LAS VEGAS – My VSiN colleague Ron Flatter asked me to fill in for him this week on the horse racing beat. For those who only know me from VSiN or my previous gig at ESPN.com, I actually had three stints at Daily Racing Form – the horseplayers’ Bible – from 1993 through 2014, first as a copy editor/page designer, then as a full-time Las Vegas correspondent and finally as a freelance columnist.
So, I was happy to return to what amounts to my first love (at least as far as gambling is concerned). I planned to lead off this column with a preview of this Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park as we enter the main Road to the Kentucky Derby. But then I got big news about my second-favorite Derby. No, I’m not talking about the Santa Anita Derby, the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, UAE Derby or even my hometown Illinois Derby.
If you’re a longtime visitor to Vegas or other casinos across the country, you probably know where I’m heading with this: I’m talking about the Sigma Derby.
For the uninitiated, Sigma Derby is an electro-mechanical casino racing game that first hit casino floors in 1985 and is part slot machine and part slot-car racing set as the five horse-and-jockey figures (yes, just five, though with today’s small fields, it now appears it was ahead of its time) stay in their own lane, bobbing along while the sound of pounding hooves plays in the background. The only denomination available is quarters and you can only bet quinellas (where you need your horses to run 1-2 to cash) with locked-in odds set before each race.
I was first introduced to Sigma Derby in the mid-1990s when I was working for DRF in Phoenix and making 3-4 trips a year to Vegas to play the ponies and bet sports at the Sands (before it was imploded and replaced by the Venetian). My workmates and I would mostly play it after the day’s real races were done, but my fondest memory is that my friend Peter Shewchuk would invariably run out of cash and be begging the rest of us for quarters so he could try to turn those into dollar bills to bet on the real races instead of having to resort to the ATM machine.
More than 20 years later, I can’t pass by a Sigma Derby machine without at least throwing a few quarters in for old time’s sake. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen too often as there are only two known machines still in operation: one at the MGM Grand on the Strip and the other at the D Hotel & Casino in downtown Vegas.
So, when I heard that the D had installed a competing game on Wednesday called Fortune Cup by Konami Gaming Inc., I knew I had to head downtown to compare the classic Sigma Game and it’s futuristic counterpart.
Fortune Cup was not completely unknown to me as I had first seen it at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in the fall of 2016, but my focus during that conference was on the booming Daily Fantasy Sports phenomenon so I didn’t get a chance to play Fortune Cup. However, upon seeing the more realistic horse-and-jockey figures that could move to the rail or swing to the outside along with the high-def graphics and video screen, I immediately drew a comparison to the “Toy Story” movie where Andy has his cowboy doll Woody (which represents a simpler time just like Sigma Derby) but then gets a Buzz Lightyear toy (representative of the future with all the electronic bells and whistles just like Fortune Cup).
Both Sigma Derby and Fortune Cup are on the D’s second floor near the William Hill sports books in an area called “Vintage Vegas Slots.” When I arrived Thursday, I was happy to note that there were 8 players at the Sigma Derby game and only two at Fortune Cup (yes, I’m such a fan that I’m part of a Sigma Derby group on Facebook along with 1,330 other members). Admittedly, I went into this experiment assuming I would prefer the nostalgic Sigma Derby over the futuristic Fortune Cup.
I certainly had fun playing Sigma Derby, but I have to admit I actually enjoyed my time (and spent more of it) on Fortune Cup. Part of the reason might be that I won more than $100 on Fortune Cup, but it didn’t start that way. I started with a $100 bill inserted in the bill acceptor (note: Sigma Derby only takes quarters and I had to go to a change machine to break a $20 bill and then insert the quarters one-by-one into the machine; it doesn’t even take vouchers) and nearly ran through my bankroll before hitting a 5-7 quinella for $178 to turn around my fortunes, pun intended.
The modern touch-screen console for the Fortune Cup was eminently easier to operate and bets can be made in denominations of $1 to $100, and with 8 horses in each race, there are many more combinations than the 5 horses allow in Sigma Derby. Fortune Cup also has the welcome addition of win & place wagering. Another knock against Sigma Derby is you have to push the button each time for every quarter you want to wager up to a maximum of 20 (that’s $5 for the mathematically challenged). That’s’ also not much of a sweat.
While I’m sure I’ll still continue to throw a few quarters in the Sigma Derby every time I see one, I’m more likely to sit down with friends for an extended period of time at Fortune Cup. However, I fear that the option to choose between the two will be shortened as the old-fashioned Sigma game is probably going to be obsolete in the near future. D owner Derek Stevens, who said he loves having both machines for his customers, echoed what I’ve been hearing for years on the Facebook discussion page: Sigma Derby breaks down quite often (Stevens said he has a sign that says “The horses are tired and the meet won’t be run today”) and it’s getting increasingly hard to find replacement parts as most of the past manufacturers of the game have gone out of business.
In the meantime, I suggest if you’re in downtown Las Vegas to check out both games at the D. Stevens said he has an exclusive license to be the only downtown casino to offer Fortune Cup for the next six months. But if you’re in other areas of Las Vegas, you can find Fortune Cup on the Strip at the MGM Grand (which, again, is the only other casino to have Sigma Derby), Venetian, Bellagio, New York New York and Cosmopolitan and off the strip at The Orleans and Red Rock Resort.
This is part of the Fortune Cup betting screen, with quinellas like Sigma Derby but also win & place wagering.
This 5-7 quinella in the Fortune Cup game paid $178 and bailed out the author.
Sigma Derby and Fortune Cup are up the escalators on the second floor of the D Hotel & Casino on downtown Las Vegas, near the William Hill sports book in an area called “Vintage Vegas Slots.”
Console of the Sigma Derby game with only quinella wagering available on the 10 possible combinations.
Horse cross the finish line in the Sigma Derby game with the 1-2 quinella paying a very chalky 2-1.
The Sigma Derby and Fortune Cup games were both at their 10-player maximum shortly before this photo (as I had to get up from my seat at Fortune Cup to take this photo).
Racing notes and opinions
OK, for the fans of “real” horse racing, let’s get to the real notes (and thank you for indulging me if you’ve gotten this far):
- The $400,000, Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on the First Saturday in March is the start of the Kentucky Derby prep season in my eyes. I know there have been qualifying points races for the Derby since last September and the 50 points to the FOY winner was matched by the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana two weeks ago, but this is when we begin to see the serious contenders. No. 6 Good Magic, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall and the 2-year-old champion, had had a four-month layoff since the BC and returns as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the Fountain of Youth. The prep races are ripe for longshots as we often see vulnerable favorites like Good Magic. Oh, sure, he has every right to mature and improve like the rest of those in his 3-year-old class, but no one knows how he’s going to respond off such a long layoff. Besides, we've often seen these types of favorites be less than fully cranked for a top performance by their trainers as they don’t need the points as much as other Derby hopefuls. If Good Magic is a superhorse and beats me, so be it, but I’ll look elsewhere for my bets. The most likely winner to me is No. 4 Strike Power. He’s undefeated in two career starts, though the knock on him is both those were sprints and he hasn’t races around two turns yet. I have no problem with that, but I’ll probably pass on the win end as he’s only 4-1, a sign the morning-linemaker also sees him as live. Instead, I’ll take fliers on No. 3 Peppered (30-1) and No. 10 Promises Fulfilled (20-1). Promises Fulfilled drew the far outright post and should be sent to challenge Strike Power on the lead. I could see either stealing this, but if they burn each other out, that’s why I’m looking at Peppered, a closer whose last race can be thrown out. So, give me win money on the 3 and 10 while boxing 3-4-6-10 (yes, I’m including Good Magic in case he’s much the best) in exactas, trifectas and superfectas.
- Next week starts six straight weeks with multiple Derby prep races as we’ll really separate the pretenders from the contenders. On Thursday, the inaugural “European Road to the Kentucky Derby” series kicks off with Gronkowski the expected favorite in the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton Park, but Friday's Patton Stakes has already been postponed due to extreme cold and snow canceling the Dundalk meeting in Ireland, altering plans for the connections of 2017 BC Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn. Back here in the states, the Saturday, March 10, preps include the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Expect more on those in Ron Flatter’s return next week.
- For contest players, the Horse Player World Series is being held next Thursday through Saturday at The Orleans. Unlike the National Horseplayers Championship at the Treasure Island last month where everyone had to qualify for a berth, the Horse Player World Series has a $1,500 entry fee for those who haven’t already qualified. Contestants make 15 mythical $20 win & place wagers on each day of the tournament with the first $2 paid at full track odds and the remaining capped at 19-1 to win and 9-1 to place. Full details can be found at http://coastrace.com. The Orleans was built by Michael Gaughan in 1996 and is famous for hosting major horse racing tournaments. Gaughan sold The Orleans and the rest of his “Coast Casinos” group (Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Suncoast and South Coast) to Boyd Gaming in 2004 for $1,3 billion. He took a seat on the Boyd board, but preferred being a hands-on owner and bought back the South Coast for $576 million in 2006, renaming it the South Point (and joking that he only had to change 3 letters on all the signs).
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests are National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Alex Waldrop, who talks about how a federal tax break for horseplayers came down to a matter of hours, and Peter Rotondo Jr. of the Breeders’ Cup, who discusses handicapping contests and attracting millennials to the sport. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.