Playing an old-fashioned game of brinkmanship, Nevada casinos won government approval Thursday to do something they have not done in more than 20 years. Book the Kentucky Derby on their own.
But one source told VSiN that there is every chance of an 11th-hour deal to end an impasse with Churchill Downs and bring Nevada back into the nationwide mutuel pools in time for next Saturday’s race.
“There’s going to be a last-minute push,” said the casino source, who is not authorized to speak publicly for the cartel of Nevada racebooks. “Nothing is really concrete yet. It’s chaos right now.”
Patty Jones, executive director of the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association that represents the racebooks, and Tonya Abeln, spokeswoman for Churchill Downs Inc., did not answer calls Thursday night for comment.
Despite the expectation of Hail Mary negotiations between the NPMA and CDI, Las Vegas race and sportsbook managers are scrambling to cobble together a contingency plan. They are preparing to take wagers on the Kentucky Derby, the Oaks and an unknown number of other Churchill Downs races during the abbreviated meet that starts Tuesday.
Just like the old days bookmakers may be forced to change betting and win limits on the fly right up to the Derby, which is expected to start next Saturday just before 7 p.m. EDT.
The challenge for the Nevada shops is that they are obliged to honor the mutuel prices posted at Churchill Downs even though the in-state bets will not impact the national pools. That leaves bookmakers exposed if there is a long-shot payoff, especially in exotic wagers like a Pick 5 or a superfecta.
“That’s why you may not see a complete betting menu here,” the source said. “We might only have daily doubles, trifectas, exacta, but no superfectas. We might not even have the all-stakes Pick 4 or anything like that.”
That is also why each house will offer its own limits based on the exposure it is experiencing each race day. With its dozens of racebook locations around Nevada, William Hill would be able to absorb more liability than a stand-alone shop like the South Point.
“You might have limits of $1,000 at some of the bigger operations and as little as $100 at some others,” another Nevada source said. “You might also see payouts up to a certain amount if the odds are longer than, say, 10-1 or 20-1.”
It is not just the long shots that could make the Derby a money loser for Nevada casinos. So could the heavy favorite Tiz The Law.
“We will have to watch the odds very carefully,” the first source said. “If Tiz The Law gets so much action that we have an underlay, you might see limits lowered during the day for the win pool, too. It’s the way we used to book horses in the ’80s.”
Further complicating the terms of engagement is a stipulation that Nevada casinos are only allowed to book races shown on NBC, NBCSN or through the Fox Sports channels, including FS1 and FS2, that have national TV deals with Churchill Downs. If none of those outlets shows a particular race, it may not be booked in Nevada. If NBC were to skip a race, which happened on Belmont Stakes day to start a Pick 5, then Las Vegas bettors would be out of luck – or at least that option.
“We might book all the races next week at Churchill,” one source said. “Or we might only book the Oaks and Derby. We just don’t know yet.”
The plan approved Thursday by the Gaming Control Board was submitted by the NPMA because of a 10-month-long impasse between Churchill Downs Inc. and racebooks over the percentage of the state’s handle that CDI would get. The dispute has also impacted the ability of Nevada racebooks to take action on other tracks for which CDI controls interstate betting rights.
Since talks broke off during the spring and had not resumed by mid-week, the Nevada racebooks’ contingency plan might be little more than saber rattling to get the attention of negotiators in Kentucky.
“My understanding is that (the NPMA) will try one more time to make a deal,” the first source said.
This is not the first time the NPMA has prepared to book races on its own in the midst of frosty negotiations that look and sound like disputes between TV networks and cable providers. In 2012 and again in 2015, major racetrack conglomerates threatened to lock out Nevada bettors before deals were finally made. In each case it was about how to split the takeout.
In the current case Churchill Downs was said to want 7½ cents of every dollar bet in Nevada on its races – and more just for the Derby. The NPMA wants to hold firm at the average 6¾ cents under the old terms before the two sides went their separate ways last Oct. 27. Since Nevada accounted for $6 million of the $251 million bet on last year’s Derby, the two sides are haggling over maybe just $200,000.
Putting what amounts to a shrug into words, the first source confessed that “for less than 3 percent of the total pool, I get the feeling Churchill Downs could care less.”
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The past and present of the Kentucky Derby come together on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Leon Nichols and Calvin Davis of the Project to Preserve African-American Turf History tell stories of the amazing 19th-century Black jockeys and trainers who built the Derby. Trainer Juan Carlos Ávila talks about the four-month layoff that King Guillermo is getting before his run for the roses. Rampart Race and Sportsbook’s Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.