Old-school horse game Sigma Derby still has its charm in a digital world
Even if it is a bad bet, the one-of-a-kind game is a favorite of some gamblers at the D Hotel in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Derek Stevens so covets his Sigma Derby game, the hotel and casino mogul almost makes it seem as if the tiny plastic ponies were living, breathing beasts.
As if they require real hay, real tiny barn assistants with real tiny shovels to scrape away real tiny droppings, tiny jockeys to navigate the tiny oval, and genuine rest.
The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, runs Saturday in Elmont, New York. For Stevens and certain clientele, though, festive horse races occur many times daily at The D, his downtown property.
Well, make that some days. Very likely, this is the last functioning Sigma Derby in the world. Functioning, however, is applied loosely. These miniequines might be as challenging to maintain as the actual creatures.
Stevens reserves a special place in his soul for this game. It does have a considerable house edge. But he also made his first Vegas bet on Sigma, more than 30 years ago at the now-defunct Dunes.
“It’s a tough game to keep up,” admits Stevens, a Michigan native. “Overall, I’d say we’ve done pretty well. We have ’em runnin’ about 300 days out of the year.”
QUARTERS IN, QUARTERS OUT
A couple rode the escalator up to The D’s second floor last Saturday, strolled around the left side and saw Sigma Derby a dozen steps away.
“Oh, it’s not on!” the woman lamented as she saw a sign which read ‘‘These old horses need a quick rest. Sigma Derby is getting conditioned. Please check back later. Thank you.’’ Out-of-service tape covered the coin slots at all 10 stations.
A sleek, modern Fortune Cup, made by Konami Gaming, Inc., sits nearby. The legs of its six animals all move, their heads bob. They veer inside and outside, maneuver for position. Ten customers can bet the races, which are “telecast” on a flat-screen.
After every sixth race, the ponies single-file circle around 180 degrees to run six races the other way — six counter-clockwise American style, then six Euro-style clockwise.
Fortune operates Ticket In, Ticket Out; bills or vouchers in, vouchers out. It is digital to Sigma Derby’s mechanical-mess analog. Each of its five horses are of one piece; no moving legs or bobbing necks. One patron thought they were cast-iron. They only move straight, in distinct parallel slots.
Sigma is Quarter In, Quarter Out.
Robert and Laurina Reuter, from Portland, Oregon, relished a recent trip to Vegas to play Sigma. Alas, it was out of service. He had just won a Fortune race for $206 — a two-times multiplier doubled his 103-1 odds on a dollar wager.
There was no screaming or shouting. As they left, they frowned at the roped-off Sigma Derby, where Robert had hit the ballyhooed 4,000-1 odds a few years ago to ignite plenty of exuberance.
A horse was 99-1, he recalls. On a whim he slipped in 20 quarters, picking that courser and another charger. The combination won. Lights blared. Bells and sirens rang. Quarters poured.
An attendant unscrewed the game to loosen coins that had slipped into nooks and crannies. The couple departed with three or four big buckets of quarters, nearly $1,200.
“Nobody could believe it,” says Laurina. “They yelled, ‘You hit it! You hit it!’ Incredible.”
Says Robert, “Quite a thrill. We play it all the time. Fortune Cup is at New York-New York and Cosmo, too, but we’re old school . . . Sigma Derby is a hidden gem, an icon.”
Japanese lawyer Katsuki Manabe created Sigma Game, Inc., in Japan in 1967, when he was 27. His coin-operated empire exploded, and in 1982 he established U.S. headquarters in Las Vegas.
He hatched Sigma Derby. Manabe catered to Vegas, creating a Luxor version featuring camels. Knights highlighted Excalibur’s.
Chariots first ran at Caesars Palace but soon were replaced by ponies, says a former Caesars executive. “A few drinks, a few coins, lots of cheering!”
Sigma Inc. collapsed in the economic downturn of the late 2000s. Machines broke. Replacement parts became scarce. The D mechanics often fashion parts from scratch.
For a “Pawn Stars” episode, Stevens — hoping the exposure would garner spare parts — even dangled his Derby before show star Rick Harrison and underling Chumlee.
Stevens asked for $80,000, an expert valued it at about $35,000. Stevens declined, saying he values it more on his casino floor.
Indeed, the show approximated Sigma Derby’s “hold,” or fraction of money wagered that the casino keeps, at 15%, “making it one of the worst bets a player can make.”
That hold places Sigma well behind blackjack (house edge of 1 to 2%), craps (1.4%-5%) and roulette (5.2% at a double-zero wheel) in player advantage, according to Casino.Org.
Yet, Sigma Derby — not Fortune Cup — sports a Facebook page. “No question,” says Stevens, “that Sigma Derby is far, far more popular than Fortune Cup.” Some of those 2,100 Facebook followers regularly update Sigma’s status at The D.
Stevens has an idea of its je ne Sigma quoi.
“I understand why people love it,” he says. “It’s like a slot machine but more communal, camaraderie like a craps game. It’s great with friends, or even by yourself and you meet new friends. It’s special, a little connection to the past.”
Maybe this article will even unearth a broken-down machine, to add some longevity to a goofy game of tiny horses that’s a big deal to many people.