Tick-tock: Vegas, Churchill still not dancing

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

The draw was held Tuesday for the Kentucky Derby, which, with the Kentucky Oaks, are the only races that may be open to betting through Nevada racebooks because of a dispute with Churchill Downs Inc. over the split of the state’s betting handle. (Churchil

Las Vegas


Bettors hoping for a life-changing score betting the Kentucky Derby as part of a Pick 6 will probably not find it Saturday in Nevada. It looks like there will not even be the mere pittance of daily doubles.


The Nevada Gaming Control Board confirmed Tuesday that, when it comes to Churchill Downs, the state’s racebooks are permitted to take action only on Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. That is because of a contractual stalemate that has kept the casinos from taking any bets on Churchill’s races since last October.


“The industry waiver granted by chair (Sandra) Morgan clearly only allows the books to book non-pari-mutuel wagers on only those two races if they are using a national broadcast and not a disseminator to grade tickets and pay wagers,” a spokesman for the Gaming Control Board said in an email to VSiN. That means there are no multi-race, horizontal wagers other than the Oaks-Derby double.


Because of the impasse with Churchill Downs, casinos big and small will book the Oaks and Derby on their own. Even though they are obliged to honor the mutuel prices posted on the tote board in Kentucky, these shops will not be a part of the all-sources pools that collected more than $250 million in bets on Derby day last year, including $6 million from Nevada.


“We haven’t booked races in over 20 years,” Westgate executive vice president Jay Kornegay said. “I can’t even remember the last time we did that. But we have everything in place, and we plan on booking this year’s Derby.”


Since they would be outside the pari-mutuel pools mingled through Churchill Downs, the Nevada casinos are exposed if any big bets or big payoffs were allowed. That is why limits and betting menus may vary widely from one sportsbook to the next. The bigger the house, the higher the expected limits.


“It’s going to depend on each location,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “You probably won’t see superfectas. Some places may elect not to have trifectas. There may be limits on your payouts as far as even win, place and show. Almost certainly on exotics I think you will see some limits. I doubt that house rules will be uniform throughout the state.”


Things could get back to normal if there is a sudden agreement this week between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association, the negotiating bloc that represents the casinos, and Churchill Downs Inc., the S&P 400 company that owns the namesake racetrack and the Kentucky Derby.


“The NPMA and Churchill could enter into an agreement anytime they want,” Gaming Control Board spokesman Michael Lawton wrote in his email. “The board would need to approve the agreement. Any approval would have to be processed by 5 p.m. (PDT) Friday night for all Kentucky Derby day races and by 5 p.m. Thursday night for all of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks day races.” Lawton added that the process must take into account added time that the board would need to read and distill the agreement.


There were conflicting accounts from Las Vegas sources Tuesday about whether negotiations had resumed between the NPMA and CDI, suggesting that an entrée may have been made. NPMA executive director Patty Jones and CDI spokeswoman Tonya Abeln did not return VSiN’s calls and emails asking about this.


As casinos faced the reality that they might be booking horses on their own for the first time in nearly 30 years, some were wrestling with everything from technological challenges to rookie mistakes.


Andrews believes he is the last active bookmaker in Nevada who wrote tickets on races before the pari-mutuel system was permanently adopted in 1991. He said that there is a whole new generation that has never done this before, telling the story of a conversation he had last week.


“One bookmaker was asking some guys, ‘Do you have a plan?’ The guys would tell him, ‘If we get this we’ll move that number, and if we get that we’ll move that.’ And the bookmaker says, ‘No. You’re not moving numbers. You’re paying what the track pays. This is not sports bookmaking. The only thing you’re doing is managing your risk.’ A lot of guys are not prepared for that.”


One influential casino executive who looks after multiple locations might not even have the technology or the hardware to take horse bets. So that executive, according to a rival, is pushing hard for the NPMA to settle its differences with CDI. Otherwise that casino group might be forced to turn away all its potential Derby business this week.


“I can’t believe that we may get stuck with a bad deal with Churchill because one place can’t figure out their bleeping machines,” the rival said. Calls from VSiN to that casino executive were not returned.


The last word on negotiations before they broke off in March was that CDI wanted to increase its share of the Nevada handle from 6¾ percent to 7½ percent and even more for the Kentucky Derby. Even if CDI wanted its Derby share to rise to 10 percent, the argument then would be over a difference of about $200,000 for 82 betting locations around Nevada, or an average of less than $2,500.


Nevertheless, Andrews dug in with a view that is shared by many bookmakers who have spoken to VSiN.


“Churchill has been the elephant in the room with the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Other than that their meet isn’t as good as Del Mar’s. It’s not as good as Saratoga. It’s not as Belmont. It’s not as good as Santa Anita. They play it like it’s the only thing we have. I love the Derby, but it doesn’t pay your bills if you’re in the horse-racing racket. Even though they’re not as important as that one particular day, there are 364 other days of the year that are certainly very important.”


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. He also hosts “Road to the Derby” Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on VSiN and on demand at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The annual Kentucky Derby pop-up episode featuring Las Vegas bookmakers/handicappers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo posts Wednesday afternoon. The regular episode Friday will include NBC Sports race caller Larry Collmus, trainers Bob Baffert and John Shirreffs and Tiz The Law’s lead owner Jack Knowlton. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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