Planet Hollywood, echoed that sentiment: “It’s no secret casinos could probably make more money from slots. But to be a full-service property, you have to offer race and sports.”

Two new Strip casinos, however, will not offer a race and sports book: the Palazzo and the Encore. Palazzo guests are being directed to the book at the Venetian.

When the Encore opens, horseplayers will be able to bet at Wynn Las Vegas.

It remains to be seen if demand will force a change of strategy. For many visitors, a top race and sports book is a big part of what separates the Las Vegas experience from other casinos.

 

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