The odds boards are outdated, and they are state-of-the-art in Delaware.
The actual odds on them are up to date, mind you. But the boards themselves are nearly a decade old. That’s what Delaware Park president William Fasy told me after I placed one of the first legal bets in Delaware on Tuesday.
“These boards were bought eight years ago,” he said, pointing to giant LED screens showing odds for football, soccer, basketball and other sports. “And they’re no longer used anymore in Vegas. And they’re the best boards in Delaware!”
So the start of sports gambling in Delaware was pretty low-key. No matter. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last month overturning the federal prohibition on sports gambling, Delaware is now taking legal bets. It’s the first place in the U.S. outside of Nevada to let people place individual wagers on sporting events. Although it was New Jersey’s law that led to the court decision, Delaware had tried to get sports gambling a decade ago and already had a limited system in place. Now it’s offering “Vegas-style” sports betting. To celebrate, I visited all three casinos in Delaware taking bets.
First I hit Delaware Park, a straight-shot hourlong drive from my place in Philadelphia to the racetrack and casino in Stanton, Del. I was warned not to speed in Delaware. The roads are basically designed for people to come from out of state to gamble; I didn’t even have to turn after I got off the highway. Designed by the horse track–architect branch of the du Pont family and opened in 1937, it’s by far Delaware’s prettiest casino. It’s well landscaped. There are lots of trees. Even the casino floor feels different than some of the cookie-cutter casinos popping up outside Atlantic City in the last 15–20 years. The sports wagering area is large and full of televisions; it’s going to be a great place to watch a World Cup game or a weekend of football.
Not that the start of single-game sports wagering was a big production there. There were those decade-old boards. There weren’t odds for everything yet—I couldn’t get golf odds anywhere until late in the afternoon. And the ceremonial first bet was placed by Glen Macnow, a longtime Philadelphia sportswriter and radio personality.
Macnow was still probably the most famous of anyone to place a celebrity first bet at a Delaware casino on Tuesday. At Dover Downs, the first bet was placed by Gov. John Carney. (He bet $5 on the Phillies to beat the Cubs Tuesday night on the moneyline. He won!) At Harrington Raceway & Casino, about 25 minutes south of Dover, the first bet was placed by Jerry Birl of Millsboro, Del. According to Jimmy Debutts in the Capital Gazette, Birl is a collector. He’ll be placing the 19 bets he made, totaling $104, behind glass frames. The state gets half of sports gambling revenue, so that’s 52 bucks into Delaware’s coffers.
I don’t know how Carney and Birl were treated at their respective sites, but Macnow was briefly the king of Delaware Park. He and Ray Didinger routinely broadcast their Saturday show from the casino, and 94 WIP had its midday show there on Tuesday too. The media surrounded him when he made his first two bets: On the Rockies to beat the Reds that night, and on the Eagles to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Macnow wasn’t alone. As he made his first bets, another gambler ran to the teller in front of him—hoping to beat Macnow into the first straight sports bet in Delaware history. “The Eagles to repeat as Super Bowl champions,” he yelled at the teller. I talked to 17 people in line to make bets when gambling opened at 1:30 p.m. Nine of them were planning to place a bet on the Eagles to repeat as Super Bowl champs.
I asked Macnow about his bets. The Eagles bet was a homer pick. His other bet was more carefully considered. “I follow baseball pretty closely,” he told me. “I like this young pitcher on the Rockies, Kyle Freeland. The kid who’s pitching for the Reds, Anthony DeSclafani, is making his first start of the season, which means he’ll go to the bullpen, the Reds bullpen is terrible.” He put $10 on the moneyline.
Not every bet was small. Tom Barton, a pro gambler, put $1,000 on the Yankees to win it all at 5-1. “This is how I feed my family,” he told the Daily News.
At Dover, the first bet after the governor was Stu Feiner, a dude who tweets in all caps for some reason. “I take dogshit teams against the better teams,” he told USA Today, though they censored the curse word. This seems like an odd strategy, but I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. “I want to be in a room where there’s 100 people on one side and I’m the only one on the other.”
About an hour in, the line at Delaware Park had dissipated. I tried to place a small bet on Belgium to win the World Cup. Things are new and there were hiccups—Fasy said they spent about three weeks training cashiers—so I ended up with a bet on Belgium to win its group.
In the last 20 years, Delaware has increasingly relied on gambling revenue. In 2012 it made up 7 percent of the state’s general fund, the fourth largest revenue stream. The famously low business tax state now relies more on gambling than New Jersey does. Slots-only casinos opened at three Delaware racetracks in 1995 and 1996; they were an instant hit.
But then casinos—better, and for many Delaware residents, closer—opened in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Delaware’s gambling revenue dropped more than $278 million between 2006 and 2013. The state responded by adding table games and online gambling. In 2013 it actually bailed out its casinos. Tax relief for casinos continually comes up in budget talks.
Delaware tried to start accepting sports wagers, well before New Jersey went to court. In 2009 the state legalized sports gambling. The 1992 law banning sports gambling in the U.S. exempted states that already had sports gambling regimes in place, and Delaware had ran a sports lottery that failed in 1976.
Sued by the sports leagues, courts said Delaware’s law violated the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. The state could only offer what it had in the 1970s: single-week NFL parlay cards. This went fine: More than 100 spots around the state accepted parlay cards, and any time I was in Delaware during football season I tried to find a way to relinquish $10 to Delaware on a nine-team parlay I wasn’t going to hit.
So when Jersey’s 2016 law finally overturned PAPSA at the Supreme Court, Delaware’s casinos already had the infrastructure in place for single-game sports gambling. (New Jersey’s legislature is expected to pass a sports betting bill today, with Monmouth Park taking bets as early as Friday evening.) Some people groused about Jersey getting beaten to the punch. “This is how screwed up New Jersey is,” the New York Post grumbled.
Heading south, I passed by Delaware’s scenic vistas—farmland, housing developments, farmland that looks like it’d be a good place for a housing development—to get to the state’s biggest casino, Dover Downs. The racetrack, which also hosts two NASCAR weekends each year as well as the annual Firefly music festival, has a hotel. It has a conference center. Blue Oyster Cult and Morris Day and The Time are coming this summer! It has a large gift shop.
The sports book there is in a side bar near the entrance. By the time I reached Dover, there were sheets for golf odds (I took Danny Lee at 75/1 to win the St. Jude Classic) and UFC (I bet on CM Punk, obviously) and World Cup groups (I now very much want Saudi Arabia to advance). I placed some bets for friends and family (if Spain wins the World Cup, I have four bets to cash). I also tried to place a longshot bet on Sweden to win the World Cup at 150-1, but the cashier entered Poland instead. Always check your bets at the teller.
But I was ready to make a bet that wasn’t a novelty. Baseball was the only sport on last night. Instead of looking into making a bet for myself, I decided I’d do something better: I swiped Glen Macnow’s bet and took the Rockies to beat the Reds. To make it more interesting, I bet on the run line (Rockies -1 ½) and put $100 on it. I bet my fiancée is thrilled. (Note to friends: Don’t show her this column.)
After Dover Downs, I went south to Harrington. I’d been told it was a dump, and I figured as much since it was on the site of the Delaware State Fair. When I arrived, I was confused to see what looked like a megachurch. Also, Erik Estrada is hosting a game show there later this month.
Harrington’s sports book was, in some ways, my favorite of the three. It was in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by empty fields and barns where they old livestock auctions. It was even hard to find; I ended up stuck for a few minutes waiting for a train at one point. It was at a harness racing track, the lower level of American horse racing. But it was somehow still full at around 6 p.m., though there didn’t seem to be too many sports bettors in attendance. It was also the first casino to not mess up any of my bets.
By the time I left Harrington, my $100 bet was starting to look good. The Rockies scored 2 in the first and another 2 in the second. It turns out Macnow’s prediction was dead on: The Rockies scored 4 runs against Anthony DeSclafani and another 5 against their shitty bullpen. The 9-6 final won me $140, simply by copying what someone told me in an interview. Don’t buy picks, kids: Just have sports talk radio hosts tell you what to do.