PLAINVILLE, Mass. — Someone in Massachusetts could hop in their car Saturday and take care of their to-do list entirely from the driver's seat: stop off for curbside pick-up of an eccentric hat ordered online, grab all the makings for mint juleps from a local restaurant, and swing through Plainridge Park Casino to put $20 on Tiz the Law before heading home to watch the Kentucky Derby.
The Plainville slots parlor and race track typically draws a crowd and party atmosphere the first Saturday of May, when casual bettors join racing enthusiasts for the Run for the Roses and the day's handle can get up around $1 million. Now under COVID-19 safety-related capacity limits but still expecting increased demand for wagering, Plainridge Park plans to take Derby day bets from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in its parking lot, drive-through style.
"The place gets pretty crowded," Steve O'Toole, director of racing at Plainridge Park, said. "But what a lot of it is is a lot of foot traffic. A lot of people come in, make their bets, go home and watch the races, especially with the afternoon coverage of all the stakes races. So in order to try to accomplish this with the COVID situation this year, we thought that a drive-thru and walk-up windows would keep people out of the building, keep them out in the fresh air, and be able to handle that as well as keeping the inside building to more of our seasoned customers that are here all the time and want to be in the building."
O'Toole briefed the Massachusetts Gaming Commission meeting last week on the plan, which involves two drive-thru lanes that will be staffed by tellers who can process bets on tablets attached to their wrist, print the betting slip out and wish the driver luck as they pull away. He said the tellers will have "profile sheets" which list the horses, jockeys and morning line odds for each race. There will also be walk-up windows for people who would rather park and place their bet at an outdoor kiosk.
The Gaming Commission approved the contours of Plainridge Park's plan last Thursday and then met in executive session Friday to go over the details of the venue's security plan for the parking lot wagering. Commissioners said they expect Plainridge and its customers will adhere to COVID-19 safety measures -- including wearing a mask when placing a bet with a parking lot teller -- even if they never step foot inside the facility.
Plainridge's drive-thru and walk-up windows won't replace its usual simulcast center setup. Instead, that space is going to be used for a ticketed event for 300 racing fans and bettors who want to spend more time inside watching the full simulcast coverage of the full day of racing. The casual bettors, O'Toole said, don't typically hang around the simulcast center and generally don't place very complicated bets.
"They want to have the bragging rights back at home that, you know, Grandpa picked the winner and the young grandson didn't. Stuff like that," he said.
Any adult in Massachusetts can bet on the Kentucky Derby, even without making a trip to Plainville. Advance deposit wagering, in which bets are placed over the phone or online from pre-funded accounts, is available and both Suffolk Downs and Raynham Park also accept bets at their indoor simulcast centers, for the Kentucky Derby and many other races around the country.
"While many of your traditional, loyal bettors do have the proper account that actually allows for mobile betting in Massachusetts, most of the casual do not," Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said last week during O'Toole's presentation. "But I just want to remind the public and all of us that there is mobile betting allowed from your home if you set up the established account, for horse racing. And that's been around for a long, long time."
O'Toole said Plainridge typically takes in between $750,000 and $1 million in bets on Kentucky Derby day. "We don't expect to come anywhere close to that this year," he said. "If we did a quarter of a million to $300,000, I would be ecstatic."
For a sporting and cultural event that puts its long and storied history front and center, this year's Kentucky Derby is going to be unlike any other before it. The race has been held on the first Saturday of May since 1946; this year it'll be run on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The Kentucky Derby is usually the first of the Triple Crown races; this year it follows the Belmont Stakes. Most years there are 155,000 people watching from the grandstand and infield; this year Churchill Downs will be mostly empty.