Why the Sigma Derby is a Dying Breed

A fond farewell to mechanical horse racing games.

A Fond Farewell to the Nostalgia of Mechanical Horse Racing Games

I often talk about the variety of casino games found in today’s major gambling establishments. Everything from slots and video poker machines, to blackjack, baccarat, roulette, craps and other table games, not to mention keno, bingo, and today’s big-ticket skill-based games slowly invading Atlantic City. One game I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned before is the Sigma Derby.

We’re not talking about genuine horse race betting. The Sigma Derby is a mechanical race simulator. It takes place at a massive table that seats up to 10 players, with 5 figurine horses racing around a miniature track. The results are random, the payouts are real, and that one minute of excitement is more than enough to draw beads of sweat as the mechanical ponies jerk their way ever-closer to the finish.

How Mechanical Horse Racing Games Work

Sigma Games Inc., based out of Japan, introduced the first electro-mechancial horse racing game in 1985. Named after their own company, the Sigma Derby was a big hit out of the gate. The set-up features 5 horses on an oval track. Each is pulled along from beneath by individual gear chains. To make the games fair and unpredictable, each gear runs at a random speed each time it’s initiated.

The only available wagers on Sigma Derby games are “quinellas”, meaning that the player must select two of the five horses to win and place (finish 1st and 2nd). It doesn’t matter which order they win and place in, so long as the two horses selected are the first two to finish. As such, there are only 10 betting options. Eligible quinellas and their respective payouts are as follows:

Much like a slot machine, the probability of the speed being high or low is predefined, but is determined at the moment the game starts by the algorithmic density of a random number generator (RNG). Suffice it to say (and this is only an example), horse #4 may only win or place in 8 out of 100 races, but no one – not even the manufacturer – can predict which of those races he will finish.

Horses Pays Horses Pays
#1 + #2 5 to 1 #2 + #4 20 to 1
#1 + #3 39 to 1 #2 + #5 2 to 1
#1 + #4 200 to 1 #3 + #4 160 to 1
#1 + #5 19 to 1 #3 + #5 15 to 1
#2 + #3 4 to 1 #4 + #5 79 to 1


Mechanical Racing Simulator a Dying Breed

The Sigma Derby fell from the grace of casino management many years ago when it was decided that the games just weren’t profitable enough to keep them around. It certainly wasn’t a popularity issue. Everywhere these games existed, the seats were occupied, and almost always at capacity.

Why the Sigma Derby is a Dying Breed

So why weren’t they making money? They can’t blame the house edge. Those horses were providing anywhere from 10-20% edge for the casino. Players didn’t even care, though. Even knowing how bad the odds were, the game provided plenty of excitement, at a low enough cost, to keep the seats filled. And with 10 players participating, wins occurred often enough to attract more bettors whenever one left the table.

The real problem was that Sigma designed the game to take quarters only. Players would bring a cup of quarters with them to the derby game, and could bet anywhere from 1 to 20 coins per race ($0.25 to $5), but most stuck to one quarter. With 10 players betting 1 coin per minute, even with a 20% edge, the casinos were only generating about $2.00 per minute. Removing a game of such considerable size and replacing it with a bank of slot machines, or a single $5-minimum blackjack table, could earn them so much more in the same span of time. So that’s what they did.

At the time of writing, it’s believed that just one Sigma Derby game remains in North America, occupying a small piece of property on the second floor of The D Las Vegas. More recent remakes are being introduced, but they lack the tinny nostalgia – as well as the cheap betting options and 5-horse build – of the original, mechanical horse racing games.

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