The following article appeared in the Virginia Pilot December 24th and was written by Victoria Bourne. Photos were taken by Stephen Katz.
The old gang is back together.
So said Don McDowell, who has been coming to Buckets Bar and Grill three times a week since it started offering off-track betting last month. “I’m a fixture,” the Chesapeake resident said. “You’ll meet some characters here.”
On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon last week, 20 to 30 people filled the newly expanded Buckets, a sports bar in a strip mall on North Battlefield Boulevard just north of the Great Bridge Bridge. The crowd was mostly men, many of or nearing retirement age who said they’ve been gambling for years. One bettor drove from his nearby condominium complex. Another traversed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel from his home on the Eastern Shore. One man said he’d won about $100.
Buckets owner Ed Manning said his lunchtime crowd has “exponentially improved” since the off-track betting opened Nov. 18. In the first 10 days of December, the wagering brought in $600,000, he said, “and it’s the slow season.” Horse racing will pick up after New Year’s, he said.
Food orders have skyrocketed, up about $4,500 a week, Manning said.
“It seems to be pretty first-class,” said Dennis Lewis, a retiree from Suffolk. “It’s something to do on a rainy day.” The owner said his lunchtime crowd has “exponentially improved” since the launch of OTB. Buckets marks a return of satellite wagering on horses to Chesapeake.
The city had three off-track betting places from 1996 to 2014. When Colonial Downs, a track in New Kent County, closed in 2014, the off-site wagering facilities across Virginia followed.
Changes in state law in 2015 created the Virginia Equine Alliance and gave it the authorization to have up to 10 off-track betting places. Licensing for the facilities and its employees, as well as oversight, is provided by the Virginia Racing Commission. Two off-track betting places have opened in Richmond and another is planned for Hampton. The Chesapeake City Council approved Buckets as an off-track wagering place in September. Racing officials have said it will be the only one in the city and that Chesapeake could see a $75,000 cut from the first year of wagering.
“Go 8 go!” someone yelled at a quartet of large, wall-mounted TVs showing a live thoroughbred race from Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
Three pool tables in an adjacent room were ignored as more patrons stood with their eyes glued to even more screens. Buckets’ betting area has more than 40 TVs streaming content from around the country. Other sports are also aired. Bettors sat at high-top tables or saddled up to the bar. They queued up to place bets at self-service machines or relay their chosen horses’ numbers to one of two tellers. An ATM sat between two terminals. One patron brought his own seat cushion.
Some people pored over printouts of race statistics – horse jockey names, past performance times on dirt and turf tracks, etc. – in what they called “the book.” “I don’t say I’m an excellent handicapper,” said Ben Ellis of Suffolk, using a term for someone who uses numbers to predict races. “I can read the book.”
Thoroughbred and harness races were being streamed. Mike Reid, a contractor from Cape Charles, preferred “the trotters,” or harness racers.
“Any horse can run,” Reid said, but it takes “art and patience to trot.”
Some people bet on gray horses, some bet on jockeys. Some won’t bet on long shots, others only bet on long shots, he said. He plays $6 to $12 a ticket on a couple races at a time.
Steve Burson and his wife, Deb, said they look for “a closer” – a horse that shows a knack for starting out at the back or middle of the track and coming from behind to win. For them, betting on horse races is a form of entertainment not too dissimilar to going to the movies. They set a budget and stick to it, the couple said.
Don Bailey’s horse had just finished second in a race at Tampa Bay Downs. He’d prefer his horse finish last and lose by a lot, rather than lose by a little, he said. Bailey started frequenting Chesapeake’s off-track betting places when the first one opened in Deep Creek in the late 1990s. He lives in a condominium nearby and pops into Buckets for a “quick fix,” he said. “It’s either a lot of fun,” Bailey said. “Or it sucks.”