Horse racing enjoys a romantic image as one of America’s original pastimes, an event attended by the well-to-dos just as much as by John Everyman. At The Derby Club in Ventura, betting on these races has been a hobby of novices and professionals for the better part of 20 years, but things aren’t quite as they used to be.
With the innovation of electronic media in the hands of everyone regardless of age, The Derby Club, situated at the corner of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, is facing stiff competition from several newcomers on the gambling circuit, and from some who wish to get involved.
Up until the mid-1980s, wagering on horse races could only be done at the track where the race was being held. California legislation changed that, allowing wagering to happen at locations deemed satellites — locations, like The Derby Club, at fairgrounds across the state.
In 2008, that changed when further legislation allowed for minisatellites to open. Minisatellites can be in existing restaurants or established gambling locations, such as The Mermaid Tavern in Thousand Oaks, where the newest minisatellite recently opened.
Players Casino in Ventura, the most popular location for onsite gambling in the county, wouldn’t be able to host off-track racing without permission from the Ventura County Fairgrounds since a stipulation in the 2008 regulation mandates a 20-mile buffer zone around existing satellites.
But a bigger problem comes from the learning curve associated with a sport rarely televised.
Rick Baedeker, consultant for the racing organization Southern California Off-Track Wagering Inc. (SCOTWinc), says that traditional wagering can be a challenge for newcomers.
“It can be intimidating, particularly on your own and trying to understand how the game is played,” said Baedekker, “but if you go to a smaller, more friendly environment … then you can kind of learn the game, dip your toe in the water and see whether or not you like it and want to learn more.”
The Derby Club’s biggest challenge comes from the aging demographic of racing fans. According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the average age of those who attend races every year is 51, which reflects a steady decline from 55 since 2003 after a $30 million push to attract young people to the sport.
“We are all here to support the host tracks and it’s good to see the sport expanding,” said Derby Club manager Jason Amelio. “They have an opportunity to bring in a new and younger crowd and that can mean great things, not just for us off-track facilities but for California racing in general.”
The Derby Club is owned by the Ventura County Fairgrounds and hosts other activities than off-track racing — rotary club meetings, weddings and other events have been hosted at the club. Visitors to the club must pay for parking on most days, an obstacle that isn’t present at other venues.
Frank Ibanez, owner of The Mermaid Tavern in Thousand Oaks, the first location in Ventura County to have a minisatellite installed, says that it’s too early to tell if the races have brought new customers into his business.
“We have young people coming in,” said Ibanez. “Do I see them gambling? Not as much as old people, of course. It’s mostly for the people who are middle-aged and up.”
At The Mermaid Tavern, to place a bet a customer must approach a counter run by the State of California. All off-track racing, including that at The Derby Club, is hosted by the California Horse Racing Board, which manages the bets and handles the money.
“We opened with Pomona Fairplex,” said Ibanez, referring to the off-track betting site at the L.A. Fairgrounds. “Santa Anita is supposed to open on the 27th and that should bring a lot more energy and a lot more people, so I’m about to see that.”
For The Derby Club, the times may have changed, but the club’s mission to give fans an opportunity to experience races from around the country hasn’t.
“Business is good,” said James Lockwood, public relations and marketing manager for the Ventura County Fairgrounds. “We value the customer base we have now, and we welcome new customers.”