Sigma Derby’s social appeal brings players new and old to The D

Abbi Simpson, right, with husband, Reece Simpson, of Madison, S.D., play the coin-operated Sigm ...

Whether it’s a weekday morning or a weekend night out, cheers on the second floor of the D Las Vegas can often be traced to one machine: Sigma Derby.

“It’s like Tuesday at 8 a.m., and you’ll hear a loud cheer. It’s quiet — normally people are still asleep — so you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s gotta be Sigma Derby,’ ” said Rahmi Chaghouri, director of operations at the D, Circa and Golden Gate casinos.

Horse-racing slot games have long been in casinos, near sportsbooks and even in the homes of super-fans. At 35 years old, the D’s Sigma Derby is the last gaming machine of its kind in Vegas and one of the last, if not the last, such machine elsewhere, Chaghouri said. The game’s coin-based operation and community feel naturally draw in old and new players.

The gameplay is simple: Insert your quarter — or several — into the slot. Then select your bet of which two horses will come in first and second, in either order. Players have about 30 seconds to place their bets, then the game goes for a minute.

Plastic horses race around a track with trees and figurines reminiscent of a model train setup. Up to 10 players sit around the game, under rounded bulb lights, and cheer for their bets that range from 2-to-1 to 200-to-1. Winners cashing out can hear the coins hit the hopper, tempting them to use those winnings to place one more bet.

‘What’s not to love about it?’

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Henderson resident Andy Sheehan played the Sigma Derby with a visiting friend and several other guests gathered around the game. Sheehan first played it about 30 years ago at Circus Circus when he visited Vegas from Connecticut, where he lived at the time.

“It’s a beautiful game, so what’s not to love about it?” Sheehan said. “I love the mechanical aspect of it. I love when you pay out and the actual change comes out. The sound that that makes, those things really make the game.”

Sheehan said that now as a local, he comes by every couple of weeks to play. He loves that unlike other slot machines and new racing games, the focus is on creating community around the track — something industry members say is valued among players as social opportunities were limited throughout the pandemic.

Charlie Lombardo, a retired Las Vegas gaming executive and consultant, said the game has long engendered that kind of camaraderie among players.

“It’s for hanging out with a couple buddies and having fun,” said Lombardo, who early in his career worked at the original MGM Grand, which also featured a Sigma Derby machine.

“To be honest with you, we used to see that years ago on the slot machine. You don’t see that too much anymore,” he added. “It used to be three or four people throwing in $20 apiece and hooting and hollering, enjoying themselves. It’s the same thing. It’s just a fun atmosphere for group play.”

Campaign for change

It’s precisely those loyal players who keep Sigma Derby in the D, Chaghouri said. When the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic created a coin shortage, the D created a marketing campaign to bring in more quarters and keep the game in operation. One pound of coins — or about $10 — got you a “I helped save the Sigma Derby” hat, and 3 pounds got a hat and T-shirt.

Chaghouri said the game is not a money-maker for the house. But that’s all right — it functions as a part of the casino’s marketing strategy, with a computerized version of the game, Konami’s Fortune Cup, which sits several machines away. Digital screens outside the D and along its indoor escalators tout the casino as the derby house.

It’s also important to keep the game around for more personal reasons.

“The big reason why is just nostalgia,” Chaghouri said. “The story goes that our owner, Derek Stevens — Sigma Derby was the first slot machine he ever played in Vegas.”

And players don’t necessarily see the game as a moneymaker for themselves, some enthusiasts said.

South Dakota resident Reece Simpson said he plays it when he visits Las Vegas because his brother used to play Sigma Derby at a casino near their hometown. He talked it up so much that when that casino removed the machine, Simpson said he felt he had to play the remaining one in Vegas.

“There’s just something about this one,” Simpson said. “Its (design is) straight out of the ’70s. It’s fun to come and sit around, bet a quarter. I think (Fortune Cup) is $1 over there. They’re gambling; we’re just having a good time.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.