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Horseplayers Outnumber Sports Bettors as Las Vegas Books Reopen

The South Point sportsbook was quiet Thursday afternoon when a high-pitched scream shattered the silence.

But the celebratory shriek didn’t come from a sports bettor. It came from a woman at the bar next to the book who hit a six-spot jackpot on a video Keno machine for $912 before exchanging elbow bumps and fist bumps with fellow players.

It also was a happy reopening day at Las Vegas casinos for horseplayers who returned to the valley’s racebooks for the first time since they closed March 18 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were more than 40 people each at the South Point and Sunset Station racebooks Thursday afternoon. But there were only a handful of people sitting at their sportsbooks.

In fact, at 11 a.m., there was one person seated at the Sunset Station sportsbook — a 75-year-old Henderson resident named Lane who declined to give his last name.

“I got a prescription to pick up at Walmart. It’s not ready, so I’m just killing time until it’s ready,” he said. “Normally I come and watch horse races or basketball or football when it’s on. But there’s nothing on.”

The Station Casinos books reopened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. At 2:30 a.m., live sports returned to the big screen for the first time since the shutdown began with the start of the Korean Baseball Organization game between Lotte and Kia on ESPN.

The only other live sports on Thursday’s betting menu was Portuguese soccer, leaving books to show replays of World Series and NHL and NBA playoff games. That helps explain why ticket writers at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas sportsbook outnumbered guests 4-2 and why the plush Bellagio sportsbook felt like the perfect place to take a nap.

There were only a handful of tracks running, but that was enough action to energize horseplayers after a long layoff.

“I took the day off just to come here at 8 in the morning when they opened,” Rick Zavala, 53, said from his seat in the South Point racebook. “I 100 percent missed it, bro.”

Zavala was among about 70 percent of horseplayers who didn’t wear a mask, but he was glad all the casino employees wore face coverings.

“Everything looks clean, and everybody’s wearing protective masks behind the counter. I feel safe,” he said. “As long as I get hand sanitizer, every time I exchange money or paper, I clean my hands.”

There was plenty of hand sanitizer at every book visited by the Review-Journal, and face masks were available for guests.

“The place is sterile,” South Point racebook manager Mary Jungers said. “We have hand sanitizer literally everywhere, and we’re wiping stuff down when we can.

“It just feels good to see everyone, and they say it’s good to see us.”

Guests were quickly checked by a thermal imaging scanner upon entering Sunset Station, where there was a virtual reunion in the racebook.

“The precautions are a good idea. You get in fast anyway,” horseplayer Dean Tran said. “We’re all old-timers here. We’ve been coming here for years. It’s good to be back.

“I’m very excited, but sports are what I miss most.”

The reopening also re-energized Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito.

“It’s so great seeing all the guests again, chatting with them and having fun. Everyone seems really excited and enthused,” he said. “One big thing at our books is we deal with locals. We build relationships. It’s like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name. That was the fun part.

“We had just a few tracks running, but the turnout has been phenomenal, with every other seat taken in our racebook. If there were more sports, I’m sure that side would be packed, too.”

Tran said several of his horse-playing pals plan to sign up for Station Casinos’ mobile app, and Jungers said she’s seen a surge in sign-ups for South Point’s mobile app. Both apps offer horse racing.

“The crowd isn’t as big (with reduced seating),” Jungers said. “But we’ve had a big run on the mobile app.”

All of the major mobile sports betting apps have reopened with the exception of the Golden Nugget and Treasure Island.



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